When a friend from mainland China passed through Hong Kong for a trip to the UK recently, I found myself warning her to be a little careful. London might not be the same city that we both remember from our last visits in 2019. The UK capital welcomed wealthy Chinese tourists before the pandemic but the Hong Kong media has suggested that an anti-Beijing sentiment has since taken hold. Horror stories have periodically made their way into the press about Asians being targeted on the streets.
Being wrong has never felt so good. She returned with glowing reports about friendly Londoners rolling out the red carpet; a salesperson at Selfridges had whisked her to the VIP room for champagne as soon as she asked about a handbag. He wanted to know when the rest of her compatriots would be coming back. It will take years for Chinese tourists to return in significant numbers but that’s down to restrictions at home, not abroad.
I have been back in the UK capital for a few weeks and I’m hearing Mandarin speakers everywhere, although that’s probably because my ear is attuned to the language. Still, London’s diversity is refreshing and striking after two-and-a-half years of being cooped up in Hong Kong. A Chinese tourist, student or migrant simply doesn’t stand out in this truly international city. A Cantonese friend told me as much when we met for coffee in Marylebone. Having spent the past three months here on secondment from Hong Kong, she was enjoying taking off her mask, singing along to West End musicals and chatting about the weather like a true Brit.
When I return to Hong Kong at the end of the month, I will be updating my UK travel advice. The sooner Chinese people start travelling to the West (and vice versa), the better.
James Chambers is Monocle’s Asia editor.