Rita Lee has lived most of her life in the small village of San Tin, a 5 minute bus ride to the Lok Ma Chau border with China. She talks about how the land in front of her small shop use to be green rice paddies but now it is grey with large transport trucks making their way across to Shenzhen. She complains about the exhaust fumes from the trucks but most of her complaints are about the sidewalks being filled with Mainland Chinese repacking their bags to hide their milk powder to illegally smuggle it back into China where it can be resold at a huge profit.
“People are coming to Hong Kong to buy things is not good for us,” said Lee, 66. “It is not good that mainland produces so many fake things. I hope the Mainland can produce better stuff so they don’t come here to buy our stuff and cause problems.”
The village of San Tin, with a population under 500, has been changing due to the large influx of Mainland Chinese traders coming to buy goods and reselling them back in China. These traders have placed great strain on the local school, transportation system and have led to greater tensions between them and the villagers. The pressures on San Tin reflect the greater pressures on all of Hong Kong.
Citizens in 49 cities, including Shenzhen, can pass through the border to Hong Kong as many times as they wish, after getting a multiple entry visa, under the Individual Visit Scheme. According to Hong Kong Tourism Board, last year, 40 million visitors came from China. The tourism board projects the total visitors, from China, to rise to 100 million by 2023 according to a report issued in February this year.
A number of food safety scandals, like the milk powder controversy in 2008 and the recent rotten meat scandal affecting a number of fast food shops in China have led to many to come to Hong Kong to buy products and resell them in China at a large mark up. These parallel traders have driven up the costs and creating shortages in some items, like milk powder, causing the Hong Kong government to restrict the amount the Chinese are allowed to bring back with them. Smuggling items into China has become a lucrative business not only for the people in China but also for people in Hong Kong.
“Some people who are in the restaurant business quit their job to be part of the trading business,” said Lee. “They make $30 an hour in the restaurants but if they change to this business they can make twice.”
According to District Councilor for San Tin, Chi Sheung Man, the Hong Kong Immigration Department has been tightening restrictions for traders on the border in Lo Wu. This has forced them further west centering in San Tin. Many traders have rented or bought storage containers in the village to keep the goods then employ people to illegally smuggle the goods back into China. Last year, according to the Immigration Department, over 1,062 were arrested for parallel trading and 12, 800 have been denied entry to Hong Kong for the same reasons.
Some of the storage containers are found behind the village school, Tun Yu School where 85 percent of the students are from China. Since people in Guangdong are allowed to cross the border, many moms came to have their babies here and thus their children have the right to a Hong Kong education. The amount of people trying to get into Tun Yu School has caused many strains. For the first time in its 96 year history, the school needed to hold an interviews to admit students for Primary 1 as 147 students applied for 90 spots. The school has also increased its class size from 25 four years ago to 30 students per class meaning the teacher-student ratio is getting worse.
The school has constructed a classroom in the hall to accommodate an extra class and has applied to build additional classrooms on the basketball courts to double its size. If approved, construction will begin next year and will not be finished for two years after. An additional pressure on the school is when the students go home at 3:30 pm every day.
The students must wait with the traders as well as students from other schools in Yuen Long, who are dropped off to take the same mini-bus. In all, more than 100 people are lining up for the mini-bus at the end of each school day. Before, students at Tun Yu School, waited 15 minutes for a mini-bus; now it takes an hour or two just to get on the bus.
“Since July, there are tons of parallel traders fighting for the mini bus to cross the border. The fights affect about 60 students,” said Hang Hin Chan Principal at the school. “The mini-bus gives priority to the students to board the bus after school. The parallel traders are not happy about this and swear at the kids. We ask our teachers to help the kids board the bus because of the swearing by the traders.”
Mr Chan has been asking help from the village and from the district councilor but the situation has not improved. The mini-bus company has increased the frequency of the mini-bus but students still have a long wait. Some students have changed to take a different mini-bus to Sheung Shui then the MTR to Lok Ma Chau but it takes an hour or longer and is almost double the price of the mini-bus. It is too much time and money for some students. The school has asked the MTR to reduce its fee, for cross border school children in half. The MTR rejected the idea.
In February, a study by the Transportation Department issued a report stating the East Rail Line, connecting the border with Hong Hum Station, has already reached capacity of 4 people per square meter and the corporation needs to find ways to help alleviate the congestion on the line. Many people do not think there is any way to help solve the problems caused by the influx of mainlanders into Hong Kong.
“I don’t think the government can help,” said Lee. She also said how the government is “always China first so they can’t do anything to help us.”
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