Haiku Friday – Wanderer

Sticky, heavy light
oppresses the rooftops
I am forced to squint




Haiku Friday is hosted by LouCeel. Feel free to add your own, or go check out his work!


90-day Mainland Mothers

China’s one-child policy is changing Hong Kong’s future at a speed that is out of control. Recent changes have looked to halt the run-away train, but is there enough being done to prepare for the future?

A Typical Chinese New Year Poster

Recently I was out speaking with a group of women in Hong Kong, one of whom was heavily pregnant. The conversation turned to the best place to give birth in this well developed city. “Any place that I can get a bed,” replied the soon-to-be mum. What? I thought, expecting that like in other countries, booking a bed in a hospital would be a routine affair. Apparently not.

“I’ve been trying to book a bed since I knew I was coming to Hong Kong 5 months ago,” said the mum. So what’s the trouble? I wanted to know.”They’re all booked. Chinese mainland mums have taken over the availability and now it’s really hard to get a bed,” she said in a matter of fact tone.  I searched the faces of the other women in the room to gauge their reactions. None registered any surprise. So I decided to find out more.

Why would mainland Chinese mothers would want to cross the border to give birth? My guess: that Hong Kong has better facilities, and that the treatment standards are higher, hasn’t been corroborated.  A study by The Lancet conducted from 1996 to 2008 showed that China has been encouraging women to give birth in hospitals instead of at home, which has resulted in infant mortality dropping by 62% in the study period, which shows that the facilities are keeping the babies healthy and should provide some confidence to mothers in the country.

However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) administration has more than one reason to encourage mothers to attend hospital to give birth – the one child policy is still alive and well in most regions. The Economist recently reported that the Guangdong region – China’s most populous- has applied to relax the family planning rules.  Guangdong shares a border with Hong Kong, so it seems more than a coincidence that the provincial official’s plea to relax the rules comes at the same time there is rapid increase in the amount of women giving birth in what is essentially another country.

The web is crawling with accounts of the heavy price a mother must pay if she is caught pregnant with a second child under the one child policy. In 2007, Annie Hung Tsz Bun  reported an account of a Guangdong Province woman that chose to give birth in Hong Kong. One of the reasons she gave for choosing Hong Kong was that she knew of a 7-months pregnant mother of one being caught by the authority, retained in custody and given two options.  Either receive an abortion or be fined 180000 RMB.

“Now as long as you pay HK$39000, you can give birth here legally. It is better than giving birth in the Mainland,” the mother said.

So outmaneuvering the People’s Republic is one reason for border hopping births. The more attractive reason is the right of abode given to any child born in Hong Kong.That means free education, health care, social welfare and the ability to fly to over 130 countries without a visa. With such an attractive proposition on offer, it’s easy to understand why in 2010, about 41,000 women (half the total HK births) decided to invest in the future of their child by giving birth across the border.

Typically mainland mothers need to plan carefully to give birth in Hong Kong, as they must attend at least 3 check ups in the city during their pregnancy. With this cost, and the actual cost of the birth (around 39,000 HKD for a public hospital) many mainland mothers check themselves out after only 2 or 3 days. This has raised concerns about follow on check ups for both the mother and the newborn infant, particularly for those that decide at the last minute to check in to an accident and emergency instead of planning ahead.

For this reason as well as the ever increasing strain on the healthcare system, not to mention the lack of planning in the education and welfare sectors, in April the Health Authority put a halt on any new birth arrangements from mainland mothers for the rest of 2011. Unfortunately for mainland women married to local Hong Kong residents, this broad brush approach included them, much to the outrage of community action groups.

Was this action timed precisely to avert the potential 2012 ‘dragon baby’ boom that I covered in a previous post? Or is it simply a measure to allow the system to play catch up, on what appears to be a run-away train of knock-on effects, that have not been well considered since they first began allowing right of abode to children born in this city?

One can only assume that as the children mature, and take advantage of this opportunity, the challenge for parents will be extreme. I’ve contacted multiple charity organizations to inquire if they provide any support services to these families – who ostensibly don’t speak the local language, and are not well informed about the kind of public or infrastructure support available to aid them. To date, I have not been able to find any evidence of a functioning support service for what locally is referred to as ’90 day mothers’ – i.e. Mothers with a 90 day visa for Hong Kong, but who have children with a right to abode.

Unless the government works diligently to provide enough resources within education, healthcare and also for support services, and unless charity organizations prepare to take up the slack where there is danger of people falling through the cracks – there may be considerable social, health and welfare implications for the children in the future.

I’ll be watching this space.

The Trend & The Tailor

Women across Asia are eyeing fast fashion. Will this signal the demise of local tailors?

There’s a lady at a sewing machine across the border from Hong Kong, in the special economic zone of Shenzhen, China. By midday every day, she has 6 or 7 customers sitting at her cluttered desk that’s covered in magazines and drawings of clothing, tape measures and scissors. She is aware of the trends as her customer’s requests change, but what she may not realize is that another trend may be about to have a major impact on her business.

Seamstress Working Daguerreotype 1853 by Daguerre Posters

Fast fashion is spreading across Asia, as retailers set up shop to capture growth in the emerging middle class markets. Brands such as Zara, Mango, and H&M already have a large presence in Hong Kong and Gap is looking to join them within the next month – the scaffolding outside their Central store is already tempting the busy pedestrian walkway with their wholesome American images.

It’s good news for the companies involved, and bad news for local Asia brands such as Esprit, Uniqlo and Girodano. Esprit has seen its share price fall to 9 year lows due to a weak outlook as analysts’ lose confidence in the business’ ability to compete in the new market conditions. But what effect will the spread of fast fashion in Asia have on a more macro level?

If we look at more well developed markets as an indicator, then we can assume women will buy a lot more clothing than they used to. As closet space is more of an issue for most of Asian women’s closets than their western counterparts, it’s also safe to assume that they will be turning over goods at a higher rate.

Yes, it means they’ll be buying more, and throwing it away at the same rate.

Between 2001 and 2005 in Britain, fashion spending grew 21%, yet the individual cost per item in the same period decreased by 14%. This allowed women to effectively consume half of their body weight in clothing on a year on year basis.

In Asia, there isn’t a well developed culture of recycling clothing, and apart from a few notable exceptions, there isn’t a well developed charity infrastructure to distribute used clothing to those in need. Every day on Victoria harbour I watch large ships leave the docks filled with rubbish, on their way North to create landfill. It’s my guess that a lot of the fast fashion purchasing will eventually end up as part of that cycle – especially given the low quality of the goods. T-shirts become stretched, stained or grow holes. Shoes wear thin after only a few months of wear, and seams rip or tear, rendering the item unwearable. These factors have fed into the fast fashion counter campaigns in other regions of the world.

In Hong Kong, I don’t think the plethora of Indian tailors toting custom suits will be affected. They regularly receive orders from across the globe, and canvas hard for new sales from the tourist population. The market for an affordable custom made suit could be more readily analysed by global jobs figures and the performance of the financial markets than the fast fashion expansion.

I do fear for the future of the thriving tailoring marketplace geared toward women’s clothing. Across the border in Shenzhen, China, the tailors I frequent will custom make a dress for around US $15, around the same price as an item at a fast fashion retailer. I regularly trawl through the huge selection of fabric at the markets, choosing something to have made up based on photographs I provide, or a hand drawn image. The tailor I go to (Shop number 19, Western Style Clothing) has a good eye and the quality of the goods are satisfactory.

Like fast fashion goods, the quality isn’t exceptional, for that money one doesn’t gain access to an ‘atelier’ service, but unlike fast fashion, what one does end up with is a perfectly serviceable well-fitted item of clothing that lasts well, if you choose your fabric carefully. It’s also a totally affordable way to access what should otherwise be considered the luxury of having tailor-made clothing. I’m also quite certain that the more you frequent the tailor, the quality of the workmanship increases, which cannot be said for fast fashion.

There are hundreds of tailors across the border, and plenty more here in Hong Kong that deal with women’s clothing. When I go into Zara, or H&M, I think of them. As a result, I simply note down some of the features I like about an item rather than purchasing it, and continue on with design ideas in mind to take to ‘MY tailor’, who can sometimes make it up that day. Or I shop for patterns instead, some kind people even give them away for free!

It's easy to smile when a tailor makes you a lovely dress from a pattern you got for free!

One for the – err, windowsill?

Can facing three cans of beer due north really bring you luck? Does the alignment of your plants really influence the happiness you’ll have in a marriage? If you change the position of a painting, will you become wealthier or healthier? There’s a thriving industry in Hong Kong that suggests all of this, and more, is possible.

In my last post I explored the idea that there will be an Asia baby boom in 2012 as couples race to bestow the characteristics of the dragon upon their children. Once my eyes were opened to this trend, I couldn’t help but reflect on just how ingrained ancient cultural traditions such as Feng Shui are within the culture of Hong Kong locals.

At the beginning of winter last year, when everyone in the office was coming down with colds and flu, our team had begun to feel (rightly) that none of us had been untouched by illness. Rather than wearing masks like the Japanese, or doing weekly desk cleans as we had done in Sydney, the team decided to invest in the services of a Feng Shui expert.

According to Wikipedia, Feng Shui is an ancient Chinese system of aesthetics believed to use the laws of both Heaven (Chinese astronomy) and Earth to help one improve life by receiving positive qi.

I knew we’d agreed to have the expert come in, but then a few weeks later I was surprised to find a portly Chinese man in bright orange overalls, pacing around the open plan office. I had no idea what he was doing, and I certainly didn’t think he was ‘the’ expert. He didn’t have a long wiry beard, he wasn’t wearing spectacles, and he didn’t even have greying hair or a look of perfect serenity about him. The only give-away was his weight, which perfectly exemplified the phrase “He was worth his weight in gold” which we duly found out when the bill for his services arrived.

According to his plans, we each had to make small changes to our space, placing a gold item here, a plant there, a coloured scarf on the chair. I thought it was quite fun, and I’m always happy to participate in a cultural activity, so I made all the suggested changes with care.

Around the same time of the year, we had a routine rental inspection conducted by the landlady. I was expecting the usual cut and dried form with a check list of all the things we were ruining by living in the apartment (and therefore a jolly good reason for her to raise the rent). Instead, what we got was a checklist of Feng Shui recommendations.

“I noticed you have the upside down good luck picture on your door,” she started. “That was good for last year, but this year you have to move it so that it is facing the other wall. Keep it upside down, that brings luck.”

“The position of the plants is good, but put something red in the corner. And go and buy three cans of beer and put them on the windowsill facing North,” she said. Each time she spoke to me for months afterwards she inquired about the beer.

For some reason this was a sticking point for me. I didn’t want to put cans of beer on my windowsill. It reminded me of university days, when my friends would collect all the empty bottles of alcohol they’d consumed and place them around their rooms like trophies, and aim to out do each other with variety or quantity or both. Three cans wouldn’t cut it by any of these measures, now would it? And the beer would just go warm, so that visitors who decided they’d like to crack open the well placed morsel would be rewarded by flat, warm beer. Besides which, I’m not all that fond of beer.

It took many more months to realise that it wasn’t actually the beer that was important. Rather, it was the BRAND. Kirin beer, from Japan, insisted my landlady. More weeks passed, and then it came to light that it wasn’t beer at all. In actual fact, the cans depict a kind of dragon. By placing three cans of beer on the windowsill, I would actually be placing three dragons.

A Kirin Dragon

Once I finally understood that, I’ve been on the lookout for suitable dragons. The year is almost over, and I’ve not found three that I’d like to place on the ledge and look at every day. I’m almost certain that my next rental inspection will yield a new set of rules, so I’m not too upset that I missed out this year.

Still, I can’t help but wonder – how might my life have changed if I’d purchased and displayed three Kirin beers on my windowsill?