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Every year, thousands of Hong Kong residents are leaving their city. They are afraid that Hong Kong will become a normal Chinese city – under the control of Beijing, without liberties. The astronomical housing costs are another major factor.

Rising housing costs are a major factor for people leaving the city. (Picture by Jude Joshua)

In the bedroom of the Kwong family two gray folding mattresses are lying on a double bed with floral pattern. Every night two adults and two children are sleeping here on a space of only eight square meters. Father and mother on the folding mattresses on the floor, the children are allowed to sleep on the double bed.

Unaffordable apartments

The Kwongs are not a poor family. They belong to the Hong Kong middle class. Both parents are X-ray assistants in Hong Kong hospitals, earning around 125,000 Hong Kong dollars a month. Yet, they cannot afford more than their flat of nearly 50 square meters in a Hong Kong suburb. The four members of the family share this place with a Filipino domestic helper as it is common for the Hong Kong middle class.

“I want to move to a bigger house,” says Ryan Kwong, “but I can’t afford it.” He wishes to live in a flat with 90 square meters. But such an apartment would cost about 10 million Hong Kong dollars. Of course, only in a Hong Kong suburb.

The expensive living space is one of the main reasons for many Hong Kongers to consider ​​leaving the city. In a study conducted in late 2018, 34 percent of the population said they would leave Hong Kong if they had the opportunity. But many lack the money, the right education or enough English skills to actually emigrate.

However, more than five percent have already started preparations – and Ryan Kwong belongs to this group. In the past five years alone, at least 40,000 Hong Kong residents have left the city. Whoever has the money for an investment visa or like Kwong can get a skilled worker visa, emigrates.

The Kwongs for the first time five years ago considered moving away. At that time, their daughter did not get the place in the desired elementary school and a few months later the umbrella revolution took place, with thousands of Hong Kongers taking to the streets for more democracy.

“I noticed change coming,” remembers Ryan Kwong when recalling the time around 2013, “we hoped one day we have true democracy.”

While the city enjoys more freedom than the rest of China – there is press freedom and independent courts – Beijing’s influence and control is steadily increasing. With the end of the umbrella movement it became clear that nothing would change soon.

That several student leaders went to prison scared Sarah Wong. “I will not go to prison because of some political statements, because I’m too apolitical,” Ryan Kwong’s wife says. She is worried what could happen to her children in the future. “If my children will stand up for justice, they may have to go to jail,” she says. “That’s not fair.”

The desire for space

The desire to emigrate got more concrete as a friend of the Kwong family decided to move to Australia. Together, they went on holidays in the regions of Perth and Sydney. Ryan Kwong pulls out his phone and shows a photo of the trip: It shows himself, in black trekking pants and a gray jacket which covers his bald head. Kwong is standing on a lawn in a park, just him, nobody else.  “Why am I so impressed?” he asks, “because there are so few people in a very large park.” In Hong Kong everything is overcrowded, he says. Whether at home, in the restaurant or on the subway: “We have no room.” Even when hiking, in the green mountains of Hong Kong, you feel like being in the middle of the city center, he says.

For the 38-year-old, the evil is clear: the Chinese from the mainland. “Hong Kong has no control over who can come here,” he says, mentioning the number 150. Since 1995, 150 Chinese are allowed to immigrate to Hong Kong every day if they have relatives in the city.

Hong Kong government figures show that over the past 20 years, more than one million mainland Chinese have settled in the city. It is not the Hong Kong Immigration Office that decides on the applications, but mainland authorities. In addition to Chinese immigrants also millions of tourists are visiting the city: Last year alone, 51 million Chinese came to the city of 7 million people to go shopping, to visit amusement parks or to hike.

Enjoying cattle on the pasture

Almost ten thousand kilometers from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, Winner Lee is enjoying her new live. She has already made true what the Kwong family is still dreaming about. In the middle of last year, the 48-year-old moved to Cambridge in England. She sits in front of a black Ikea shelf and talks about her decision to leave Hong Kong. She also names the number 150 which Kwong raised before, and also speaks of the million mainland Chinese that emigrated to the city.

“They consume a lot of free education, free public housing and medication,” Lee says. Indeed, more students from the mainland are now studying in Hong Kong’s schools and universities than a few years ago. Hong Kong’s hospitals are also chronically overcrowded.

But who to blame is causing a debate in the city. The Hong Kong government does not see the reason in Chinese immigrants, but rather in the aging Hong Kong population. Lee, however, worries that her children will not be able to afford housing or find a job because of the immigrants. “It’s definitely going to be very competitive,” she says.

What Lee is fearing for her children, many Hongkongers are feeling already today. In a survey, more than 90 percent of the interviewees said that they had suffered from stress.  Lee is happy to have escaped this feeling of stress.

“The pace of living is much slower,” she says of her new life in England. In Hong Kong, she had to leave home at seven in the morning, commute for an hour, work ten hours, and then take the subway again to go back home. And even after work, her head could not turn off, at night she slept mostly only four to five hours. “Sometimes, I woke up and started thinking,” she says. “The brain got too busy.”

Homesick for noodles and her mother

Lee is now setting up her own small business. She wants to sell pictures printed on glass, made in China, in England. Her main goal is not to earn a lot of money, but to enjoy a relaxed life. The two million Hong Kong dollars she has to invest to keep her investor visa she wants to use to hire two Britons to do the main work.

At the moment, Lee works only three hours a day, in the future it might become a bit more. Unthinkable in Hong Kong where there is no time for any leisure activities such as sport. In England, she regularly goes cycling. As a newcomer from the big city, Lee enjoys the smog-free air around Cambridge, the trees along the way, and the cattle grazing in the fields.

Lee does not regret her decision to leave Hong Kong. She only misses Hong Kong’s beef noodles. And her family. “We don’t know how long my mum will stay in this world,” she says, “it would be better to be with her.” But for now, Winner Lee wants to secure a permanent residence permit for the UK – and then maybe move back to Hong Kong to take care of her now 71-year-old mother.

One-time chance

The aging parents are also an issue for Ryan Kwong. He is still sitting in his small apartment in the Hong Kong suburbs. But he is determined to spend the rest of his life in Australia. Even if he has to leave his parents behind, which runs counter to Chinese traditions. “In Chinese, their mind is, to stay together is the best, a large family is the best,” he says. His mother constantly asks him: “Are you serious? Have you considered it seriously?”

Kwong will not only miss his parents but also the Hong Kong food. Since he was a four-year-old, he and his mother had fish bowls, Chinese dumplings or beef noodles in one of the many small Hong Kong restaurants. “Houmei – delicious,” he says. “I grew up here. I have quite a sense of belonging to Hong Kong.”

But now he needs to focus on his own wishes, he says. In January he received his visa for Australia. In a few years, when he is older, that would be more difficult. “If I miss this chance, I will never have it again,” he says.

If everything goes according to his plan, in a few months Ryan Kwong will take the elevator to the 26th floor for the last time. He will put the two mattresses on the floor in the evening. The next day, he will take the plane to Australia together with his wife and his two children. “I want to have a better future,” Kwong says, “Hong Kong is deteriorating, it is becoming a normal city in China.”