Space invaders

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 March, 2005, 12:00am

LACK OF SPACE and financial burdens are concerns for big families living in Hong Kong, says Janet Liu Hon-yi, a 22-year-old masters degree student who is one of five children between 25 and 17. But there are benefits.

'My parents have never said why they had so many children, but I've heard them say they wanted to have one more son after me, so they'd have two pairs: one of daughters and one of sons,' Liu says.

'But I've never believed that was the main reason. They didn't plan at that time. They had as many children as they believed they could handle.

'Our family as big, but not very big. Most of my friends have one or two siblings. I think it's OK to have seven family members. I love having siblings, but in an ideal world I'd have only two or three.

'I want more than one child because single children have poorer interpersonal skills. When we were young, our mother taught us to share. We were told that teamwork was important. I see my siblings as part of me. Their money is my money. We've learnt how to love each other and to be more considerate.

'I also know my brothers' and sisters' friends, so I have a good network of friends of different ages. Another advantage is that the five of us have different strong points, and we're in charge of different things in the family.

'At festival times, our crowded home has a real festive atmosphere. We still manage to spare one of us to be a waiter or waitress while the rest of us play mahjong.

'There'll be less pressure on us all in taking care of our parents when they get older. On the other hand, if there weren't so many of us, we'd have fewer burdens. There's the financial burden. If we have $100, on average each of us gets only $20. In a two-child family, each child gets $50.

'Also our house is crowded. Our home is about 400 to 600sqft and the table isn't big enough for all of us to sit together.

'As for Tsang's proposal, I don't know. It's hard to persuade people to have more children. The government has to tell peo

ple when they need to start saving money if they want to have children. They have to prove to those middle-class families that it's affordable to have babies.

'And there are good reasons why people don't want to have babies. Women have to give up their jobs to raise children. And many people would like to send their kids overseas for education, which costs a lot of money. We want to bring children into the world to enjoy life and don't want them to suffer.

'One reason I study hard is because I want to buy a bigger house for my family and improve our living standard, but I suppose that's one of the benefits of a big family because it made me work harder.'

Physics masters student Amy Yau Suet-man usually gets a stunned reaction when she reveals that she's one of seven sisters, aged between 31 and 21. At 22, she's sixth in line. With five still at home in their 800sqft flat, Yau says that even getting to the bathroom can be difficult:

'My father wanted to have a son. Perhaps he believed in the traditional view [that it's better to have a son than a daughter]. He must be disappointed.

'My classmates are stunned when they find out I have six sisters. It wasn't so unusual to have such a big family years ago, but it is in this generation.

'My sisters and I are pretty close and we get on well. Our home is always crowded and we're never bored.

'Many childhood games, such as role-playing - like running a store or a school - require a lot of people and different roles. With so many in our family, we managed to have teachers, classmates and even prefects when we 'ran' a school.

'But we're always fighting over something - usually the bathroom. If I had a choice I'd have one to two siblings only.

'Sharing is one of the hardest parts of being in a big family. Other kids have more toys, while we have to share. I've never had my own room or my own bed. Three of us share a bedroom and I sleep with one of my sisters.

'We lived in an even smaller house when we were little - there were only two bedrooms. My eldest sister and the fifth one slept in the sitting room, four of us slept in one bedroom, and my parents and youngest sister were in the other.

'At primary school, everyone knew

we were sisters and it was hard to avoid comparisons - especially from the teachers. My younger sister wasn't happy when the teachers told her that her sisters were outstanding. That's why some of us went to different secondary schools.

'We shared clothes - particularly school uniforms. I hated not having a new one. At secondary school my uniform was a cheongsam, which has to be tailor-made to fit perfectly. As a hand-me-down, mine was a bit big. This was most obvious when I was in Form One when everyone had new uniforms.

'And not all of us could continue our education. My third-eldest sister is brilliant, but couldn't continue to Form Six. She said she wanted to ensure the rest of us could go to university ... and we did, so I always feel as if she paid for my studies.

'When I was young, my father was the only one earning because my mother needed to take care of us. I was aware of the financial pressures ever since I was in Primary One, when my oldest sister started working. She had to work full-time as well as do part-time jobs at night.

'We always had less material things than other kids. We didn't celebrate birthdays because we couldn't afford a celebration nearly every month.

'I think it's best to have one or, at most, two children. It's too expensive to have too many kids - both in terms of finance and the effort needed to teach and raise them. The ideal for me would be to get married at 27 or 28, and have my first child before 30.

Housewife Leung Chan Siu-chun, 57, grew up in a family of nine children in the days when big families were more the norm in Hong Kong. She has one child:

'People had big families then. They didn't know about contraceptives. My parents didn't receive any sex education.

'I was happy to have so many brothers and sisters. It was good to play in a big group and we played on the streets with other kids. We took care of each other and discussed things among ourselves.

'Society was less complicated then and there were fewer temptations. It's too difficult to raise so many children in this era because there are so many bad people and due to financial considerations.

'One disadvantage for me was that there wasn't enough care to go round. Our parents could only provide us with the basics such as feeding us and reminding us to go to school. They didn't communicate with us or help us with our homework.

'Parents weren't so bothered about children's studies so I often skipped lessons when I was in kindergarten.

'There wasn't much privacy. All of us, including my parents, had to live in the same room.

'We also had beds in the corridor. I remember we'd have to cut an orange into pieces to ensure we all got a slice or two.

'Today, none of my siblings' homes is big enough to accommodate the 39 people in my father's family, so we often go to restaurants to have reunions or gatherings.

'I wanted two children, but was able to have only one. If you can afford it, I think it's OK to have three or four like Tsang suggested. Three is a reasonable number.

'It's a good suggestion in the long term because of our ageing society. If there are too many elderly people and too few young people, the burden on young people grows and they'll have to pay more tax. It may seem OK now, but in 10 years' time, Hong Kong's medical expenses will increase and we'll need more young people to support the society.'