Migrants learn the hard way

CHAN Yim-kuen loves learning English. Back home in Guangdong, she was one of the few from her school who was chosen to enter an English essay competition.

But since moving to Hong Kong three months ago her favourite subject has turned into a barrier which almost deprived her of local schooling. It took months of tedious inquiries and interviews before the 15-year-old finally obtained a place - in a primary four class normally reserved for nine-or 10-year-olds.

As the mainland-born-and-raised youngster tries to adjust to a vastly different life in Hong Kong, experts believe she and thousands like her need special help to smooth their transition.

The ordeal for new immigrants from China is not confined to problems in just their schooling and language adjustment.

Mainland immigrants, including children who have been separated from other members of their family by the border before coming to Hong Kong, will also encounter family and economic problems after being reunited, according to International Social Service executive director, Stephen Yau How-boa.

'There are many cases where immigrants, both adults and children, find it difficult to adapt to the crowded living conditions in Hong Kong,' he said.

'They may also be disappointed to see their standard of living here may not live up to their expectations.' After completing a 60-hour Education Department induction programme which provides basic English and Cantonese training to newly-arrived mainland children, Yim-kuen was left on her own to cope with the kind of everyday dilemmas inevitable in a strange environment.

Going to school is now an embarrassing experience because of the age gap compared with the rest of the class. With her younger classmates standing together, Yim-kuen towers over them.

'I seldom talk to my classmates because they are all very young,' said Yim-kuen.

'I have to treat them like little sisters.' With a 43 per cent expansion in the immigration quota, more children like Yim-kuen are coming to Hong Kong and stretching the territory's educational and social resources.

From Saturday, the number of daily one-way permits for mainland immigrants will increase from 105 to 150, of which 30 places are reserved for children who have the right of abode after 1997 under the Basic Law.

In most cases, at least one of their parents is a permanent Hong Kong resident.

The expansion is an indication of the Government's will to unite families separated by the border.

However, critics say the results for many are traumatic when the territory's social and educational resources are not ready for the influx.

Like many newly-arrived immigrant children, the first problem facing Yim-kuen was securing a seat in a local school.

She considers herself lucky to have an offer despite having to start at a level where students are several years her junior.

'I am a bit unhappy about being demoted to primary school,' she said. 'Other than English, I am ahead in other subjects such as mathematics.

'Most of the time, I have some elder classmates to keep me company.

'They are all new immigrants like me and we do some additional classwork during recess or lunchtime.' Yim-kuen's seven-year-old brother Wing-pang, who came to Hong Kong with his sister, is still looking for a place in a school, any school.

Her father, a hawker, has already decided to send Wing-pang back to China if he cannot find a place before the start of the new school year in September.

Iris Liu, a social worker who came across many cases similar to the Chans, said the shortage of school places was the biggest obstacle facing newcomers.

Many parents frustrated by rejections from school were forced to send their children back to the mainland to continue their education, according to Ms Liu, who works for the International Social Service (ISS), an agency specialising in providing support services to immigrants.

'So far this year, I already have more than 20 cases of immigrant children unable to find any school place,' Ms Liu said.

'Some of them have been in Hong Kong for more than six months.

'Those aged around 15 and 16 are particularly vulnerable.

'They are unlikely to be accepted by a school if their English is far below standard and it is very difficult to get employment in the existing job market.

'We make inquiries for children like Yim-kuen in the Education Department. All we are given is a list of schools in the district.

'We have to knock on every door and ask if there is any vacancy. Often the children are only placed in a waiting list and nothing will be heard thereafter.' Ms Liu criticised the Education Department for failing to provide sufficient assistance to the immigrant children.

'From my experience, the department often fails to honour its pledge of arranging school interviews for the immigrant children within three weeks,' she said.

Department officials reject the claims and say that most immigrant children can be placed shortly after calling for help.

In the past six months there were about 1,400 successful placements in primary and secondary schools arranged by the department, but spokesman Richard Law Chi-ming said it was more difficult for teenage immigrants to find a school place.

University of Hong Kong Professor Nelson Chow Wing-sun, who lectures in social work and administration, suggested the schooling problem was aggravated by some school administrators being reluctant to accept immigrant pupils for fear of lowering overall academic standards in the school.

The deputy principal of Tsuen Wan Lutheran School, Wan Shau-king, shares Professor Chow's view.

The primary school has accepted more than 30 immigrant children this term.

'There are some schools which refuse to accept immigrants because many of them are over-age and know little English,' Ms Wan said.

Legislative Councillor Cheung Man-kwong, who represents the education constituency, proposed that the Government should provide a six-month preparatory class to improve immigrant children's English standard instead of a mere 60-hour induction.

He believed the move would facilitate faster adaptation among the children and increase their chances of being accepted by schools.

But Mr Cheung doubts his suggestion will be implemented. The cost would be enormous, he said.

Yim-kuen, who has just finished the induction programme, is doing extra English tutorial lessons and hopes to have more English remedial classes to improve her language ability.

A study by Professor Chow on the well-being of mainland immigrants highlighted similar concerns.

'The study shows many newly-arrived immigrants have signs of depression, insomnia and headache,' he said.

'These ailments the immigrants indicated are attributed to the environment, employment problems and poorer family ties after moving to Hong Kong.' Although Yim-kuen does not have any problem living with her father, who used to visit her only once a month in the mainland, she is still struggling with the crowded living conditions in Hong Kong.

Her father used to live alone in a bed-sit.

When the children came, the family moved into a 100-odd square foot room.

'Hong Kong is very crowded and noisy.

'There isn't much space to play and the street is not as clean as I expected,' she said.

'On the mainland, I can play with my cousins.

'But now I have few friends and I can only go to parks and libraries.' She is also now responsible for looking after two younger sisters and a brother because her mother's application to stay in Hong Kong has not been granted.

Both Mr Yau and Professor Chow called for more investigations into the psychological and social difficulties encountered by the immigrants and urged the Government to counter the problems by providing a better welfare system.

Settling in a new environment is never easy, and soon many more mainland children will have to face similar adjustment crises without support.