Tempted by a rapidly changing mainland China, more Hongkongers are going north to study or get married

The road to reunification between Hong Kong and mainland China has been a bumpy one over the past 20 years and their relationship has, if anything, become even more sensitive in recent years. In the second of a three-part series that also looks at healthcare and retirement options, here we ask whether integration has offered more education and marriage opportunities?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 June, 2017, 1:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 June, 2017, 4:56pm

Going north has long been a path taken by those seeking their fortune, but increasingly young people chasing degrees or even looking for love are following in their footsteps.

Many who make the move are attracted by the rapid changes the mainland is going through. By leaving their comfort zone they aim to achieve greater personal development and make the most of new opportunities.

Esther Chan Yuen-yan, a 22-year-old Hong Kong native who will graduate from the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine this summer, is among a number of city youngsters pursuing their studies over the border.

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Beijing’s reputation for education in traditional medicine and its diverse environment prompted her to leave home five years ago. “People from various provinces seek medical help here, so I may encounter cases not found in Hong Kong,” Chan says.

The number of local students applying to mainland universities reached a high this year, accounting for 4.2 per cent of Diploma of Secondary Education candidates.

Mainland students, on the other hand, have also enjoyed a more prominent presence in Hong Kong tertiary institutions since the handover. According to an audit report released last October, they accounted for 76 per cent of non-local university students in 2015/2016.

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Eddy Lee Man-ho, director of the China Education Centre, says that in earlier years, Hong Kong students at mainland universities mostly majored in Chinese medicine and business. Recently, areas such as foreign languages, music and film-making have also become popular.

“If you major in Korean or Russian and study in Beijing or Shanghai, it’s very easy to find a language exchange partner ... the environment is a lot more international than expected,” Lee says.

However cultural differences may still present barriers to cross-border students.

Chan, who takes classes designated for those from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, says: “I used to study in a secondary school with English as the medium of instruction.

I don’t understand why other Hongkongers would get emotional and why our society could be that tense
Esther Chan Yuen-yan

“But here, I study biology and chemistry in Chinese, which I found difficult.”

“Some teachers also speak dialects ... as a native Cantonese speaker, I couldn’t understand everything in Putonghua.”

As for the different learning approaches adopted by students, Chan said: “Mainland students seem to prefer burying themselves in books, but students from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau would rather learn through practice.”

Despite the initial hurdles, Chan has decided to stay in Beijing for three more years after graduation to complete her masters’ studies.

Chan would sometimes volunteer for medical consultations at local communities with her classmates.

“The mainland has developed rapidly. I’m glad that I could witness those changes, such as the growth of shared bikes and online payment platforms,” she said.

But at the same time, she has also lost track of the social and political tensions in Hong Kong in the past few years.

“I don’t understand why other Hongkongers would get emotional and why our society could be that tense,” says Chan, who did not jump over the “wall of online censorship” in mainland which blocked many Hong Kong news websites.

Tony Ng Ka-wai, 30, who moved to Beijing as a student in 2005, works in public relations in the capital, where he believes there are better career prospects.

He married his partner from Chengdu last year and they now have a baby girl.

Ng says unlike before when working class men went to the mainland in search of partners, China’s economic transformation has seen more cross-border marriages involving those from middle-class families.

“If a mainlander has received a good education and even studied abroad, his or her values could be close to a Hongkonger’s,”Ng said. “Marrying a mainlander could be no different from marrying a person from Europe or the United States.”

“There are many types of mainlanders ... those who are noisy and act strangely in Hong Kong just represent a small number,” he added.

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The gender patterns of such marriages have also changed over the past 20 years. Official statistics show that more Hong Kong women are marrying mainland men. The number has increased 13 times from 366 in 1997 to 5,001 last year.

Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai, who specialises in population studies at the University of Hong Kong, puts the rise down to more city women working on the mainland.