Local Hong Kongers have a love-hate relationship with expatriates

Expatriates have a reputation of being rich, arrogant, and entitled. Because a large number of these expats work in finance, they are paid very well to work in Hong Kong. They carry the expectation of better treatment both in and out of the office, simply from being higher up on the financial totem pole.

These same people often choose not to adapt to their new environment, and subconsciously cling to the remnants of the old colonial system. Thus, many expats perpetuate the image by ignoring unspoken rules and act like they do not apply, creating tension between them and the locals.

Many locals have internalised a subservient attitude towards expats. To many Hong Kongers, they are a huge source of money ready to be spent. Westerners tend to be less stingy than their Eastern counterparts, so they are often treated better than the locals.

Benny Chan Kwok Yu, a shopkeeper in Central, says that his stationery shop has seen many more foreigners in recent years, especially now that he has learned more English. “I prefer doing business with white people because they rarely argue about the price,” Chan says. “If you are a little humbler, they like you and give you more business even if you are not the cheapest. But Chinese people do not care about service, they only want the best bargain so they will haggle with you,” he adds.

A growing handful of the locals with better English education are able to collaborate with expats and do business with each other. An increasing number of shops run by expats hire locals to help the business gain the trust and acceptance of locals.

“We don’t want to ostracise the locals from our cafe,” says Christopher, a cafe manager in Causeway Bay who only gave his first name. “At the same time, we require our Hong Kong hires to be fluent English because most of our guests are from the US or the UK,” he adds.

Still, some locals blame expats for many of their troubles. Many locally-owned shops have disappeared as the shop rent prices rise. The new shop stalls that replace them are often run by expats and for expats, so the locals have a new competitor and consumer group to adjust to. Because central business districts like Wan Chai, Central, and Causeway Bay have many foreigners, shop rent becomes too expensive for locals to stay.

Mrs Fong, a shopkeeper in Causeway Bay, says that it is difficult to keep up with the changes. “The expenses of running this shop have gone up, so I must raise the prices of my merchandise, but that drives a lot of my regulars away,” she says. “Now, I just hope that my new neighbours like our shop enough to come back.”

Another shopkeeper in Wan Chai confided that he regularly charged foreigners a higher price. He did not wish to disclose his name. “Usually they don’t even know the difference, unless the [expat] speaks Mandarin,” he said.

Other times, local shops are forced to relocate. With the Urban Renewal Authority tearing down old buildings and sponsoring the construction of modern high-rises, it has become extremely difficult for locals to re-open their shops in the same area that they were evicted from. New high-rise apartment complexes replace the old dusty buildings, and the residents of these buildings must also leave. The old flats are purchased from their owners at market price plus a move allowance, but the move to a new place is often a downgrade in living conditions because of the current housing market.

“My neighbours of thirty years have had to move because their building is being torn down, but their shop space was purchased at around 90 percent the market price,” says Mrs Fong. “I expect to be evicted as well, and am preparing myself for the eventual move.”

Of course, Western expats are not the only issue. The immigrants and visitors from mainland China are a significant force in local economies, especially in the property market. Both residential and commercial real estate now cater to Chinese buyers and renters as well; local shops are replaced by chain jewelry stores and dispensaries.

The Hong Kong government has taken many actions to slow the influx of mainland visitors, first with a law banning pregnancy tours, and most recently, the restriction on multiple-entry permits to one visit per week. However, the opposite is being done for expats. Government-sponsored work visas are being issued for those deemed “skilled” – even if the visa holder has not yet found work in Hong Kong.

This sort of policy only exacerbates the issue of entitlement: if the government gives a rich foreigner free entry without proof of employment, it is not difficult for the foreigner to expect the same treatment from Hong Kong’s citizens. While having more highly-skilled persons in the workforce is better for Hong Kong’s economy, the policy allows for tension to grow between the locals and the newcomers.

It is no wonder that there is so much emphasis placed on English-language education; strong English skills are necessary for locals to stay competitive in their international city.


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