Tan Kin-wa, her day’s work now behind her, wastes no time making a bee-line for the telephone as she steps through the doorway to her family’s apartment. She lifts the receiver and dials a number. A smile crosses her face as Tan hears her son’s voice come on the line.
It’s been a year since Henry Tuen packed his suitcases and his career hopes, bid farewell to his parents and caught an airplane north — nearly 2,000 kilometers, to take up his new job as a management assistant at the Beijing office of a leading Hong Kong conglomerate.
Tuen, 26, is one of some 175,000 Hong Kong residents who have chosen to go north, to the Chinese mainland, in search of job opportunities and their hopes for happiness. It is a rising tide that many fear will grow into full flood, as young, educated, and talented people, dismayed by out of control property prices and diminishing employment prospects in the city, abandon their hopes of staying home in Hong Kong, and join a reverse brain drain flowing to more promising environs in the flourishing cities of the mainland.
A special report, “Hong Kong residents working in mainland China”, published by the Hong Kong government at the end of 2011, observed that this growing brain drain is comprised of educated young people. Some 41.1 percent hold post-secondary credentials — a cut above the norm for employees in Hong Kong , where only 32.2 percent have obtained higher education.
The city’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, in an address given in July last year, observed that 400,000 Hong Kong residents, amounting to 6 percent of the Hong Kong’s total population, now reside in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
There is an irony here, not lost on Tan Kin-wa. More than three decades ago, back in 1979, Tan came “the other way,” joining the brain drain that brought many talented mainlanders to Hong Kong.
“Have you decided which one you’re going to rent?” Tan’s voice rises as she speaks into the receiver. A concerned look is etched onto her features as she presses her son for more information about what has seemed to her an interminable hunt for an apartment.
Tuen’s office is in Beijing’s Central Business District. He should get a place close by, Tan urges. A shorter commute means more time to rest. She pauses, listening.
“Is it far?” she puts in. “Do the appliances work? Is the security OK?”
A smile spreads across Tan’s cheeks as her son describes the apartment he’s leased; a thousand square feet, PLUS. He’ll be sharing with one of his friends.
All Tan’s love is wrapped up in these every day phone calls. Goodbyes have been a big part of her life. But everything’s worked out. Henry Tuen attended Hong Kong’s top schools and grew into a young man of promise and high hopes. Tan’s sacrifice paid off in a brighter future for her son, not far from where Tan herself grew up.
Born to a technician’s family 60 years ago, Tan was raised in Tianjin, just 40 to 50 kilometers from where her son has gone seeking his fortune. Sadness had cast its shadow on Tan’s happy family life, as a young woman caught up in the Cultural Revolution. Life changed swiftly. Her father was branded a “traitor”. He was locked up in a cowshed, a common insult reserved for the disgraced social elites of the era. He had a relative in Hong Kong. That was all it took to fall from grace. She gave up her hopes to become a teacher, gave up her education and accepted a job tapping rubber in the jungles of Hainan Island to help her father.
She stayed there for eight years, until one day the thought forced itself upon her, “I cannot live this life anymore.” In 1979, she agreed to an arranged marriage, and joined tens of thousands of new immigrants bound for Hong Kong in search of a better life.
Hong Kong was no paradise in the beginning. Her mainland credentials and certifications were worthless. Tan became a textile worker. Hong Kong was one of the world’s leading manufacturers and Tan needed to survive. From the time of her arrival and for years afterward, she struggled. Her son was born.
“Many times, we felt desperate,” Tan recalls the time when she and her husband were struggling for life, “but, we knew we had to carry on.” She worked hard and her hard work and determination paid off. She fulfilled her hope to become a teacher.
Life got better. Tan’s dream was that one day her son would become a white-collar worker in the city. He was a clever boy and Tan was encouraged in her hopes. Tuen did show talent and in the end he made it. He joined one of the largest travel management companies in Hong Kong.
However, there came the fateful, heartbreaking day when Tuen told her he had taken a position in Beijing. More than thirty years after Tan had moved to Hong Kong to fulfill her life’s ambition, Tuen was going back in the opposite direction to fulfill his ambitions. He was among the top performers in the company and the boss wanted to put more responsibilities on him. Had Tan taken a different path, who can say how things might have turned out for Tuen.
“Wear more clothes,” Tan admonishes down the phone line. “Minus 10 is no laughing matter. And eat more fruits.” She smiles, but her sadness is apparent as she hangs up the phone.
“I really miss him,” she says, “But — as he settles, my heart settles too.”
According to the special report, “Hong Kong residents working in mainland China”, 39.3 percent of Hong Kong residents working on the mainland are engaged in manufacturing. Most are professionals or working in management. Another 37.1 percent have taken up careers in import/export and the wholesale trade. A small but growing group amounting to about 8 percent are in financing, insurance, real estate, and professional and business.
The country’s transformation from “the world’s factory” to a world power presents immense opportunities for skilled and qualified people all around Greater China, not just Hong Kong, says Professor Mok Ka-ho, acting vice-president (research and development) of The Hong Kong Institute of Education, who is specialized in sociology, political science and Greater China studies.
“In the near future, the transition will involve high-tech, research and development. The services sector is going to need a lot of talents and Hong Kong definitely will be a key source.” says Mok.
Quality of life
Of course the economic prospects are attractive — but another major, driving force that is drawing Hong Kong’s best and brightest to travel afar is the quality of life. Johnson Wong, a Hong Kong senior business consultant who worked in Shanghai for several years before coming back to the SAR in 2011, already thinks nostalgically about his days “at home” in Shanghai.
“In Shanghai, I could relax after work in a 1200 plus square foot place. I had family parties and invited 10 to 14 people on the weekend. We’d chat, walk around the place, have a few drinks. That kind of lifestyle is really a paradise for ordinary Hong Kong people.”
Then there was the cost of living.
“Earning 20,000 yuan is different concept from earning HK$20,000. The lifestyle there may cost only 50 yuan per day. Often your rent is covered by company allowances if you are sent there from Hong Kong or hired as an overseas expert.”
“With 15 yuan, you can have your haircut. A decent massage in Shanghai may cost you only 40 yuan.” Wong recalls.
“And equally important, you get better chances for promotion. The mainland has become a key market for leading companies.” Wong reiterates.
Still acting as middleman between mainland and the world, Hong Kong is sure to see many of its most promising talents move across the border onto the Chinese mainland, observes Mo Pak-hung, associate professor in the Department of Economics at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“The ‘go north’ movement has become a trend and will continue to be one,” Mo said. “The emergence of the mainland domestic markets will definitely attract more Hong Kong talents who want to make it big or get promoted faster.”
Simultaneously, the Mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) is surely another key reason for the “go north” move, says Mo. “Amid round after round of CEPA supplement signing, more Hong Kong businesses will embrace this vast market. Consequently more talents may be dispatched, particularly from the financial sectors, while manufacturing will stand firm as the largest group among various industries since its potential is still considerable.”
Phyllis Lam, a mainland student services officer in Hong Kong Baptist University, is an acquaintance of Tan. She roots for this new direction of the pursuit of happiness. “I am supportive if my children want to pursue their career in mainland cities. It’s a good option.”
A key obligation of her job is to help mainland students adapt to their lives in Hong Kong, thus she has got to know a lot of them and consequently, knows mainland better than average people in Hong Kong .
“The mainland is really running on a fast highway,” Lam says.
During previous school-term breaks, Lam went several times to the mainland to visit her students there. She noted many changes.
“In ten years, there may be several Hong Kong-like cities on the mainland, why should we cage our children in Hong Kong ?”
“I hope they can fly higher and farther, to see more of the world. Why not the mainland?” she asks.
Of course mom’s never cease to worry, no matter how good things get, no matter how bright the prospects. Tan Kin-wa hears accounts about Beijing’s heavy smog. She’s worried the bad air could affect her son’s health.
Those concerns naturally apply to the young talents seeking better lives and who are considering the “go north” trend.
“They care more about the security of their lives and properties,” Professor Mo noted. “Improving food security, public security and pollution are among the priority list if mainland cities want to woo more Hong Kong talents.”
As the financial sectors, in particular, are ready to step further into the mainland markets, corruption, which has long been a social headache, must be eradicated. There’ll be a lot of money out there, Mo stresses.
It’s been a year since Tuen was sent to Beijing. From the very first day, Tan has been hearing good news about his life there. “The boss appreciates him, treating him like a little brother. But the best news to me was when one of his Beijing colleagues invited him to a family dinner with his parents just one week after Tuen’s arrival. I felt so unburdened when I learnt he made a lot of new friends there.” Tan’s smile reappeared.
“But still, I would rather he not work that hard. His health is also important,” she murmurs.