A P R I L 1 9 9 1
by Cait Murphy
Set between a luxury shopping center and the Hilton Hotel, the Bank of China stabs the sky, rising seventy stories above the mess of traffic on Queensway in central Hong Kong. Two long poles jut out from the bank's triangulate peak. To Hong Kong Chinese familiar with the traditional geomancy of feng shui, the poles are symbolic -- like knives probing for the heart of the city. The building, Hong Kong's tallest skyscraper, is impressive but unloved, both for its harsh lines and for what it represents: China's impending rule. As most of the world has long been aware, on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong will revert from being a British colony to being a piece of China. And as most people are aware, China is having a difficult time persuading Hong Kong residents to stay. Denied any real form of self-government, and not trusting the People's Republic to maintain Hong Kong's "capitalist system and lifestyle ... for 50 years," as promised in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong Chinese are voting with their feet. "For people my age, this should be the best time for us," says a twenty-eight year-old career woman who is emigrating to Canada. "But emigration has bccome a fashion. Because everyone else is going, it becomes your destiny."
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Return to Flashback: Hong Kong's Future, Then and Now
The numbers tell part of the story of the brain drain. In the early 1980s,
according to Donald Tsang, the Hong Kong government's point man on the
emigration issue, about 20,000 people a year left the territory; in 1987 the
number rose to 30,000, and in 1988 and 1989 to more than 40,000. The estimate
for 1990 is that 62,000 people emigrated. For the rest of the decade the
numbers will probably be even higher, swelled by people who decided after the
Beijing massacre, in June of 1989, that Deng Xiaoping's word was not assurance
enough to bet their lives on.
In gross terms, the problem is bad enough: 62,000 people is more than one percent of Hong Kong's population. But it is the kind of people who are leaving that has made emigration a critical issue.
Surveys taken by professional associations fill in the picture: 63 percent of government doctors, 98 percent of pharmacists, 85 percent of surveyors, 79.8 percent of accountants, and 50 percent of veterinarians have said they are planning to leave Hong Kong before 1997. About half of all personnel managers, engineers, and bankers say they will "definitely" or "probably" emigrate, according to a 1989 poll published by the Hong Kong Institute of Personnel Management. A less scientific source, the flamboyant singer and actress Anita Mui, says that 80 percent of Hong Kong's entertainment elite is set to go. One of Hong Kong's biggest pop-culture extravaganzas ever was the singer Leslie Cheung's extended farewell, which consisted of thirty-three concerts. Cheung is planning to settle in Canada, the most popular destination among Hong Kong emigres because it is the desirable country easiest to get into.
Although not everyone who says he will leave will do so, the idea of emigration is pervasive. There have been two Chinese-language comedies on television -- Priceless Adventure and Uncle Bill and Aunt Lydia -- that draw on emigration for a theme. In my middle-class neighborhood Chu's Photo Shop displays a poster demonstrating that it can take pictures of the exact style and quality required for Canadian and U.S. visas. At a newsstand nearby I can buy the Hong Kong Standard, which regularly publishes a separate section on Canada. If I buy the South China Morning Post instead, I may come across an ad for fur-lined raincoats, clearly aimed at the Canada-bound. Or I can buy The Emigrant, a glossy Chinese-English magazine, circulation 25,000, which offers tips and background information for would-be emigrants. The pages are filled with display ads from moving companies, a pet transport service, and emigration consultants, who seek out business opportunities and help with the paperwork. A short walk beyond the newsstand, a real-estate office advertises mock-Tudor houses in Britain and a tour agency books flights on Canadian Airlines International, which offers more than twice as many flights to Canada as it did five years ago. At the airport one can buy books like Successful Migrating to Australia and New Zealand -- An Ideal Destination for Migrants and even picture books of Belize, which, until it stopped the program in late 1989 had sold citizenship to several hundred worried Hong Kong residents for a bargain price of $23,800.
Emigration, or the hope of emigration, has changed the way people in Hong Kong live. Take Charlotte Lee, an advertising account executive who graduated from the prestigious University of Hong Kong in 1986. Last March, Lee survived a traditional Chinese wedding, complete with five changes of clothes ("I felt like a singer backstage," she says), two banquets, and an homage to her in-laws. The only thing missing was a marriage certificate. In the eyes of their families, friends, and each other, Mr. and Mrs. Lee are married. But they never registered the event; legally they are still single. The failure to register was no oversight. "You see," Mrs. Lee explains, "my husband's sister is already in Canada. She can apply for her parents to emigrate. Then they can apply for their single children. If you're married, you must apply on your own, and it's much more difficult." Eventually her husband will emigrate; she will join him and they will marry again, this time legally, in Canada. Lee says she will not have children until she is safely settled abroad.
Children can be passports in and of themselves; it is common for pregnant Hong Kong women to go overseas to give birth. "An American passport even at $12,000" -- estimated to be the average cost of travel, lost time, and medical care -- "is a bargain for three reasons," Julia Leung wrote in The Asian Wall Street Journal. "The least of these is a guarantee of subsidized U.S. tuition fees. More important, the passport stubs out the 1997 problem for the second generation at the outset. Last, the parents will benefit from the option of immigration when their American kids become old enough to apply for citizenship for them. Meanwhile, their parents continue gold-mining in Hong Kong."
The effect of emigration on families is not always benign. Many people want the security of a foreign passport but also want to keep their careers on track in Hong Kong. The result is the emergence of tai hung yan, or "astronauts," who settle their families abroad but continue to work in Hong Kong, flying back and forth as often as possible. Both Canada and the United States discourage the practice, but it is common enough that one area in Vancouver, British Columbia, which is popular with Hong Kong Chinese, has become known as Widow Street. Social workers in Hong Kong have reported cases in which handicapped children and elderly parents were left behind when their families emigrated. The desire to emigrate colors the choices that teenagers make. Steve Freeman, Hong Kong's director of the American Field Service, a high school student-exchange program, says that Canada is considering dropping Hong Kong students from the program because so many are attempting to use the exchange as a springboard into Canadian universities, and eventually citizenship.
But the most difficult life choices are being made by mid-career professionals. Lillian Chau has worked her way up the ladder to become a vice-president of the international company where she has been employed since graduating from Hong Kong Baptist College in 1979. She is married to a personnel manager, and they have a six-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter. They live in a new apartment in a good neighborhood, dress stylishly, travel regularly -- the very prototypes of chic Hong Kong yuppies with the world at their feet. Three years ago two of Chau's subordinates walked into her office to tell her they were emigrating. "I had never heard they were thinking of it before," she recalls, "and these were friends. They said I should think about it." She did, and despite the initial reluctance of her husband, they applied to Canada and were accepted. They leave for Toronto this year. "I have read about what happened to people doing well before the Communists took over in China," she says. "So many went back after Mao, but the government failed them. I've heard the horror stories -- I won't take the risk."
One effect of the constant outflow of people is to open spots that others can fill. Job-hopping is on the rise, not only so people can take advantage of faster promotion but also because they are trying to put together a nest egg for their new life abroad.
Many of Hong Kong's multinational corporations have quietly begun efforts to secure passports for their people. Swiss, Italian, Belgian, French, and German firms have pressed their governments to grant residency to key Hong Kong employees. Cathay Pacific Airways and the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club are setting up computer operations in Australia in an effort to retain emigrating employees. U.S. business interests in Hong Kong lobbied hard in favor of the recent immigration overhaul passed by Congress. Under the new legislation the number of Hong Kong immigrants will be allowed to quadruple -- from 5,000 a year to more than 20,000 -- for at least the next six years. One small electronics assembly company, Carley of California (HK), has given its top manager a lump sum to qualify her for Canada's business-migration package. The hope is that she will come back or at least delay her departure. If not, says the company president, James Carley, "I owe her that much, because she's been a fantastic employee for twenty years. A lot of businesses are doing this kind of thing, often surreptitiously."
Seeing an opportunity for a quick influx of skilled immigrants, a number of countries have put out the welcome mat. The Singapore consulate was mobbed, in July of 1989, when it announced a plan to admit 75,000 families. Tonga, Tahiti, the Marshall Islands, Trinidad, South Africa, and Bangladesh have announced plans to trade residency rights for investment or cash.
These devices are all aboveboard, but, inevitably, illegal scams have also surfaced. Manuel Noriega's nephew Ciro Noriega Quintero, when he was consul in Hong Kong, allegedly sold Panamanian passports for $10,000 to $15,000 apiece. Reportedly, about 3,000 Hong Kong people took him up on the offer, settled in Panama, and are now awaiting word on whether they will be allowed to stay. In a more elegant scheme, the Federal Republic of Corterra offered passports to its idyllic, democratic nest of islands in the South Pacific for just $16,000. Don't look for Corterra on the map: it does not exist -- a rude surprise for the handful of people who put down a deposit. Hong Kong's relentless passport quest has made the territory a butt of jokes abroad. Some Canadians refer to their new compatriots as "yacht people."
After denying that the brain drain was a problem, and propelled by the panic of Hong Kong Chinese after the Beijing massacre, last year the British government passed legislation to give 50,000 real British passports to key personnel. Although 3.25 million Hong Kong people are British nationals, they are technically known as British Dependent Territory Citizens; they have not had the automatic right to live or work in Britain since 1962. The nationality package is designed to restore that right to the lucky 50,000 (plus their families), the thinking being that if these important people know they have a way out after 1997, they will choose to stay. Hong Kong people ask why, if Britain accepts that argument, it does not grant passports to all the territory's inhabitants. Almost no one outside the bureaucracy thinks the nationality package can work. For one thing, 50,000 is too small a number to protect the critical core of Hong Kong. The plan envisages, for example, spreading 2,558 passports among the 44,640 or so members of the medical community and 3,334 among the approximately 57,300 engineers, architects, and surveyors. "The nationality package is not going to solve the problem," says Chris Pomeroy, a British journalist. "It's like saying to twenty people in a room, 'We'll secure a future for three of you, so the rest of you should feel confident.'" China considers the plan an infringement of its sovereignty and has threatened not to honor the new passports. But Beijing has done nothing to stanch the flow of emigrants from Hong Kong, no doubt preferring to have such possible troublemakers out of the way.
At a candlelight vigil last June 100,000 people gathered in Victoria Park to commemorate the victims of the Beijing spring. Through silence, speeches, and song they mourned their compatriots and, in a sense, their own fate. But the speeches hardly mentioned Hong Kong: the plea was for democracy and justice in China.
Thus has the hard truth come home to the people of Hong Kong that their future cannot be guaranteed by joint declarations, nationality packages, Tongan passports, or even money. Almost no one believes that under Chinese rule Hong Kong will remain, in the words that have become a mantra for Beijing and London, "stable and prosperous." Even if that is what China wants, does today's People's Republic have any idea how to achieve it? To ask the question is to answer it. Hong Kong's hopes lie entirely in the emergence of a more decent and humane government in China.
Copyright © 1991 by Cait Murphy. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April, 1991; A Culture of Emigration; Volume 267, No. 4; pages 20-26