Still waiting after all these years

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 June, 2012, 12:00am


Chen Xiaozhi was looking forward to 1997 and the family reunion she was sure it would bring. Fifteen years on, she is still waiting for permanent residency in Hong Kong - and the stresses and humiliation of the delay have taken her to the brink of suicide and back.

Chen, 50, is an illiterate mother of three children living on short-term visas in Hong Kong. Her Hong Kong husband died in 1998, before she was able to acquire permanent residency. His death left her ineligible for the one-way permit that would let her settle in the city. Instead, she has been returning to the mainland every three months and has to stay for a week while she applies for yet another two-way permit.

Chen married a Hong Kong construction worker, who she met through her parents, in 1987. But she was barred from moving to Hong Kong to live with him. Instead she lived with his parents, in Guangdong. 'Whenever I thought of 1997 I was very happy because I thought the family could reunite then,' she says.

Immediately after the handover she applied for a travel visa from the mainland but heard nothing about her application as the year ended and 1998 began.

Just before the mid-autumn festival - a traditional time for Chinese family unions - she received the news that changed her life: her husband had died.

Not long after his death, Chen's relationship with her mother-in-law deteriorated, forcing her and her three children out of the home.

In 2002 she left her eldest daughter to study in Guangzhou and brought her two sons, then 10 and seven, to Hong Kong to live with her husband's brother and try her luck at gaining residency.

But life was not easy for them in Hong Kong. The uncle could take only the two children, leaving Chen to sleep on the streets for more than two years.

'I walked around every night; I could not sleep much,' she says. 'I was very depressed. At first I really thought about committing suicide with my two sons. I really didn't want to live on,' she recalls, her eyes filling with tears.

Being poor and having no identity card, Chen's confidence was low and she feared having to go out. 'When I went to the wet market, those Cantonese-speaking people looked down on me because of my accent,' she says.

She was then referred to some shelters and later, when the Hong Kong Immigration Department issued identity cards to her two sons in 2006, they applied for social welfare.

Now she lives on HK$7,000 in welfare from her two sons, spending nearly half of it on rent, water and electricity. Chen lives in a subdivided flat of just 200 square feet with her two sons - now 19 and 16 - in Tsuen Wan. Her daughter, in her 20s, lives on her own.

She says the handover seemed limited to 'the policy side'. 'But people's mindset has not undergone a handover. There is still discrimination everywhere,' she says. When the ill-feeling is particularly intense she wears a mask so fewer people will recognise her as a mainlander.

Chen says conflicts between mainlanders and Hongkongers are getting more serious because local people think they are competing for resources such as hospital beds.

After Hong Kong was hit hard by the Sars pandemic in 2003, Beijing allowed mainland travellers to visit the city on an individual basis rather than on tours. 'But it does not help me,' Chen says. 'The scheme is none of my business. It is for rich people to visit Hong Kong and do shopping. It cannot help poor people like us.'

And so, every three months, Chen leaves her two sons and returns to the mainland to apply for yet another short-term visa, paying out between 1,000 and 1,500 yuan. 'I am really disappointed,' she says. 'My sons were born to a Hong Kong father. I was married to a Hong Kong man. Why can't I come permanently to Hong Kong?'