The border between mainland China and Hong Kong is unique in the world. They were once one country and after a century of separation they are one again, but only theoretically. Because in the end the border remains and keep two economies and cultures separate. Hong Kong: it was once the jewel of China, “special” economic activity and a unique player in the whole country. But now, this economical miracle has (as many things in China) been replicated. The city of Hong Kong has found itself surrounded by many other special players of the Guandong province, in particular Shenzhen. But even if the two cities share the status of economical wonders, the resemblance stops there. We had a sense of that by observing their respective inhabitants and their movements. This short text is recollection of what we witnessed with our naive eyes during our brief period on both sides of the border.
A first observation about the migration dynamics can be done at the border itself. We had the chance to cross many times at different hours. On Saturday around noon it’s chaos to put it simply. We could observe two very different tidal wave of people pushing through the border and making the “mainland visitors” and “Hong Kong residents” lanes very crowded. We felt lucky to be in the almost empty “Foreigner/other visitors” lane. And among the massive amount of mainlanders we spotted some carrying empty bags which were probably going to be filled up by goods shopped from Hong Kong, where imported brands are less taxated and cheaper. Crossing in the other direction at 05:30 in the morning was very different. The border is almost empty but the few people we were queuing with were more in a hurry than the Saturday crowd.
As soon as the gate to the mainland opened we saw them dashing and running through the checkpoints. At a specific stop(a less surveilled one perhaps) they would take out big Marlboro boxes and split them among their friends who would continue the checkpoint run and be the first to deliver some cheaper original Marlboro on the market that morning.
But more than the people who move it is impressive to see the difference in the people who stay. In Shenzhen almost none of the permanent citizens is from Shenzhen. The city has grown by 30% every year since a decade and the true “locals” have been submerged by migrants. For us it’s difficult to tell. To our european eyes it is almost impossible to recognize who is from which part of China. But is not at all surprising to meet people that say they come from the near metropolis of Guangzhao and Foshan. They are often “business people” attracted by Shenzhen and its new, fast and dynamic market of opportunities. A student from Shenzhen university told us quite directly: “Shenzhen is the best city in all China if you are young. The other cities are full of old people and everyone thinks with an old mentality. If you are not from Beijing, Beijing’s people will make sure you feel so. If you are not from Shanghai, they will keep their distance. And in Guangzhao they only like who is from Guangzhao. They are old city. Here nobody will judge you if you are an outsider. Everyone is an outsider in Shenzhen.”. But even if we felt his words were true we also felt that westerners remained some real outsider even in the anomalous Shenzhen. There is no real western population there. You can still get some funny looks by children or people that aren’t use to see many white blond guys or girls with curly hair. You can feel your are of second importance in their mind because nobody speak your English language. The well designed city with a relatively good amount of bilingual screens and signs could make you think otherwise. But you can be at the lobby of a luxurious hotel and have trouble finding someone who can understand you clearly. Even when you find an English speaker in town you immediately feel they have never really exercised that language leading to slow conversations and often funny (and sometimes not) incidents. And you know that it’s nothing personal or that they are not lazy. It’s just that almost no westerners lives or visit there, so “English” is not an interesting market for them. What is clearly an interesting market there are building and construction. Many migrates to Shenzhen looking for job opportunity, among which many are from rural areas of the region. That’s something we know happening in almost all the cities of the world and in China it is not different. In order to make room for the new citizens the city needs to expand. Expand its services, factories, infrastructure and housing. This is why most of the rural migrants (mainly from western China) end up as construction workers. And even if they are the blood of the magical growth, sometimes they look as if they are not meant to be part of it. We need to walk away from the main streets to see them. Or sometimes we can get a view inside a construction site looking down from another building.
It’s one of the toughest lifestyles in China. Their lives are completely bound to the construction yard next (or in) to which they eat and sleep. Once we saw a group of them using empty containers as a makeshift kitchen-house. It’s difficult to say what their real situation is and how much the state takes care of them. Sometimes it looks all normal, clean and well regulated. Other times it can be a bit more weird and you remember some “bad stories” we have often heard about exploited contractors in many countries. We are left wondering.
We pass the border once again. From the mainland down to Hong Kong. We realize that there is one more barrier that separated this two people: language. One of our fellow students is Chinese and lived in mainland China for many years. She was our point of reference in Shenzhen as she speak fluently both English and Mandarin. When we would go around with her we would immediately feel less lost. For this reason it was quite fun to see her completely lost in Hong Kong. She suddenly became like us: a foreigner who cannot understand a word of what is being said around them. Cantonese and Mandarin are very different language indeed. But luckily for us (and for her) English is Hong Kong second language, and a strong 8% of the population is not of Chinese descent. I know it seems nothing but it definitely feels different. It’s enough to give the impression that Hong Kong is a cultural and economical melting pot. If you walk downtown in Yau Tsim Mong district or in Wan Chai on Hong Kong island you really feel and meet other cultures. In the nightlife district of Lan Kwai Fong we saw people from everywhere in the world: Korean, Australian, English, French and so on.
We pass the border once again, from the mainland down to Hong Kong. We realize that there is one more barrier that separated these two sides: language. One of our fellow students is Chinese and lived in mainland China for many years. She was our point of reference in Shenzhen as she speaks both English and Mandarin fluently. When we would go around with her we would immediately feel less lost in Shenzhen. For this reason it was quite fun to see her completely lost in Hong Kong. She suddenly became one of us: a foreigner who cannot understand a word of what is being said around them. Cantonese and Mandarin are very different languages indeed. But luckily for us (and for her) English is Hong Kong’s second language, and a strong 8% of the population is not of Chinese descent. I know it seems nothing but it definitely feels different. It’s enough to give the impression that Hong Kong is a cultural and economical melting pot. If you walk downtown in Yau Tsim Mong district or in Wan Chai on Hong Kong island you really feel and meet other cultures.
In the nightlife district of Lan Kwai Fong we saw people from everywhere in the world: Korean, Australian, English, French and so on.
It was also interesting to see a fairly good amount of black people in the city. In the Lan Kwai Fong area they run many discotheques or similar businesses. And another place where we can see a grouping of minorities is the area of Tsim Sha Tsui and Yau Ma Tei. There you can find for example the Chungking Mansion where we had the privilege to sleep and roam a bit around to have the “full experience”. The mansion is an enormous complex, stronghold of the Indian minority of Hong Kong (and a sprinkle of Bangladeshis, Africans, Pakistani and others). The entrance to mansion really looks like you are getting into another universe and for a second you feel closer to new Delhi rather than Hong Kong.
It’s really impressive to see how they created this special bazaar and cheap hotel complex that feels so separate from its surroundings. We often heard that indians tend to stick together and create some messy and chaotic indian-like environment in the city where they settle. And the Chungking mansion reminded us of this stereotype.
We also understood that the mansion and its inhabitants were not too well seen by the Hong Kongers. A native friend of ours, when he discovered we were sleeping in the mansion, told us in a very colorful way:
“That is a place of sin. You must be very brave to stay there. Many ghosts lives there.” A rapid walk down by the most unsettling stairs and back-alley and we are out of the mansion facing a big commercial park which couldn’t contrast more with the place we just exited. Walking few minutes we realize that other minorities grouped in the Yau Tsim Mong district. We saw a fairly big mosque and passed a few Turkish restaurant. Luckily one of us is originally from Turkey which allowed us to quickly start a conversation with a turkish expatriate.
The conversation was fun and very colorful. We didn’t know how representative his opinion was but we felt it could have been surely true for others expatriates in the country. It was something around those lines:
“I don’t give a damn about this place and its culture. One of the few merits of Hong Kong is that it is not as bad as China. I’m here because of the business. Which is good businesses, even if it’s getting harder and harder to work here and things are not anymore like when I started.”
He told us that he worked in the export industry finding interesting goods, filling up containers and shipping them to to Turkey to be sold.
It’s difficult to talk about immigration in Hong Kong without talking about the Filipinos. They are more than one hundred thousand and they are by far the largest minority in Hong Kong. Walking downtown on Sunday they are difficult to miss. Inside or under elevated walkways, on large public staircase of a plaza or on benches, they sit together and go about their communal life.
They mainly take jobs as domestic workers and Sunday is their free day. The reason for their presence is mainly economical. Even with an university degree they would find better financial opportunities in Hong Kong than in the Philippines. Moreover the city seems to have accepted their presence just as one more metabolic process of its economy. To exemplify that, we noticed that they sit on some big pieces of cardboard for comfort. At the end of the day they would leave them behind and some other people would tidily collect them. We wonder if those people were still part of the filipino community, government employees or if a third party was renting them the cardboards to make a profit.
On one side Shenzhen presents a population generated almost fully by migrants. Only very few percent of Shenzhen population accounts for real natives of the city. The rest of the population stems from the huge flow of migrants to the city due to rapid and constant growth over recent decades. Among these migrants very little fraction can be called foreigner, yet most of the migrants are from different parts of China. The city attracts the Chinese migrants thanks to economical growth and the constant flow of migrants increase the demand, provide workforce and thus drive the economy further. Not only border separates the two cities but also composition of Hong Kong inhabitants are much more different than Shenzhen. Unlike Shenzhen, 8 percent of Hong Kongers do not belong to Chinese origins. The migrant population in the city is dominated by Filipinos. Other than Filipinos, Indian community is very appearant in Hong Kong especially in Chunking Mansion and the district around that. Around the same location Bangladeshis, Africans, Pakistani can also easily be observed. Though both cities present a lot of job opportunities and attracts a lot of migrants thanks to that, integration issues of migrants can clearly be seen especially in Hong Kong.