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  • James Tam

Beautiful North (4) Santa and Locusts Part (2) - Locusts

While I was in Levi, a South China Morning Post article reported that Chinese tourists in Lapland have increased dramatically in the past few years. The writer somehow linked the surge to growth of Christianity in China, which was “expected to become the largest Christian country within 15 years,” according to some Professor Yang (a Chinese name! He must know!) of Purdue University, Indiana. “As more and more people become Christians, Christmas celebrations will become even more widespread.” Prof Yang evidently didn’t know that in Finland, as in many parts of Europe, Christmas had been a major pagan festival long before Jesus slipped out of his virgin mother. To the largely secular Finns, Joulu, their most important annual festival, has more to do with winter than Christ. Well, it was an SCMP article.

One thing in it was actually true though: There were plenty of Chinese tourists. Since the average Finn couldn’t tell a real Chinese from a Hong Kong counterfeit, I was part of a locust cloud — a term used by some Hongkongers to caricature mainland visitors.

Hong Kong’s prejudice against mainlanders carries all the classic symptoms of “racism”, except that race is not a distinguishing factor. Outside minorities are often perceived a threat by insecure locals. The problem gets worse if the newcomers were once considered “backward”, even “inferior”, but are doggedly catching up at a ferocious pace.

In the past 30 years, China has experienced social changes — more like revolutions — which took Europe more than 200 years to achieve after the Industrial Revolution. The rate, scale and scope of this historic transformation are unprecedented. After hundreds of millions are out of abject poverty, acquisition of household appliances became their next target. Once TVs and fridges have been installed in most homes, their proud owners start to dream of travelling abroad to see the world.

China’s comparatively equalitarian distribution of newly gained wealth has created an enormous number of recent urbanites whose earlier life was rural and peasanty. They have to learn odd urban etiquettes — such as queuing and keeping one’s phlegm in rather than spitting out into the wind — almost overnight. Some don’t learn so quickly, and have ironically offended Hong Kong’s verbal liberals who seem to have forgotten their own recent past.

Racism (auto-racism in this case), caricatures, and venomous canards aside, tourist behaviour do reflect economic development, and nouveau riches are similarly detestable everywhere.

My first plane ride in early 1970s was a convoluted journey. It took more than 35 hours to fly from Hong Kong to Canada, via the rest of the planet. It was another week before news of safe arrival reached my anxious parents in a letter and cassette tape. The most embarrassing memory from this plane trip was mealtime. After each tinfoil packaged repast, the stewardesses had to coerce many HK passengers for the cutleries back, turning my boisterous compatriots pouty and complaining: Che! How was I to know it wasn’t for me to keep. Instructions so unclear. Lousy airline!

Time flew, the planet spun on, money changed hands. It was the 1990s. The cabin was filled with excited mainlanders going abroad for the first time. Wah! Look at the clouds! “That bumpkin’s left the golden brand sticker on his sunglasses, and the manufacturer’s label on his jacket sleeve!” sneered Hong Kong passengers in T-shirts embroidered with flashy logos.

Another decade on, Chinese tourists started travelling to HK quite freely, in much larger numbers, pockets stuffed with fresh money. They lined up outside fancy ripoff shops for ludicrously priced vanity products, raising unlikely eyebrows from brand-worshipping Hongkongers. “Mainlanders! Nouveau riche! Yuck!” Hong Kong had abruptly acquired a strange good taste, loudly deploring vanity in an ostentatious kind of way. Fake Rolexes on Temple Street were left to European and American tourists who complained about intellectual property infringements, and bargained hard for counterfeits.

The mainlanders kept coming, propping up Hong Kong’s increasingly perverse economy. The locust-phobia was created.

As 2015 approached, I was among clouds of young locusts in Lapland, observing. They were mostly in their twenties, pleasant, confident yet not imposing or brash. They appeared well-educated. Travelling in small groups rather than bus-loads, they were more women than men, a very Chinese phenomenon. They were exploring rather than shopping frantically, and obviously a welcome source of visitors to the unprejudiced Finns.

Of course this is a gross generalisation. I’m sure someone will find a glaring exception somewhere, and apply Hong Kong style statistics to show otherwise: One desperate mainland child peeing in the subway represents 1.3 billion Chinese, whereas thousands of football hooligans are just an exception to British civilities, and the permanent ammoniac miasmas in New York and London subways are just an expression of the freedom to urinate. Bigotry takes time to dissolve. After all, worshipping the rich and despising the poor is a core capitalistic value of Hong Kong. No? No in theory. Yes indeed.

Anyways, shivering among China’s third generation locusts in Lapland was unexpectedly uplifting for me. These youngsters had a positive vibe about them. They demonstrated progress, and gave me a sense of future, something that had been missing in Hong Kong lately.

[LINK to Part (1) - Lapland]

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