Hong Kong's Exodus Leaves Behind Neediest

Elderly face abandonment as families flee Chinese takeover in 1997

GRASPING a cane, Kau Tsang glances around his new home, a six-man room with beds separated by light blue curtains in a Hong Kong shelter for the poor and frail. ``I can accept living here,'' says Mr. Tsang after a pause. ``But I would like to follow my son.''

Until last month, Tsang stayed with his only son, daughter-in-law, and four-year-old granddaughter in a modest flat at Taipo, a former fishing village in Hong Kong's New Territories.

But this month Tsang's son, a cook at a Chinese restaurant, will emigrate to Australia. Breaking age-old Confucian precepts on filial piety, he will leave his father behind with $150 a month for room and board.

``If young people want to go, you can't stop them,'' says Tsang, his eyes glistening.

A growing number of Hong Kong elderly like Tsang face abandonment as thousands of families flee in advance of 1997, when the British colony will revert to Chinese rule. About 62,000 people emigrated to Canada, Australia, the United States and other countries last year, up nearly 48 percent from 1989, according to government estimates.

The exodus is hurting not only the elderly, but also the disabled, homeless, poor, unemployed, and others fated to stay behind. Social workers are joining the flight to security and opportunity, leaving a serious shortage of professionals able to meet the growing needs of Hong Kong's destitute.

Mounting pressures on the needy and low-income families are heightening the risk of popular unrest in the territory as China's takeover approaches, social workers say.

``Social workers need to do a lot more in the area of helping people face reality instead of being frustrated and hopeless over 1997,'' says Kay Ku, assistant director of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service.

Ms. Ku and others point to a worrying surge over the past year in the rate of violent crimes, like homicide, robbery, and rape.

``The crime rate is a reaction to psychological instability,'' says Richard Leung, a social worker involved with homeless and elderly. ``When people are concerned about instability, they want to get more in hand, more money, more property.''

Labor disputes are intensifying, with policemen and other civil servants demanding higher wages, partly to help them cope with an uncertain future. The 180,000-strong civil service suffered nearly 30 percent more resignations and retirements in 1989-90 than it did on average in the previous four years.

``People are fighting for better pay and benefits more vocally than ever,'' says Kalei Inn, executive director of the nonprofit social work agency Helping Hand.

Meanwhile, a mood of anxiety mixed with helplessness seems to prevail among Hong Kong's predominantly ethnic Chinese population of 5.6 million, the bulk of which will remain here after 1997.

``I am afraid of the communists coming, but I can't do anything about it,'' says a middle-aged taxi driver as he careens into a hairpin turn on Hong Kong Island. ``Hong Kong will definitely be chaotic. Foreign capitalists won't dare to put their money here,'' says the driver, who, like many residents, is a refugee from China.

Some of the territory's young adults are so troubled by the future that they are postponing marriage and childbearing.

``Young people don't know what kind of place Hong Kong will be after 1997, so they are not having children,'' says Irene Ng, a social worker. ``The best way to play it safe is not to have any burden before 1997.''

Such fears could contribute to the already dramatic decline in Hong Kong's birth rate, which dropped from 16.8 per 1,000 in 1979 to 12.2 per 1,000 a decade later, official figures show.

For elderly like Tsang who are poor and alone, the greatest worry is access to good care.

The approach of 1997 has engendered a ``me-first'' mentality, hastening the breakdown of traditional values that used to oblige children to look after aged parents. More than 14,000 impoverished elderly are on government waiting lists for a current total of 10,300 beds in hostels and care homes, according to the Social Welfare Department.

Some senior citizens fear Chinese rule will bring worse neglect.

``Old people say the Chinese government will let us all starve to death,'' says Virginia Lieu, a retired nurse from Shanghai who lives in a partly government-funded home for elderly.

Ms. Lieu vividly recalls China's catastrophic famine of the early 1960s. Millions starved and her own mother barely survived by eating horse meat. In 1962, Shanghai authorities allowed Lieu's mother to leave for Hong Kong, considering old people ``useless eaters,'' she says.

Neverthless, Lieu doubts things will be that bad after 1997.

``The communists may not give us as much money, but we'll all eat from the `iron rice bowl,''' she says with a grin, using a popular metaphor for Maoist egalitarianism.

Other elderly are more pessimistic.

Wong Bin-lam is an ex-longshoreman who came to Hong Kong as a boy from southern China's Guangdong Province. Mr. Wong's first job was as a shoeshine boy. His last was as a watchman at a construction site, where he lived in a deserted container with scrap wood for a bed and a dog for a companion.

After an injury left him homeless, the hardworking Wong took a bed in a hostel run by Helping Hand, a move that may have saved his life but hurt his pride.

``I am like a beggar,'' says the lanky Wong, bundled in a black sweater and cap. ``We elderly are useless for the Chinese government. When it takes over, we'll have to do whatever it wants.''

Yet despite widespread apprehension, some working-class residents joke that they have nothing to lose from China's takeover.

``I'm not afraid of the communists,'' says newsstand owner Ip Yuk-ying, as she peddles papers at rush hour in the red-light district of Wanchai. ``Only the rich are afraid. I have no money to save.''

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