5 Dark Sides of Hong Kong

5 Dark Sides of Hong Kong
Photo Credit: Vincent Yu / AP Photo / 達志影像

What you need to know

Hong Kong isn't all sunshine and cha siu bao -- there are massive societal problems as well.

For many international tourists, Hong Kong is one of the world’s most favored cities.

The city is indeed a fascinating blur of influences that bridges the occidental with the oriental, yet despite its dazzling skyline and outsized economic performance, Hong Kong has a dark underbelly that only those who have lived here would understand. Here are five of those darker aspects that many outside Hong Kong often overlook:

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Photo Credit: AP/達志影像
A woman walks down a stairway in front of a backdrop of high rise apartment buildings in Hong Kong.

Segregation

If you have ever fantasized about working in Hong Kong, attracted by its image of coherent society and the enticing blend of East and West, you might want to reconsider.

Hong Kong prides itself on its international community. But the truth is that instead of an integrated society, segregation between locals and non-locals is a serious problem.

With foreign residents numbering 600,000 and comprising more than 8 percent of the Hong Kong population, Asia’s World City (a tag bestowed by the Hong Kong government in 2001 and familiar to any who have exited its international airport) has the fifth highest proportion of foreign-born residents in the world. Ranging from professional expat to international students and low-skilled migrant workers, many have called Hong Kong home. So, why does the segregation exist?

First up is the language barrier. Despite being a former British colony, and as much as Hong Kong desires to portray itself as an international city like Singapore, the reality is that only about 46 percent of the residents can speak English. Undeniably, the percentage is quite high for Asian standards. However, the proficiency and the number of people speaking English directly affect the ability of locals and non-locals to intermingle.

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The English-speaking concentration of Hong Kong.

Besides language, social class and lifestyle are other major determinants. As most expats occupy managerial positions in enterprises and live in the wealthy area of Hong Kong such as Mid-levels, the Peak, and so on, international communities are particularly active in these parts of Hong Kong island. The abundance of high-class restaurants, bars and clubs encapsulate the lifestyle foreigners live in this area, but largely filter out local people who cannot afford such luxurious way of life. In the end, Hong Kong successfully attracts thousands of foreign white-collar workers, but they never settle in this harbor city. Like ships, they dock at the port, free from a genuine desire to interact or connect emotionally, ready to depart at any time.

Overtime Culture

"People are reluctant to leave the office early even if they’re done with work. It’s about face-timing," says Leslie Yang (not her real name), an investment banker at HSBC. And by early, she means 8 p.m. Whether Hong Kongers like it or not, the culture for them to work OT (overtime) is here to stay.

According to a survey conducted by jobsDB, 89 percent of Hong Kong employees work overtime, and most of them receive no compensation. Some 39 percent of them put in four hours, 22 percent devote seven hours, and 3 percent sacrifice more than 16 hours on a weekly basis.

What’s worse, Hong Kong's working hours top the world according to a survey by UBS, higher than all the nearby Asian cities. Compared to the least busy city ranked in the survey, Paris, Hong Kongers work almost 20 hours more every week.

The reasons for this working-to-death culture are perceptual and structural. If you take a stroll at night in Central, the business hub of Hong Kong, where hundreds of multinational corporations are located, the energy of the place is tangible. Thousands work relentlessly in the office until 9 or 10 p.m. Keeping oneself busy throughout the day is also essential. Subordinates have it especially tough: "It just looks bad for juniors (to leave early)," Yang says. The norm is to go home after your boss has left -- it is all about perception. "You don’t want to look too free," she adds.

Structural problems that give rise to excessive numbers of low-paid workers continues to exert pressure on the life of young professionals. As the freest economy in the world, Hong Kong also has to pay the price of income inequality, which is a serious social problem that also contributes to social division (more of which later). In part a result of the low minimum wage stipulated by the government and astronomical rents imposed by the market, these blue-collar workers must work multiple shifts and more hours to make ends meet.

Housing problems and nano flats

Families cramming themselves into a single tiny bed is a justly held Hong Kong stereotype. Many people do indeed squeeze themselves into "mosquito-sized" flats. And the trend is not going anywhere, as property price continues to rise.

Hong Kong, one of the densest cities in the world, has over 7 million people residing in about 2,700 square kilometers. However, only 7 percent of the land is for residential use. This inadequate supply of housing continues to be met with high demand, driving unprecedented price rises every year.

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AP IMAGES/達志影像
In Hong Kong, there's a dark side to a housing boom, with hundreds of thousands of people forced to live in partitioned shoebox apartments, "coffin homes" and other "inadequate housing."

The land-bidding policy of the Hong Kong government also plays a role. As lands in Hong Kong are sold to the public through open bidding, only huge real estate conglomerates can afford to succeed, and property prices have thus never stopped climbing.

In recent years, mainland Chinese developers have joined the fray, anxious to capitalize on sky-high revenues, causing property prices to hit record high every few months. For example, a residential site in Kowloon was sold for HK$28,531 (US$3,635) per square foot in January, making it the priciest piece of land ever sold in the area.

With salaries unable to keep pace with the skyrocketing price of property, many Hong Kong residents see nano flats as their sole option. Subdivided flats, or so-called "coffin apartments" have emerged. At a mere 24 square feet apiece, each unit looks literally like a coffin, and still costs as much as HK$3,000 per month in busy districts such as Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

What about public housing?

As much as the Hong Kong government endeavors to deliver more public housing, the units provided never meet the demand. Already more than 2 million people live in the public units, but there are still about 280,000 waiting people to be allocated, and as of December 2017 the average waiting time is 4.7 years, according to the Hong Kong Housing Authority.

Miserably, for many who still struggles with a basic income, there is no solution on the horizon.

Read more: OPINION: Is Hong Kong’s Housing Problem Just ‘the Old Bullying the Young?’

Social and Political Division

Since the outbreak of the Umbrella Movement (or Occupy Central) in Hong Kong in 2014, divisions in all aspects of society appears to have grown.

"Division is so serious that it can be found within some families, tearing them apart," says Geoff Li, a local university student. From people’s political stance, to inequalities related to the income gap, to the familiar "Hong Kong versus Mainland" trope, everything seems subject to divisive debate that turns people against each other.

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Photo Credit: Damir Sagolj / REUTERS / 達志影像
Protesters open their umbrellas, symbols of pro-democracy movement, as they mark exactly one month since they took the streets in Hong Kong's financial central district on October 28, 2014.

In the political field, Hong Kong society is split into three parts, namely pro-establishment, pro-democracy, and localists. Unlike in the West, where collaborations and compromises are made between parties from time to time, these three almost never see eye to eye, prompting the supporters of each to issue rebukes and launch protests against each other.

As for the income gap, Hong Kong’s long-lasting social and economic problems often trigger the impoverished to resent the affluent. With the richest earning almost 44 times than that of the poorest, according to the government’s Census and Statistics Department, and the gap continuing to increase, such negative emotions will continue to fester.

Due to the inflow of mainland Chinese to Hong Kong, a surge of Hong Kong-Mainland China conflict can also be observed. Despite the Chinese government's effort to bridge the gap between the mainland and Hong Kong, their measures are often deemed counter-productive. Ironically, though 2017 was the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China, there is a growing trend of anti-China sentiment brewing among the locals. A recent case of students at the Baptist University protesting against the Mandarin test requirement for graduation says it all.

Gradually diminishing freedom

Probably the most unfortunate dark side of all that looms over Hong Kong is that the freedom citizens have long enjoyed is gradually being infringed. A recent report by Freedom House, a human rights NGO, reported that Hong Kong's freedom score fell for a seventh consecutive year.

Incidents in recent years such as the kidnapping of Causeway Bay booksellers and the disqualification of legislative candidates being disqualified showcase the gradually-imposed limit on the boundaries of freedom of speech and political freedom by Beijing.

However, there is a silver lining. Although following the Umbrella Movement, many civilians who convened and advocated for the campaign were charged and prosecuted to various degrees, most notably the well known Occupy Central Trio - Joshua Wang, Nathan Law and Alex Chow, on Feb. 6, the appeal court finally issued a verdict in favor of democracy activists, which was viewed as a victory for many pro-democracy supporters.

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Photo Credit: Bobby Yip / REUTERS / 達志影像
Judges attend a ceremony to mark the beginning of the legal year in Hong Kong, China January 8, 2018.

Hong Kong of course still has its appeal. But maybe it’s finally time for the city to reconsider the relentless pursuit of prosperity and turn its attention to social justice and development.

Read next: Hong Kong's Passports Reveal a Deeper Divide

Editor: David Green