Big Apple offers Hong Kong a good example of why it should embrace immigrants

Big Apple offers a good example of how to embrace the diversity and skills of immigrants

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 February, 2014, 4:47am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 February, 2014, 4:47am

These days on television, when you see a reporter hit the streets with a cameraman for impromptu interviews, the chances are the response will be given in heavily accented Cantonese, betraying the mainland origin of the speakers.

The tremendous growth in the number of mainlanders now living in Hong Kong is a significant part of a larger narrative that is transforming Hong Kong.

Should it be cause for alarm or celebration?

Some people may point to this as an unmistakable sign of the city's increasing "mainlandisation". To this, a New Yorker would probably say "You kidding me?"

Imagining what New Yorkers would say about the mainlander diaspora in Hong Kong is not as idle an exercise as it seems. Today, the Big Apple is one of the most diverse cities on the planet.

How the city that never sleeps maintains its status as the world's financial and cultural capital while taking in immigrants not only from China and Mexico but also India, Russia, Ecuador and Haiti holds valuable lessons for us all.

Some of these lessons can be found in the report recently published by New York's City Planning Department.

Titled "The Newest New Yorkers", the 235-page document gives a detailed statistical analysis of the city's increasingly important immigrant population, tracing where the newest arrivals have come from, where they have made their homes, the jobs they have taken, what difference they have made to the economy, as well as the various ways in which they have reshaped the city.

According to the report, the city's immigrant population has reached a record high of 3.1 million, accounting for about 37 per cent of the overall population of slightly over eight million.

The Chinese population, now totalling around 350,000, has grown 34 per cent since 1990. The Chinese now make up the city's second largest immigrant group, following closely behind Dominicans, who number around 380,000 residents.

From 2002 to 2011, the report says, China was also the single largest source of legally admitted immigrants in New York City.

Has the influx of Chinese raised the cry of "yellow peril" or incited fear of the red menace among New Yorkers? Not at all.

In fact, by and large New Yorkers have welcomed the Chinese people with open arms, just as they have extended the same hospitality to the people who came from Trinidad and Tobago.

Why shouldn't they? Accounting for 47 per cent of all employed residents and disproportionately represented among those who start new businesses, the foreign-born provide New York with a continuous injection of economic vitality.

Then there is the all-important issue of cultural diversity. No visitor to New York can fail to be amazed by the richness and diversity of its culture.

Time and again, this cultural diversity and difference has proved its value for social cohesion and as a driving force for development.

Hong Kong, of course, isn't New York, all the more reason for us to learn from her success in harnessing the talent and determination of its immigrants.


Perry Lam is a local cultural critic