Gutter press

Street row sparks tension with Hongkongers

Pee w

The incident that sparked the row

The two-feet tall Manneken Pis – a bronze statue depicting a little boy urinating – is popular with tourists in Brussels. But in Hong Kong last month it was the local residents who were taking the photographs of a peeing boy. Their target was a couple of Chinese visitors who were allowing their child to urinate in a busy shopping street. And within a few hours the images were stirring new tensions between Hongkongers and their neighbours to the north.

Video of the incident shows the mother remonstrating with the angry onlookers. “The child was going to pee in his pants, she asks, “what do you want me to do?”

The couple then grappled with members of the watching crowd (the woman has since been told to report to the Hong Kong police after allegations that she slapped bystanders during the altercation).

The case is the most recent instance in which Chinese children have been photographed peeing in public. Last February a mainland mother was rebuked online after encouraging her son to urinate in a bottle in a Hong Kong restaurant, while a Chinese couple was lambasted two months later for letting their child relieve herself on a train.

The backdrop is broader disquiet from many Hongkongers at the impact of mainland visitors on the fabric of their city: from the colonisation of shopping areas by luxury retailers to the influence of cashed-up homebuyers on property prices (see WiC136 for an earlier mention of these social tensions).

The latest flare-up seems to have provoked an angrier response from mainland Chinese, with more than a million comments about the case made by netizens. Many are angry at the treatment of the family and disturbed that footage of the minor was made so publicly available.

Much of the initial fury was directed at Lüqiu Luwei, a reporter at Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV, who had highlighted the dispute on weibo. Netizens soon took her to task, claiming the row had been misrepresented, perhaps deliberately.

One critic listed the charges against her: “One; you hid the fact that the parents took their child to queue at the toilet for a long time until the child couldn’t wait any longer: two; you hid the fact that when the kid was peeing, the mother used a diaper to collect the urine: three; you hid the fact that the mother put the diaper in a bag and carried it away: four; you hid the fact that the parents didn’t snatch the memory card until the Hongkongers prodded and scolded the parents, while shooting graphic photos of the little girl. You are disgusting! I despise you!”

Suspicions about the reporting of the case deepened after it turned out that it was a boy, not a girl, who had been photographed.

After more than 260,000 responses were collected in a Chinese online survey on the incident, 40% said they thought it showed prejudice against mainlanders, while the same percentage said the incident was understandable should a child not get to a toilet on time.

More militant contributors then called for Chinese children to relieve themselves wherever they liked on Hong Kong’s streets. Others suggested a boycott of the city. “If us, the mainlanders, stopped travelling to Hong Kong for months, they will come begging us to go back,” one campaigner announced. “We are not entirely sealing off Hong Kong, but just enough to show them we are the gods, as we are the consumers.”

But as CNN reported, some Hongkongers seemed to welcome the threat. “Who cares for your money, you who think shopping is an act of charity,” scoffed a contributor to Apple Daily’s website. “Remember to keep your promise and never come to Hong Kong again.”

By now state news agencies like the People’s Daily were calling for calm, urging both sides to demonstrate “mutual civilisation and understanding”.

Beijing Evening News also offered a more sympathetic ear to some of the Hongkongers’ concerns. “In all honesty, the millions of tourists do impact on the everyday lives of local people,” it acknowledged. “Some of the residents who live in tourist areas complain that they have to travel some distance to buy everyday products because stores nearby have all changed to selling milk powder, jewellery and luxury bags… It’s also true that Hong Kong’s property, education and healthcare costs are rising because of more and more immigrants from the mainland.” The newspaper also admitted that some of China’s ‘new rich’ have damaged the mainland’s image. “As these pressures start to build up, locals are venting on the mainland tourists,” it concluded.

Last year there were 41 million trips by Chinese to Hong Kong (the local population is only 7 million). Trip numbers are forecast to increase to 70 million by 2017.

But the Global Times was less restrained in its assessment of the row, citing deeper-seated insecurities behind Hong Kong’s complaints.

“These locals cannot face the fact that the difference between the pace of development in Hong Kong and mainland coastal cities is rapidly diminishing… their attitudes have been distorted, losing patience towards the mainland Chinese,” it suggested. But the mood darkened when 30 Hongkongers staged a protest on Sunday mocking Chinese tourists by mimicking toddlers defecating. “This handful of radicals in Hong Kong remind us of the rampant skinheads and neo-Nazis in Europe,” it fumed. “Xenophobia is the cult of these groups. Their opinions have an effect on public opinion, but their actions will usually make trouble for mainstream society.”

The newspaper was sure that Hong Kong would reject these “contemptible wretches” noting that the territory is “still a young member in this big Chinese family” and that it is “unavoidable that some troublemakers will keep posing challenges to society”.

Some of the locals then tried to fight back against accusations of prejudice, albeit unconvincingly in some cases. “How can it be racism?” one Hongkonger protested in a response to an article in the South China Morning Post. “It’s the Han Chinese who are turning on each other… It’s merely the civilised ones trying to instruct the barbarians…”

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