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First days

December 15, 2014
Hingman Leung

Today was my first day in Beijing. I need to remind myself that first days are always slow and not much happens and I need to be ok with that. In the morning, I tried to call my contacts and made some plans, and some other plans got rescheduled. This is what happened the first days I was in Shanghai.

What I’m doing differently here is that I am not doing any walking tours in Beijing, though I think maybe I should sign up for something. It’s a good way of orienting myself into a new city.
The area that I’m staying in, is amazing. I’m in a traditional hutong area, off of Yandaixie Jie, a hip alley-sized street full of antique stores, tea shops, hipster haunts, and street eats. The night life is low key, and there are a number of open mic bars that broadcast what is being sung inside as you walk through the crooked streets.
The house is huge, full of wooden furniture and decorated tastefully. My room is upstairs and the large windows overlook the courtyard and a network of Chinese tiled roofs. I am comfortable here. I feel like I really lucked out, staying in this cool area within the 2nd ring road (quite central), yet in a house tucked away in an old alley way that feels just right.
During first days when I travel alone, I always feel like I made a huge mistake. This time around, after having ended a 3-week residency in Hangzhou, it’s doubly hard to be on my own in a new city. Thankfully, some of my classmates are also in Beijing so we could at least meet up.
People speak differently here. In Hangzhou and in Shanghai, I had no trouble understanding people as their pronunciation was quite standard. In Beijing, people mumble and add unnecessary consonants here and there, mostly, “r” sounds. I find myself mumbling too.
I had to buy a new phone today because in Beijing, you can’t just buy any old SIM card from the street corner like you can in Shanghai. I was assured that yes, this national unlimited plan worked in Hong Kong too, and the store keeper emphatically said, “Hong Kong is China, afterall.”
These past couple of days I have noticed that people in China that I have met are fascinated by Cantonese (namely, Hong Kong) culture. This wasn’t the case 5 years ago. There were so many times when I met a new friend in Hangzhou, when I told them I was from Hong Kong, they would want to catch up on Hong Kong pop culture. They also made note that they admired my Hong Kong accent, and wanted to practice Cantonese with me. This was totally unexpected.
Everywhere I go, I notice that Cantonese songs popular in the 80’s and 90’s would be played loudly, songs that I grew up to, like those by Lesley Cheung and Anita Mui. Even though they have since passed, it is almost like they are being resurrected in the mainland. It’s almost like I have entered a sonic time warp.
I wonder if this cultural exchange was an effect of Hong Kong’s handover in 1997. I also wonder how this came about – did the return of Hong Kong also facilitate an influx of Hong Kong culture into China as a distinct… ethnic minority?
On Yandaixie Jie there are a couple of shops that sell exclusively gifts from Hong Kong, just like the Shanghai Lady shops that specialize in Shanghainese gifts. Even though politically and institutionally speaking, Hong Kong’s relationship with China is still being negotiated, the fact that the Hong Kong identity is being recognized as a distinct part of China so much so that it is commodified, says something about the cultural exchange that has happened in the last 15 years.


Blog post written by MA in Intercultural and International Communication student Hingman Leung. To read more visit