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Hidden Hong Kong: Hong Kong’s colourful legacy of immigration

By Ngai Yeung 16 September 2020

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Hong Kong has long been an immigration hotspot, a refugee’s paradise—after all, how else did the small city reach the booming population of over seven million people it has today? The territory’s rich history of immigration is embedded in its multicultural heritage and formed the backbone of its populace. Without it, the city would not even be a city and instead remain as a scattered collection of rural and coastal villages.

In fact, virtually all Hongkongers’ ancestors were new immigrants to the city at some point over the past century or so. Many hailed from Guangdong and other parts of southern China and were either economic migrants seeking a better life or illegal immigrants and refugees who have fled war and social strife—read on to discover the roots of your fellow citizens and the tale of the immigrant's dream destination.

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Lai Chi Wo, a 300-year-old Hakka village in Sha Tau Kok. Photo credit: Hong Kong Tourism Board

Hong Kong was no barren, undiscovered land

Since over 30,000 years ago, humans have inhabited parts of the New Territories. More trickled down to the area during the Tang dynasty as Guangzhou flourished into a major trading port, but large-scale immigration didn’t happen until the Song dynasty. As the Mongols pressed their invasion from the north, many Chinese refugees fled south to Hong Kong. The five major families that settled in the New Territories then are the Deng, Peng, Hou, Wen, and Liao clans, with more clans to follow.

The peace did not last forever, as a great shake-up during the early Qing dynasty uprooted entire communities for decades. To battle anti-Qing loyalists based in Taiwan, the Qing Emperor issued a series of Great Clearance edicts that required coastal areas in southern China—including Guangdong and Hong Kong—to be cleared out.

When the ban was lifted in the late seventeenth century, some Hong Kong locals—also known as Punti—returned to the place, along with newcomers that belonged to the Hakka, Tanka, and Hokkien ethnic groups. Together, these people groups became the indigenous inhabitants of Hong Kong, living with their clans in coastal or walled villages as either fishermen or farmers.

Chinese lived in the tong laus in the foreground, distinct from the British property in the background. Tai Ping Shan circa 1870. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Cue: A multinational melting pot

The sleepy fishing villages soon exploded into a multinational melting pot. After the British arrived in 1841, Hong Kong developed into a bustling port city, a crucial stop for international trade. The money flowing through attracted merchants from around the world, and an 1871 survey listed Americans, Danes, Turkish, Russians, and more among the nationalities in the city.

Of course, the Chinese entered the fray as well. Many came to the new city as labourers to work on the infrastructure on the Island side, where all the business was conducted and where practically all new arrivals lived. It was this influx of Chinese immigrants that formed the bulk of Hong Kong’s early population boom.

Queen’s Road East in 1910. Photo credit: 昔日香港

Waves of refugees and immigrants continued to pour in from China as the country was beset with upheavals over the next century. Hordes of Hakka people and other peasants fled to Hong Kong during the social turmoil caused by the Taiping Rebellion and Punti-Hakka Wars in the 1850s; Chinese Christians followed during the anti-West Boxer Rebellion of the 1900s.

Shortly after the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 that overthrew the Qing dynasty, a new class of Chinese immigrants arrived at the city. These were wealthy elites, businessmen and intellectuals who soon set up shop in Hong Kong, boosting the local economy. A number of these also became teachers and lecturers, promoting cultural education in the local scene. It was also around this time that branches of big Chinese companies such as Commercial Press and Beijing’s Tong Ren Tang began appearing in the city.

Baby Bruce Lee and his parents. Lee's father Lee Hoi-chuen immigrated to Hong Kong in the 1930s where he became a Cantonese Opera actor. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dramatic rebounds and exponential growth

If you’re wondering how on earth can the Island side accommodate all these newcomers, you’re right. By this time, overcrowding has become a serious problem, with many sleeping on the streets or living in crowded, unhygienic conditions. The problem was exacerbated when the city was inundated with refugees from the Second Sino-Japanese War. In 1936, a year before the war, Hong Kong’s population numbered one million; in 1941, that number jumped to 1.6 million. So the government began to develop and open up the Kowloon side, beginning with the southern tip of Kowloon.

The Japanese arresting European bankers during the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The numbers took a dramatic u-turn just a few years later. Following the British surrender of Hong Kong in the Second World War, Imperial Japanese forces occupied the territory for four brutal years. Droves of Hong Kongers left or were forced to leave throughout the period. By the end of the war, the city’s population took a nosedive from 1.6 million to just 600,000.

But immediately after the Second World War ended, the fragile partnership between the Communist Party and Kuomintang shattered and blew up in a fierce Chinese Civil War. Hong Kong’s population witnessed a most extraordinary rebound as Chinese refugees rushed to flee the mainland, and the British government began to develop the New Territories to accommodate the masses. In just six years, the city’s residents jumped from 1945’s 600,000 to 2.1 million by 1951; as many as 100,000 came to the city per month after the Communist Party took power in 1949.

The Hong Kong-Shenzhen border today. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

A refugee safe haven

Prior to China’s communist rule, Hong Kong’s borders with the country were completely open, and people could move back and forth freely. But in 1949, British Hong Kong grew wary when troops from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) drew near the border, tightening border controls. The border was finally sealed off two years later to stem the overwhelming tide of immigrants; quotas for legal immigrants were limited, and illegal immigrants who were intercepted would be deported.

Many immigrants in the 1950s lived in communities of shanty houses at foothills. Photo credit: 昔日香港 (Facebook)

Nevertheless, Hong Kong’s masses continued to grow. Hong Kongers who left the city during the Japanese Occupation started to trickle back in, and children from the post-war baby boom were growing up. Even with the new border policy in place, Chinese refugees flooded in the city, desperate to escape the Cultural Revolution. Those who made it to the city legally often did so with the help of relatives already in town. Those who lacked legal means would swim the four-kilometre stretch of water under the dark of night and risk drowning or being shot by PLA guards. The new arrivals formed the backbone of Hong Kong’s labourers, and the city’s population rose by a stunning one million between 1960 and 1970.

With limited spaces on each boat, some Vietnamese parents sent their children off by themselves in hopes of securing a better life for them. Photo credit: Stories of Vietnamese Boat People (Facebook)

Another group of refugees were the Vietnamese boat, who fled the country right after the fall of South Vietnam to communists in 1975, and arrived in waves throughout the late twentieth century. These Vietnamese ended up around the world, but Hong Kong was one of their first destinations because of its proximity. 

The public didn’t hear much about these people, though, as instead of assimilating into the local community, the Vietnamese were rounded up into purpose-built, prison-like detention centres. A few major riots broke out at the detention centre, and eventually, the last detention centre was closed in 2000: Some 143,700 of the boat people had been forcibly resettled to other countries and 67,000 were sent back to Vietnam. Only 1,400 were allowed to stay in Hong Kong permanently.

A standoff between protestors and police during the leftist 1967 Hong Kong Riots. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gain some, lose some

As with all things in life, there’s both a give and a take—it wasn’t always just people flowing in but out as well. The first wave of mass migration from Hong Kong followed the 1967 Hong Kong Riots, a year of chaotic social unrest that shook Hongkongers’ confidence in the city. Even more migrated in the 1980s, especially after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration which signalled that Hong Kong’s future was no longer certain. This wave continued on throughout the 1990s, spurred on by anxieties over the 1997 Handover.

Hong Kongers queuing for flights at the Kai Tak airport in the late 20th century. Photo credit: 昔日香港 (Facebook)

These migrants were mostly wealthy elites, middle-class professionals, or simply study-abroad students who’ve graduated, with popular destinations being Canada, Australia, and Britain. A number of indigenous Hong Kong inhabitants from the New Territories also migrated to the UK under special rights afforded to them. Yet others became “astronauts” (太空人; taai3 hung1 jan4) as after they settled their families abroad they returned to work in Hong Kong, often flying back and forth the two places. By 1990, around 60 thousand people—one percent of Hong Kong’s total population then—had left the city for what they deemed better prospects.

Photo credit: Hong Kong Immigration Department

Today, there’s no more need for precarious illegal immigration as turmoil in mainland China has died down. The city’s immigration policy has steadied into issuing 150 one-way permits per day, mainly aimed at family reunification. As with any other country’s discourse on immigration, controversy surrounds the topic: Some Hongkongers argue that the influx of immigrants only exacerbates the city’s housing shortage problem, while others accuse the former of thinly-veiled discrimination. Either way, there’s no denying the city’s rich heritage of immigration—without it, Hong Kong would not even be close to the vibrant metropolis it is today.

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Ngai was born and raised in Hong Kong and is currently studying at university in the United States. You can find her wandering around the city, experimenting with egg recipes and nerding out about the news.

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