Eating and drinking in the MTR

Today, in name of “science”, I did something which is officially considered a no-go in Hong Kong: I bought a sandwich at a station, entered the MTR (Mass Transit Rail, the train system that connects almost every corner of the region with the others) and ate my sandwich while riding on the MTR (or, more specifically: while standing on the MTR). I ate in the MTR. According to the “Visitors’ Etiquette” published by Xinhua (a mainland state news agency) a few weeks ago, I was wrong to do this – very wrong.

But on the other hand: I’m not a mainlander. And thus, nobody reminded me that “eating or drinking is not allowed in trains and public areas of the MTR” (except from the recorded voice that can be heard every few minutes while riding on the trains).

In late April, a mainland woman, who had come to visit Hong Kong with her husband and little son of a few years old, put down a diaper on the ground for her son to pee on. The little boy desperately needed to urinate, and in front of the only public toilet they could find in the Mong Kok area there was a long queue. Thus the woman decided to have her son urinate in public, on a diaper, in the middle of the street. This incident was just another example of the many instances that construct the – at times pretty sentimental – ongoing debate in Hong Kong: visitors from the mainlanders are too many and they don’t obey to any “rules of conduct”. Public discussions and fights between “civilized” Hongkongers and “unsophisticated” and “bad-mannered” mainlanders are talk of the day. Hence the need for Xinhua to publish a list of dos and don’ts for mainlanders to follow when travelling to Hong Kong, in the hope that  the pure, clean, silent, well-mannered Hong Kong society can be maintained and won’t be destroyed by the many mainland tourists coming to the region for sightseeing or (mainly) shopping (NB: in 2013, over 40 million mainlanders visited Hong Kong).’


This ongoing debate reminds me of the theory of the “Narcissism of Minor Differences” (NMD), first coined by Freud in 1917, and elaborated on and expanded by the Dutch anthropologist Anton Blok in the late 1990s (who completed his doctoral at the Dutch university I used to study). According to the theory, minor cultural differences are more important than larger ones. These minor cultural differences become focal points, and as such enlarged. They come to dominate relationships between two cultural neighbors that are almost identical, save from a few aspects.

This theory is perfectly applicable to the case of Hong Kong and the mainland. Hong Kong is part of China. Hong Kong people are Chinese, both according to their passports as to their ethnic background – in fact, almost 95% of Hongkongers are from Chinese descent, their family having migrated to Hong Kong during the late 19th to early 21st century. Except for a period of about 50 years, during which the borders between Hong Kong and the mainland were tightly closed and exchange of people, goods and ideas was nearly impossible, Hong Kong and the mainland – especially the Pearl River Delta area – have always been closely related. Still, differences are stressed and hold on to. Reasons Hong Kong people state for the differences are dissimilarities in educational upbringing, the destruction of values during the Cultural Revolution, and the rapid economic growth in China which has led to the rise of an “everyone for himself”-attitude. Because of these differences, Hong Kong people see most mainlanders as rude, uneducated and unsophisticated – although most, at the same time, admit that “it’s not their fault” but a result of economic and historical developments.

Interestingly, during a visit to the mainland a few weeks ago, I found out that the perceptions of mainlanders on Hongkongers are not much more positive. They are seen as arrogant and selfish, big-headedly thinking the people of Hong Kong are better than the mainlanders and that Hong Kong is and always be one of China’s most important regions.

(Naturally, this NMD also exists within the region of Hong Kong; after all, a region with over 7 million people cannot be universal in every aspect. In response to the Xinhua publication, one Hongkonger wrote a comment on the Facebook page of the South China Morning Post, stating that Hongkongers should start abiding by these rules of conduct as well, starting with people from the New Territories; I suspect the commentator himself came from Hong Kong Island).

The debate about the amount and behavior of mainlanders in Hong Kong continues, and will not stop in the near future. Protestors, demanding the Hong Kong government to allow lesser mainlanders to come to Hong Kong, will continue (although the many tourists of other nationalities are still welcomed, since they don’t seem to upset daily life in Hong Kong as much). Some Hongkongers will continue to refuse to speak Mandarin, even when mainland tourists ask for directions (although they don’t seem to have problems with answering me in English). When mainlanders eat on the MTR or do something else in public which is considered a no-go, Hongkongers will continue to make pictures and videoclips of it and upload it on the internet as “just another example of the bad behavior of mainlanders” (although, when I eat in the MTR, nobody seems to mind).

Naturally, I understand why we are not allowed to eat on the MTR. It is quite nice to be able to just sit down (if there is a seat available) without first having to check if you are not accidentally going to sit in some rubbish or food leftovers (experiences in Sydney trains spring to mind). In the same way I agree with the other “rules of conduct” stated by Xinhua, which in my point of view are not just rules that have to be abated by in Hong Kong, but in every part of the world. However, what fascinates me is how easy it is for me – as a non-mainlander – to not abide by these rules and to not get any comments as a result of that. I guess the cultural differences between me and Hongkongers are too large to be narcissistic about.


6 thoughts on “Eating and drinking in the MTR

  1. Interesting post! I had not heard of Narcissism of Minor differences – I like the way you applied it here. I wonder how individualism figures in all of this – or does it at all? As an undergrad. in the UK I lived in a uni. flat with three British girls and a girl from HK. Something that always struck me was that the girl from HK always had her same group of friends around for dinner. They invested in a rice cooker and wok and other utensils together and brought groceries together, and one of the guys in the group did the cooking. They said he was the best cook. They would all hang out in the kitchen while he cooked and then they would all eat together at the kitchen table. I’d hang out with them sometimes and the guy who did the cooking happily showed me how to make fried rice. Where as all the British girls made themselves individual meals and ate on their own in their rooms. The British girls and I only ever gathered together to watch specific TV shows, or go to the uni bar. So – after this long story the point I am getting to is – do you think there is something to this? that eating and sociality may be linked and eating on your own while in transit is an individualistic act? Or that there are times and places for acts of individualism? How do the HKers react when HKers break the rules? Do they ever break the rules? When is it OK do things on your own and when do people prefer to be in a group?

    • Hi Michaela the Researcher,

      Interesting comment! Thank you! However, in this case I wonder if proximity might also have something to do with it. The British girls were closer to home than the HK girls, and closer to the cultural atmosphere they knew. Perhaps this required for the HK girls to stay in their “in-group” in which they could speak their own language, eat the food they knew, etc. Perhaps it’s less individuality than the search for something familiar?

      And then – I would argue – the type of “in-group” or the way the “in-group” is created shifts according to contexts. Being in Britain, being a Hong Kong person was perhaps enough to create an “in-group” with, whereas maybe – had they still been in HK – they wouldn’t have been a group together based on the fact that one might have come from the East, and one from the West.

      But individuality is definitely also a part of it. I’m not sure though how it relates to the story I wrote above, but it’s interesting that you mention this. I am going to keep this in the back of my mind and investigate. I’ll give you an answer when I get back to Sydney 😉


  2. Hi Maris,
    Reminds me of the differences between Belgians and Dutch people. They are soft, polite, catholic and stupid. They build their houses any which way the want and can’t play soccer. We are loud, big-headed, constrained with money and we want to be the best pupil of the class and walk in short trousers as tourists.
    Funny thing is that the head of my department is form Belgium, and the Belgian colleagues we work with don’t recognize him as Belgian anymore. He had become to Dutch in ten years. He likes to tell us the Belgian jokes he hears about Dutch people and Dutch jokes about Belgian people.
    Something of ‘we versus they’ and belonging to a group I think.
    By the way, can you keep mainlanders and HK people apart? For me it’s difficult, being used to white faces only.
    I like to think I can see if someone is Dutch, German or Belgian, but I’m afraid my prejudices aren’t correct most of the time.

    • Hi MvH,

      It’s a little bit like that, yes. Although – luckily – most of the discussions between Dutch and Belgiums are meant to be just funny. We have a lot of jokes about each other (interestingly, they have exactly the same jokes about us as we to them), and yes, they are pretty stupid sometimes (just kidding), but we don’t get violent in our words towards each other. Probably because our history together dates back a long time. We once used to be one country with some of them, but that was so long ago that nobody still remembers this. Whereas mainlanders and Hongkongers have been seperated during a short period in history and are now brought back together. So it’s more comparible to the discussions that come up every now and then the possibility of Flanders becoming part of The Netherlands: the pros and cons that are brought to the fore during those discussions might be comparible I guess.

  3. Hmmm, interesting experiment.

    Maris, next time, take a mainlander and a hongkonger with you, and share a meal on the MTR. See what happens…
    One thing’s for sure: it’ll be an interesting meal! 🙂

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