Economic migrants have been streaming into Hong Kong, forced to leave their home countries because of dire economic conditions and poor job prospects. The influx has prompted what sources say could be a dramatic rethink of policy regarding how the city treats foreigners in hardship and ethnic minorities.
The migrants have, in recent months, been seen arriving in droves with their children and their worldly possessions after travelling thousands of miles. For some, Hong Kong offers a life they could never have back home. For others, it’s a chance to escape brutal income tax regimes.
“All I want is stability, so that my children can grow up in a land of opportunity,” one man, identified only as Mr Merriweather, said. “The opportunities here are much better here than back home.”
A spokesperson for the Immigration Department said that the situation remains manageable for now. “But there’s no telling what will happen. We don’t have the infrastructure to deal with an influx,” they added.
The migrants tend to concentrate in tight-knit — some call it hermetic — clan-like groupings in SoHo and the Midlevels, where businesses from their homeland like Starbucks have set up shop. Others yearning for surroundings akin to their native villages have flocked to Lamma and Lantau Island.
The economic migrants hail from the far-flung lands of France, the UK, the US, Canada and Australia.
“Whites,” including Europeans, Americans and Australians, comprised 12.2 percent of the city’s 451,000 ethnic minorities according to the last census, conducted in 2011. Their number has fluctuated, but their presence rarely goes unnoticed. Nationals from one particular country of origin, France, have increased by five percent over the past five years to 20,000.
Already tensions are flaring. The majority struggle to integrate or learn the local language. While mostly peaceful, the immigrants have been known to engage in cultural practices viewed less favourably locally, such as downing copious amounts of alcohol on a regular basis. Drug-taking, assault and other crimes has been known to occur in such communities, and a booming sex trade has taken over Wan Chai, where businesses specifically target the new arrivals.
To make them feel welcome, the government has spared no effort in organising an annual festival drawn from their heritage. In the event known as “The Sevens,” players engage in a violent fight over a diamond-shaped ball as crowds don elaborate garb, chant and engage a tradition of “binge-drinking”.
Feeling the strain
“It’s terrible what’s happening back home for these people,” said Judy Ho, an investment banker who volunteered to teach one family Cantonese. “But at some point, we have to say, ‘Enough is enough’ – Hong Kong cannot resolve everything for everyone, especially since we have so many people already.”
Residents have been struggling to come to terms with the changing social fabric. Mom-and-pop stores have been taken over by hipster restaurants and supermarkets catering to the needs of the recent arrivals. Their music and languages dominate neighbourhoods from Tai Koo Shing to Stanley.
Lan Kwai Fong, once a quaint neighbourhood with noodle shops, has emerged as a hotbed of raucous behaviour, prostitution, and under-age drinking. Police are dispatched to the district and reinforcements must be called in every weekend, when the immigrants, following centuries-old practices, go “out on the town” and “get fucking wasted.”
“I remember a time when I could take my kids to the playground and leave them with people I knew. And I’d just go shoot the shit with my pal Fei Lo Tsang over a cup of yinyang down at Fai Gor’s cha tsaan teng,” said Chan Tai-man, an accountant. “Now there’s all these minorities walking around, talking gibberish, taking our jobs, and god knows what. How can you feel safe anymore?”
A spokeswoman for the Home Affairs Department’s race relations unit noted that special schools needed to be erected for the immigrant children. “We’re facing what might be a cross-generational problem which may divide society for years to come,” she said. “The parents lack the desire and discipline to teach their children the local tongue, raising barriers for them to become fully integrated members of society.”
A policy brief circulated last week indicated that the Security Bureau was in consultation with a number of foreign firms about the possibility of building a fence around all 263 islands plus Kowloon, in a project known internally as “Great Wall.”
“It would be the largest undertaking of its kind, and a challenge in the Pearl River Delta given the freight traffic. And I’m not even sure we could pull it off. Plus, these migrants are technically allowed to come legally,” a security official said. “But the situation calls for extraordinary innovation.”
One radical lawmaker suggested that what Hong Kong needed was “quality migrants.” “These would be people who are willing to learn the local language and customs, and really bring added value to the city,” said Wu Wai Him of the DAB party.
Officials are studying migrants from select countries who have been known to engage in community life to find out how better to integrate foreigners. Sources say Pakistan, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh and the Philippines are among the countries of origin.
“Many of these migrants arrive already knowing the language because they have invested time and effort into learning it, or they pick it up soon after arrival,” Wu said. “Often they are overqualified — we’ve seen doctors, lawyers, MBA’s, PhD’s — but they are so enterprising that they are willing to take jobs that require significantly less skill, and to do them with verve.”
These communities, he said, were remarkable. “It’s time for us to rethink migration in Hong Kong.”