In the days before technical colleges and vocational training institutions, how did Hong Kong’s young people acquire marketable job skills? Many young men started on-the-job apprenticeships at the age of 12 to 14. They ate with the other workers, slept in the business premises at night and had only a few days off each year. Depending on the nature of the trade, apprenticeships could last up to a decade, during which time an apprentice’s job consumed his entire waking life. Employers and co-workers became his pseudofamily, with these relationships implied in terms of rivalries and friendships, alliances and feuds.
Domestic servants started out in much the same way. A young woman would be introduced into a prospective household by someone already working there and – in return for room and board, clothing and a very modest allowance – would learn the ropes. As well as acquiring skills, a prospective domestic worker would gain a solid idea of what her future entailed. After a year or so, she would either progress to being a properly paid member of the household or, more likely, move on to a new employer. The “makee-learn” amah – and her various trials and errors – was a long-established China coast figure, and features vividly in many period memoirs.
Becoming an assistant to a successful small-business man could be very profitable, however. More than a few “self-made” Hong Kong Chinese tycoons started life as promising assistants in prosperous small businesses and subsequently – through luck or design – married the boss’ daughter. It was a way of keeping talent in the family circle, rather than allowing it to become unwelcome competition later on. Budding tycoons found their father-in-law’s capital and connections provided access to far more lucrative business undertakings, and the rest – as they say – is history. For “face” reasons, just where various now-aged plutocrats got their starts in life is usually airbrushed from polite conversation.
Today’s corporatised world has “interns” instead of “makeelearns”. Through internship placements, young people attempt to gain professional experience through unpaid work. In theory, these opportunities significantly enhance their skill sets and help create a CV that should eventually enable them to land a plum paid job.
In companies such as investment banks and international law firms, internships are a form of extended interview, which enables new hires to fit more exactly into the corporate culture. But in other areas – journalism is a notorious example – internships provide a revolving door of (allegedly) skilled graduates to do a few months of unpaid donkey work in return for the chance to compete for an ever-diminishing number of full-time jobs. In these circumstances, internships can be little more than a dispiriting race to the bottom of the employment market.
In addition, these stints grant further privilege to people whose family circumstances allow them the luxury of working unpaid for a few months, thanks to a cost-of-living subsidy from the Bank of Mum and Dad. But for those whose family finances mean they have to enter paid employment straight from school, these internships merely epitomise Hong Kong’s mounting social inequality – and rising levels of serious youth discontent.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong