Narrowing the gulf

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 March, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 March, 2000, 12:00am


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It is nearly impossible to exaggerate the misery experienced by Hong Kong's divided families. There are few sadder spectacles than those of young fathers struggling to raise two or three children in cramped rented rooms, far from mainland mothers they cry for constantly and see perhaps once a year.

Not surprisingly, if children or father fall sick, many wives are tempted to cross the border illegally. The Guangdong Security Bureau's plan to let women cross for lengthy family visits twice every year, rather than once, will reduce that practice. More importantly, it will enable mothers to spend at least half the year with their families, giving children a semblance of normal life and allowing couples more time to adjust to life together.

Mainland authorities are beginning to acknowledge the social problems that separation causes, and its hardship for couples who have never experienced life together despite years of marriage. And the Hong Kong social services who have to pick up the pieces when things go wrong, as they often do.

It is not until husband and wife are finally united on a one-way permit that the worst problems come to the surface. People who have become virtual strangers over the years find they have only the children to keep them together. Men tend to resent new restrictions on their liberty; wives have to adjust to an alien city without support from family members. The whole family often must cope with prejudice. And however hard life may seem on the mainland, homes can be spacious compared to the cramped quarters in Hong Kong.

Instead of fulfilling a dream, reunion can turn into nightmare. Marital breakdowns and wife battering are familiar problems to the social workers and self-help groups who try to help families settle into their new lives.

The new scheme is not perfect. Quotas remain, and there may be resentment if other deserving cases are pushed to the back of the queue to give wives priority. But it is an advance on the present situation. It will enable men to become breadwinners, wives to be mothers and children to gain a greater sense of security if families can be together for more of the year.