Asia’s Immigrant City: Part One

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Hong Kong is unique in Asia.  It is the only place where someone can become a part of the community.  Across Asia, if you aren’t born local, you’re never really one of them.  You might represent your expat enclave, but are effectively barred from contributing in a meaningful way in local politics or business.

Hong Kong is different.  It isn’t the world class airport, rail system or stock market that make Hong Kong Asia’s World City.  It is the openness to the world that has made Hong Kong so a home for so many.  And that openness is under attack.


The new kids ain’t so bad

Zemans, Zimmermans, Rowses are just some that have become part of the local leadership.   Bruce Lee became a Hong Kong icon, embodying Hong Kong.  After a brief wave of localisation after the handover, Hong Kong reverted to a ‘best in the world’ movement, with recruitment of top people from abroad to lead key government, academic, cultural and political institutions.  HT readers are sophisticated enough to know the history of British occupation, Indian traders, Nepalese soldiers, expatriate business people and others that make up our rich cultural tableau.

These numbers pale in comparison to the immigration from our cousins to the north in China. That is Hong Kong.  Include over 300,000 domestic helpers and we have the real immigration story.  That story is a brilliant one, an inspiration to the world.   And lately, people aren’t happy with it.

Down with grandma!

It seems like all the ills of Hong Kong are being blamed on mainlanders, high and low.  Politics has its role, as discontent about democratic development and Beijing gets reflected on mainland tourists, investors and spouses.  But the discontent has been on a long build.  Slurs against mainlanders,subtle and not so subtle, are on the rise.  The move to bring control of who comes to Hong Kong is being branded as a thinly veiled attack on the idea of a steady flow of mainlanders coming to our city (hotly denied by proponents of the idea).  Less subtle attacks range from full page newspaper ads to online chatter castigating mainlanders.   Concerns are real.  As one woman quoted in our biggest English daily noted, first it was the hospital beds, then the milk powder, now spots in kindergarten (next: demand for violin and piano teachers!).  People are afraid of losing entitlements – and therein lies the problem.  An even bigger problem than too many mainlanders looms that threatens all entitlements- the problem of not enough new immigrants.

A greater dependence on government, whether it be for hospital beds, income, or housing leads directly to a sense of entitlement, common in the new generation and old.  Families that, 20 years ago, agreed to move to smaller public housing when they became empty nesters are refusing to move now.  University graduates are returning from overseas and shamelessly gaming themselves into public housing ahead of those in cage homes.  Housing, once seen as a gift, is now an entitlement.  Kindergarten and university, once for the few, are not only common, but a ‘right’ to be guaranteed by the government.  As government programme spending has grown, so have people coming into its tight embrace.  The truly bizarre milk powder entitlement, driven by the shortage of a few preferred brands, was created with a government imposed export ban and monitored with supply ‘stress tests’ during Golden Week.

Entitlements across the board are now under threat from excess demand, restricted supply and – right or wrong – people know who they blame.  Entitlement becomes fear becomes xenophobia when the fear is directed at the other, the outsider, who will take the entitlement.   To many, it means mainland Chinese.

We have met the enemy and he is us

Mainland tourists deprive people of preferred shopping (by pricing out retail favoured by locals).  Chinese students will deprive locals of university spots (by being smarter and more numerous).  Entry level graduates will lose out on high quality jobs to mainlanders (who work harder for cheaper). Real estate buyers will deprive people of homeownership (by driving up prices) and new immigrants – created by marriage or quota – will take public housing.   Discontent hopefully hit the bottom with reprehensible online displays against a young Yunnan native who died last week in an auto accident in Quarry Bay.

High end expats never felt the brunt of this displeasure.  They were supposedly contributing to the economic success that helped fund Hong Kongers entitlements.  There weren’t that many of them.  And they weren’t  in public housing, public hospitals, local universities or angling for the best milk powder brands.  The same was true for domestic helpers that were isolated from the local job market and didn’t bring children in tow who would take school spots, maternity beds or, again, milk powder.

“Entitlement becomes fear becomes xenophobia”

So mainlanders have taken the fall.  The problem of xenophobia will only grow as the sense of entitlement, and the fear of losing it grows.  When no one expected anything from the government, they didn’t have anything to lose from newcomers.  It is unfair to blame those who come seeking a better life – just as so many did crossing the border into Hong Kong in the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s and beyond.  Weren’t the people under the Lion Rock (獅子山下) the same?  Mostly poor, a few rich, all seeking a better life in Hong Kong.

Fear and Loathing in Las Hong Kong

Admittedly, as residents of Hong Kong for only 17 years, we may be missing something in the furore about mainlanders in Hong Kong.  Isn’t the whole city, minus a couple of percentage points, descended from Han Chinese?  Most arrivals since the 1950’s?  To many of the Hong Kong people hailing from alternative origins, the antipathy seems inexplicable. However, one of us has been there before.

Complaints about loud, rude, ill-mannered Chinese driving up the price of real estate and crassly flaunting their wealth with no regard for local custom?  Absentee landlords, spoiled rich children taking up school and university spots, a re-oriented retail industry neglecting locals?  Our Editor in Chief has seen it all before – in the 1990’s when Hong Kongers landed on Canada’s shores.  Those troublesome immigrants then are now celebrated as a vital part of the cultural mix.  They are leaders in provincial and national politics and their children are hockey players and fans.  Chinese New Year and dragon boat festivals are legendary in Vancouver.  The Hong Kongers became, in short, great Canadians.  If Canada can make Hong Kongers into great Canadians, surely Hong Kong can make Chinese into great Hong Kongers.  We won’t even have to teach them hockey.


“…loud, rude, ill-mannered Chinese driving up the price of real estate and crassly flaunting their wealth with no regard for local custom.  Absentee landlords, spoiled rich children taking up school and university spots, a re-oriented retail industry neglecting locals: Hong Kongers landed on Canada’s shores (circa early 1990’s).”


The challenge is to plan for the arrival of new immigrants while ensuring opportunity for current residents.  We need not only to plan for the physical infrastructure of housing, transportation, health care and the myriad of services new arrivals will need.  We must plan for the cultural and social integration of new Hong Kongers – because we cannot shut the door.  If we do, we die.

We need immigrants

Calvin Lam’s cover this issue deals with the coming labour shortage.  Even at current immigration levels we are going to get caught in the demographic crunch facing almost all of the developed world.  Too many dependents and too few workers is to be our challenge.  The government is beginning a consultation on population policy.  Ideas such as baby bonuses are already being mooted.  But there is no baby led solution that will save Hong Kong.

If Hong Kong’s population decides to turn its back on immigrants, it will do so at its peril.  The problems we face are not the distant future – they are upon us.  Hong Kong is fortunate to have a government flush with cash, but that reserve will disappear in a tidal wave of healthcare spending, pension obligations and support for the elderly poor if we close our doors.

An even bigger problem than too many mainlanders looms that  threatens all their entitlements- the problem of not enough new immigrants.


Our leadership in all sectors, not just government, needs to take a strong stand against anti-immigrant sentiment.   In current terms, this means anti-mainland sentiment.  There are valid arguments to be made for controlling our own destiny in terms of immigration priorities and who we select.  It is also true that infrastructure challenges must be met.  Entirely predictable school shortages, based on spiking birth rates, should be planned for.

The focus, however, needs to be on changing Hong Kong’s attitude towards immigration.  Our culture, for all 7 million inhabitants, must be one that plans to welcome immigrants and make them successful on mutually agreeable terms.  We must seek to build Hong Kong through immigration, not give false hope of protecting entitlement by closing doors.  A few cutting edge countries have made the mental and cultural transition – and so can Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has only ever had her people as a resource.  We must ensure that we build that resource for the next century with foresight and passion – not fear and resentment.  Hong Kong was built on immigration when there was no control of who came and went.  Those days are gone, but we must prepare for the future with open eyes and an open heart to bring the best to Hong Kong and make them our own.


Part II of this series will look at the threat to all entitlements and our future- the coming demographic crunch.  A radical new idea for transforming Hong Kong’s immigration can truly make us Asia’s (undisputed) World City.  In the spirit of disclosure: the partner-authors are immigrants, married to two time immigrants.   We hope our children will stay in Hong Kong.