(Image credit: Steve Webel – Flickr)
Another Friday night, at 9:30pm, the bustling Sichuan restaurant located on Ho Fuk Street closes its doors. Waiters move tables away, turning the outdoor terrace on the 5th floor into a spacious club. Shrouded in gentle yellow light and soft music, the place surrounded by skyscrapers seems simple, and cozy. Dozens of white-collar workers from various industries gathered here with a common purpose — love. Professional consultants first guided them to discover their basic love problems by answering some easy questions, and then encouraged them to share their perspectives about love one by one.
These white-collar workers also possess a common identity: they are gangpiao (港漂). This Chinese term combines two characters: gang is the Mandarin Chinese pronunciation of Kong, an abbreviation of Hong Kong, while piao means ‘to drift’, vividly describing these people’s lives. As a concept, gangpiao has never been defined officially. But it is generally used to refer to Mainland Chinese people who have come to work or study in Hong Kong.
In 2003 and 2006, the Hong Kong government launched a ‘Scheme for Mainland Talents and Professionals’ and a ‘Quality Migrant Admission Scheme’ to attract qualified Mainland people and increase Hong Kong’s competitiveness in the global market. On the other hand, looser entry requirements for study in Hong Kong and new immigration arrangements for non-local graduates since 2008 also provided scores of Mainland people with opportunities to study and work here.
If we define gangpiao as Mainland Chinese coming to Hong Kong for employment or study with a valid visa or permit, in 2011 there were about 63,000 gangpiao, according to the results of the 2011 Population Census, but the total number is estimated to be higher.
For a majority of gangpiao, however, love is still a headache, regardless of how long they have been in Hong Kong and the industry they work on.
Employees in Hong Kong are well known for their hardworking and diligent working ethics. The 2012 Price and Earnings Report by UBS ranked Hong Kong 5th in terms of longest working hours per year among 72 major cities around the world, with Hong Kong people working about 9.2 hours per day and 2,296 hours per year. Since no standard working hours policy has been established in Hong Kong, overtime has long been a custom in many companies in the city.
Liu Zhuobing, 24, who did his undergraduate studies at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou and the University of Hong Kong under a ‘2+2’ programme, and who started to work as a junior architect designer two years ago, is one of the victims suffering more lengthy working hours than he expected. “Everyone has a tight schedule and it is not easy to find adequate free time to talk to others in depth, which hinders smooth communication and mutual understanding, let alone the development of a love relationship.” Liu said. He thinks this situation is hard to change, even if people are promoted to a higher level. “Hong Kong is a fast-paced society. Many other industries are more demanding than mine,” he added. As a result, he thinks that, on the one hand, gangpiao should take the initiative to make more friends. On the other hand, he feels that a smaller-scale social network may benefit deeper communication.
According to the Hong Kong government’s policies, Mainland people who have stayed in Hong Kong for at least seven consecutive years under a valid visa can apply for a permanent identity card. As a result, many Mainland people take advantage of this policy, staying here to accumulate working experience until they attain the application qualifications.
Staying or leaving is indeed the dilemma plaguing Liu Dongbai. Liu did his undergraduate and postgraduate studies in Hong Kong. Adding the two years of working experience here, he is now eligible to apply for his permanent resident status. “Essentially, every gangpiao is in an unstable state. There is a lot of anxiety among us; the dilemma of staying or leaving adds a great deal of variability to our love life. Many gangpiao who have stayed here for three or four years are already starting to ponder their next steps.” he said.
A survey conducted by Hong Kong Ideas Centre, an independent non-profit organisation, revealed that while over 70% of the respondents decided to stay in Hong Kong for employment in the short-term, only 28% regarded Hong Kong as an ideal place for long-term work. They were more inclined to return to the Mainland or go overseas.
Liu is also the organizer of the series of Friday night activities, subordinate to Gangpiao Quan (港漂圈), an online community committed to serving the growing gangpiao population. As the website says, it is a home to Mainland people sojourning in Hong Kong. The organisation also set up a singles club and arranges some outdoor activities during weekends.
Unlike Liu, some others have made up their minds to put down roots here. Neil Zhang, who graduated from Tsinghua University, one of the two most prestigious universities in the Mainland, came to Hong Kong a decade ago. Resigning from the bank that brought him to Hong Kong, he started his own small-scale investment company in 2008. Zhang said, as a senior gangpiao, that he can still feel the culture shock.
Despite returning to China’s rule nearly 17 years ago, Hong Kong people are still culturally different from their Mainland compatriots. Immune to the plague of fierce political events that unfolded in the Mainland, Hong Kong has benefited considerably from its colonial legacy and advantageous geopolitical position, which has cultivated a generation different from the one in the Mainland.
“Just like natural selection, due to the disparity of language, background and ideas, even though you have local colleagues, your connection with them is still restricted to the working level,” Zhang said. “Beyond that, it is uncommon for gangpiao to integrate into their social life. So to some extent, the city does affect our love life.” After a short recall, he added that, among his gangpiao friends, he could not think of any who got married to a Hong Kong local.
Approaching 40, Zhang has gradually got used to his single status and maintains a ‘let it go’ attitude toward love. Instead of blaming the obstacles, he prefers to talk about the convenience of living in Hong Kong, praising it as an ideal city for ambitious people to thrive in. “Compared with the Mainland, it is more possible to succeed here. You don’t need to get entangled with all kinds of guanxi. Only your performance matters. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Work harder for more possibilities,” Zhang said with a smile.
The recent enrolment expansion in self-funded master programmes in every university has attracted a huge number of young gangpiao students to this ‘Pearl of the Orient’. After graduation, with no more time to savour the city, most of them have to face fierce job competition and a meagre starting salary. A special report on youth in Hong Kong from the 2011 Population Census showed that the median monthly income of working youth remained at $8,000 between 2001 and 2011, about 67% of the median ($12,000) of the whole working population. Young people’s purchasing power is actually shrinking, considering currency inflation.
Incompatible with the high pressure young gangpiao endure in the workplace, the bleak salary prospects deter many from staying in Hong Kong any longer after graduation. And love is too luxurious for them to even consider.
Christina Deng, a postgraduate at Hong Kong Baptist University, has been in Hong Kong for just eight months. She found her boyfriend in her own class and many of her single female classmates expressed their envy. “They feel it is particularly tough for them to start their careers here, on their own, while two people can support each other both physically and psychologically,” Deng said. “But my boyfriend and I also feel lost sometimes and we are mindful of and vigilant against possible difficulties in the future, primarily related to money.” But Deng is still confident about the future. “Although we don’t yet have a firm material foundation, it doesn’t matter once we start working and can make an effort together.”
Fisher Du, a psychological consultant who specialises in love-related and interpersonal relationships, believes that the lack of interpersonal skills is the key cause of many gangpiao’s love problems. “Due to inadequate opportunities, many of them have failed to improve their social networks positively,” she said. “And they are unfamiliar with how to interact with the opposite sex, especially the people they are interested in, before establishing an emotional relationship.”
“Because humans are social animals, gangpiao should cherish every social opportunity to meet various people and do different things. They should keep calm and be open-minded,” Du noted.by