In the early 1990s, when emigration from Hong Kong was at its peak, Alan Leung was offered a job in Hawaii with the promise of a US green card at the end of five years.
He accepted and moved to the holiday island in the Pacific with his wife and children. But after three years they came back, with no green card. “It was like another planet compared to Hong Kong. I missed my family, friends, the food, the television programs and the magazines,” he said.
The Security Bureau has just released the figures for number of Hongkongers who sought to emigrate in 2016. The data showed that 7,600 people applied for papers that would facilitate outward immigration, an increase of 8.6 per cent over 2015 and up 10 percent over 2014.
The US ranked first in terms of favored destinations, with 2,800 applying for immigration visas to the country, followed by Canada with 2,100, Taiwan with 1,086 and Canada with 1,000.
Emigration consultants said the main factors pushing people to leave were sky-high apartment prices, political unrest, dissatisfaction with the education system and anxiety over the future, after the 2014 Occupy Central movement and the 2016 Mongkok riots.
Last September, the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at Chinese University published a survey of 710 respondents aged 18 or above.
The survey found that 38.9 percent of respondents were willing to emigrate if they had the chance but only 10.9 percent were actively preparing to do so. Those between 18 and 30 and the better educated were more likely to emigrate than those over 50 and those without a college education.
Hongkongers are more fortunate than people in most countries in the world because of their links abroad, which makes emigration easier. Of those in the survey, 30.8 percent had family members or relatives living abroad, 11.7 percent had lived abroad for six months or more and 6.5 percent had foreign right of abode.
But the experience of the 1990s teaches us that emigration is no simple matter. Following the Sino-British Joint Declaration of September 1984 and especially after the military crackdown in Beijing in June 1989, tens of thousands emigrated – 62,000 in 1990 and 66,000 in 1992, a record.
Between 1984 and 1997, an estimated one sixth of the population, eager to get out before the handover, emigrated, mainly to Canada, Australia and the US. But, since then, more than 30 percent of them have come back, most with their new passports tucked safely in their wallets in case of need.
Monica Lau went to Vancouver long enough to get her Canadian passport and returned as soon as she could. “For me, as for many others, it was emigration prison (坐牢). I found life there very boring. Most people live in suburbia, with long car journeys every day to and from work, for shopping and to see friends. The lifestyle was not appealing to me.”
So many Chinese, from Taiwan and the mainland as well as Hong Kong, have moved to Vancouver that the city has large shopping malls and living areas dedicated to Chinese. There is no need to speak English or French.
Lau, however, pointed out that many HK professionals could not continue their careers because they did not have local qualifications and had to take jobs below their ability which they often did not like. “The tax rate in Canada is high. We used to say that, for the first five months of the year, you work for the government. Only in June did you start earning for yourself.”
Many entrepreneurs found the business environment more difficult and bureaucratic than in Hong Kong. So they left their spouses and children abroad and returned home to continue their business, becoming ‘astronauts’ (太空人) who flew often between the two places.
This story often did not have a happy ending. Husband or wife found a new partner and grew away from the spouse; educated at overseas schools and living in large houses, the children felt increasingly alienated from the HK environment and its education system. They did not want to return, even if their parents did.
The nightmare scenario in Hong Kong that many feared did not take place. The PLA has remained in its barracks and does not patrol the streets. The economy has continued to grow faster than in the migrant countries. The lifestyle of the vast majority of people has not changed.
Those who stayed and kept their apartments are financially better off than those who sold theirs and bought abroad.
Emigration is no bed of roses. It is a hard decision to take, with consequences that you cannot predict or control.
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