How the Other Half Lives II

Hong Kong is affectionately dubbed the New York of the East by many.  It’s a finance center; a major harbor; people from all over the world gather to these two cities to experience it.  Yet there are obviously many differences.

As much as things are the same, I will wonder why are those things different… well, different? I wrote previously about the disparity of communities here in HK, and as I get to know HK in what is now my third week here, I start to see these differences come alive even more.

I think we can break HK down to now four groups: (1) the expats (who have a variegated number of jobs that are not always necessarily well-paying, ranging from teaching to banking), (2) the international locals (Honkies — yes they do call themselves that — who are typically from the upper middle to upper classes and are or send their children to local international schools or abroad to international schools); (3) the lower middle to lower class locals who have a fair lifestyle in HK, but are not all that well-educated or internationally exposed; and (4) the foreign or migrant workers – Thais, Indonesians, and Filipinas – who are here to typically do the lowest denomination of work, like housekeeping, and often, and unfortunately, fall prey to human trafficking and prostitution.

Now this is not to say that NYC does not have these four classes of people too.  There most assuredly are each of these types.  There are definitely plenty of foreigners and out-of-staters from everywhere flocking to NYC to work in the finance and law sectors, a breed of upper middle or upper class folks (although the upper-middle to upper classes don’t send their children abroad, but rather send their kids to local or US private schools, and then, if they are so lucky, Ivy League or similar schools for college), more ordinary middle-class or lower-middle class folks, and then yes, lots of migrant and illegal immigrants, who also fall prey to various social abuses and evils.  But why do I still get the sense that HK is far more segregated?

The number one reason: I firmly believe there is such thing as social mobility in New York, and America, whereas in Hong Kong, this is far from the case.  In fact, I recently became acquainted with yet another local from category 2.  He’s American-educated, holds a degree from a US Ivy League college, and is obviously wealthy in HK (he owns a car, has an apartment in a prime neighborhood, and has been engaged in building and selling a factory).  He whole-heartedly agreed with my assessment, and although he has worked with plenty of Category 1 folks when he was in the finance sector, now chooses to stay well within his own kind.

And as for my assessment on the situation in NYC, I have one prime example — my family.  My mother came (from Hong Kong) to New York in 1966.  She was just 18, and she and her large family (everyone came altogether — her family of 2 boys and 2 girls, mom and dad; her grandmother, plus her two uncles and their families) arrived en masse to live in Manhattan’s Chinatown.  Mom’s parents were blue-collared workers — her father a cook, who had to travel as far as Philly to get gigs, and her mother a seamstress in a Chinatown factory.  They were not rich at all, and I’ve heard plenty of tales of how poor they were.  Food stamps, government subsidized school lunches, no healthcare whatsoever.   My grandparents never got any further than the 6th grade, and yet their children would all far surpass them.

Mom earned her Masters in Chemistry, and oft complained that if not for being pregnant with me, would have finished her PhD in environmental toxicology at NYU.  Her youngest brother went to the famous NYC high school Brooklyn Tech, followed by the Ivy League UPenn, and then graduated from medical school, becoming a full-fledged medical doctor.  If that’s not social mobility, then I don’t know what is.  In America, you truly could become something from nothing if you put your mind to it, and all this can happen rather quickly too, with no need to wait several generations.

I remembered thinking how true this was when I visited China for the very first time in 2006, and met my distant relatives who were not so lucky to emigrate.  I easily saw what could have been my life if we never had this opportunity — I’d be in this weird village, where while yes, we might have a flat screen television, but still have a straw-fed stove, and any hopes of a profession would be pure jest.

Hong Kong, which is certainly no Mainland China (even if they are one country with two systems now), is still nowhere the same.  Of those 4 groups I enumerated, the interactions, if any, are always in some sort of hierarchy.  Can there be real friendships between any of them?  Few if any.  Can any one transition from one to the other?  Again, rare.

So far I’ve been able to form some sort of relationships with Groups 1 and 2, but as progressive as my background might be, I highly doubt anything sincere might happen between me and Groups 3 and 4.


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