HONGKONG ... The population of this British colony set in the belly of Red China?
HONGKONG ... The population of this British colony set in the belly of Red China is in itself the barometer of China's state of mind, and today the needle points, unsurprisingly enough, to discontent. Of her present population of 2,700,000, perhaps a million are refugees from Communism. Thousands of families of ten or more, married couples with or without children, and single individuals have given up varying statuses in mainland China to settle in Hongkong with little, much, or nothing of their previous belongings.
A devastating fire in a densely-packed squatter area wiped out the makeshift homes of 53,000 people on Christmas night, 1953, finally forcing the Hongkong government to set about definite plans for housing the apparently unending stream of newcomers from across the frontier of Red China. Because the United Nations does not consider the immigrants from Red China bonafide refugees, no international funds have been provided for their support. Result: Hongkong carries the entire burden herself.
The squatter areas lack any semblance of streets or walkways, livestock cohabit the miserable rooms with their human owners, and the process of birth and death proceeds mid the constant mealtime cooking of whatever rice and vegetables the families may have gotten by peddling or manual labour. There are few jobs the breadwinner may seek, and there are too many seeking them. Despair wears an untroubled look on the patient Chinese countenance, but both the British and the Chinese officials bearing the brunt of the refugee problem attest that most of these people have no higher hope than day-to-day survival. Public funds are limited and private philanthropies, except for various Christian church missions, are almost non-existent.
Where they once dallied with privately constructed 'cottages' for the refugees, the hard-pressed British administrators can now look back on five years of grandiose and eye-filling construction: gigantic H-shaped settlement 'blocks,' seven storeys high, with shops on the ground floors and schools on the roofs. Fireproof, rigidly supervised (each room has a picture of the occupants, their names, and posted rent receipt), the great terraced buildings are a striking, unforgettable part of the new Hongkong landscape. They teem with the tireless throngs that spell the same of China to anyone who has been there, the multifarious and unending movements of the people at work and at play, the bubbling of teapots and the mysteries of food cooking according to the varying traditions of Canton, Soochow, Shanghai, Szechwan, and the rest of China's universe.
The settlers are those who squatted on the site before it was cleared of the packing boxes, flattened kerosene cans,and corrugated iron sheets that comprised the squatter 'city'. Many of them live on the earnings of regular jobs in Hongkong's new factories, but all and gimcracks in the swarming streets of the colony.
Rooms in the 'resettlement estates' are of varying sizes: for $1.60 per month a family of three to four adults will share a 7x12 room, for $2.35 monthly 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 adults share a 10x12 room (a child under ten years old is considered half an adult). For as much as $4.70 per month ten adults, sometimes of two different families, share a 12x20 room. These rentals will not only pay current expenses of operating the 'estates,' but they will also in time repay the entire cost of the land and the buildings. The rooms are admittedly inadequate, but are considered a kind of permanent emergency quarters. With most of the inhabitants working irregularly, fortunate to earn $20 or more per month, the rents are low but not nominal.
Nearly 250,000 people, or 9% of the population, now live in these enormous 'resettlement estates,' but another 360,000, or 13% of Hongkong's people, are still squatters: living and breeding in the hill-grappling huts overlooking one of the world's most beautiful harbours.
Another 5%, or 135,000 people, are 'boat-dwellers', who live their entire lives afloat. A small percentage of these are relatively prosperous, owning motor-driven junks that bring in enough fish to sustain entire families from their revenues, but most of these people live as marginally as their compatriots in the squatter shacks. An undetermined, uncounted number of them are refugee fisher-folk from Red China, who fled to Hongkong rather than join the oppressive fishermen's communes, which require the individualistic 'boat-people' to hand over their hard-won catches to the government. Speaking what amounts to their own dialect, marrying only within their own kind, China's 'boat-people' are illiterate and unpolitical; their dislike for Communism, however, is based on the same grounds of personal harassment asserted by the other refugees.
But rich, poor, or middle-class, the refugee from mainland China is consumed by the daily fear of what may happen to his relatives still behind the Bamboo Curtain, what may indeed happen to him if he is too outspoken. The flags of Nationalist China fly defiantly from the shacks, the apartment houses, and the sampans, but the Communist agents are ever present. Contacts between the Chinese in Hongkong and any westerners, the British included, are few and generally official in nature.