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They are new migrants from mainland China who have come to attend a free Cantonese-language conversation course run by a local NGO. The youngsters, who have recently enrolled at local schools, are already near-fluent. Their parents, however, often find themselves reverting to Mandarin, their mother tongue, when the going gets tough.
Each time this happens, the instructor, a native Hong Konger, politely reminds them to stick to Cantonese, even if it makes their children blush.
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android. The border between Hong Kong and mainland China operates much like an international one and mainlanders are not free to enter the city at will. But up to mainland Chinese are allowed to settle in Hong Kong every day under the one-way permit scheme, a programme set up in that lets mainlanders apply to reunite with relatives in the territory.
Many natives take this to include a shared language and respect for the rule of law. One-way permit holders, in particular, arouse resentment.
Locals blame them for pushing up house prices and taking school places; spreading bad manners such as spitting and talking too loudly; driving down wages and claiming welfare. Barely half of adult one-way permit holders are in work.
A common belief among locals is that the scheme attracts too many poor and uneducated mainland women who will marry any Hong Konger, including blue-collar workers shunned by many native-born women, just to claim welfare in the city. The governments in Beijing and Hong Kong deny this. Identity politics also plays a role. Pride in a distinct Hong Kong identity often descends into outright discrimination against mainlanders.
She recounts how street vendors mocked her Cantonese and commuters hurled anti-mainland epithets at her when, for instance, she veered off deated paths for pedestrians. Immigrants from neighbouring Guangdong province, where Cantonese is spoken, fare better in Hong Kong, notes a language instructor. Many mainlanders quickly become disillusioned with their new life in Hong Kong. This is despite the fact that two-thirds of one-way permit holders come from Guangdong, the Chinese province that is most similar to Hong Kong culturally and linguistically.
She regrets falling out of the ranks of the xiaokang moderately prosperous class in Guangzhou and ing the diduan lowly stratum in Hong Kong. Greater personal freedom in the city, such as unrestricted internet access, cannot compensate for grimmer living conditions such as a bunk bed shared by four family members, Ms Zhang says.
Many new arrivals depend on the free services of local NGO s to help them settle in.
Mission to New Arrivals, a Christian non-profit, teaches newcomers arts-and-crafts and helps them to sell their creations. All instruction is strictly non-political, says an employee. This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline "One-way highway".
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