Some 50,000 mainland Chinese people obtain one-way permits to move to Hong Kong each year.
They then have to wait a further seven years before gaining residency and, in the meantime, have no status whatsoever and no access to healthcare, education, or public housing.
They suffer routine discrimination, even from other migrants who have already gained residency, and live in pitiable and squalid conditions - for example, a family of five can often live within a space of 100 square feet.
For some, this raises problems of mental as well as physical illness, and their only help comes from the New Women Arrivals League, which lobbies on their behalf and supports them however they can.
By San San F Young
As a Hong Kong native, I am fiercely proud of my home; its evolution through a colourful history; its cosmopolitan energy; and its status as one the world’s most exciting and successful cities. We are also a thriving financial and commercial centre with a cultured, educated population and we are surrounded by panoramic skylines and idyllic hidden beaches. It is for these reasons that I understand why many Hong Kong locals feel so threatened by what is seen as the "mainland invasion".
Since border controls relaxed after the 1997 British Handover, cross-border travel and migration has risen to high levels. Around 35 million mainland Chinese visited Hong Kong last year, with over 50,000 permanently moving to the small, already crowded city.
Anyone born in Hong Kong is automatically entitled to free schooling and other benefits, which is probably why a significant number of mainland Chinese women come specifically to give birth on Hong Kong soil. As a result native mothers struggle to find space in maternity wards. Non-native women now account for half of all births.
Locals blame the rich mainlanders for turning the city into a shopping mall and forcing up property prices, while the poor are blamed for burdening the system. Complaints also include corrupt cross-border traders, political influence, convenience-marriages, Chinese air-pollution travelling south, pressure on welfare systems, and generally what is seen as a threat to the native Canton culture.
Although we are undeniably and often very happily intertwined, mainland Chinese and Hong Kong Cantonese can consider themselves very different. mainlanders are painted by locals as uncouth and unsubtle, while mainlanders respond by calling people from Hong Kong " The Running Dogs Of The British” - a people who have forgotten their loyalty.
Most worrying to me is how this rocky integration after the handover has evolved into a racism that is now in constant circulation. In songs and on viral videos online, mainlanders are called "locust aliens" and their children "spawn". They are accused of having no manners, spitting and defecating on the street. One particularly discriminatory song, The Locust Song , was so popular, it inspired flash mobs of people to pop up and sing it at mainland tourists while they shopped downtown.
So it is in this context that I met some members of the New Arrivals Women’s League. The group is headed by the indomitable Yeung Mei, who is passionate about protecting these vulnerable mainland women and the freedom to voice their concerns. Yeung Mei explained how her family had been persecuted in the Cultural Revolution, which left her afraid to speak out. At the end of the film she says, "Hong Kong is like an expansive sky". It is, of course, another reason we must welcome our new arrivals.
During a gathering of the migrant rights group, I was introduced to Ching, a mother who had recently arrived with her family. In the corner, there she was, heavily pregnant, detached and anxious. Ching had come from a poor rural village and, even among migrants in Hong Kong, was considered to be of the lowest status. Her family were not skilled at farming and so did not have much food. Despite her hardship, she told me that she had always been taught that no matter how bad things were, to put on a brave face. When walking past the other villagers, to hide their empty produce baskets, they would stuff the bottoms with straw and put the small amount of sweet potatoes they had on the top, then walk past with their heads held high.
Ching was always like this. When we would visit she would not have any food in the house but she still managed to transform herself into the most lovable and generous host. There were days when she would speak about suicidal thoughts but then she would lift her head and carry on.
Sin, another mainland Chinese migrant, is also someone who deals with deep frustration, having sacrificed her life for the sake of her twins’ education. In China she had a big house, a family, friends, and she loved her work. Once she moved to Hong Kong, she became an isolated housewife in a rundown partition home. Her one hope is to be allocated public housing, a cheaper and larger government flat, to ease the pressure financially and mentally. But almost seven years later they remain on the waiting list.
Housing is certainly the most pressing concern for many Hong Kong residents. Landlords offer tiny cubicles of living space at high prices and many of the women end up being exploited or vulnerable in unsafe areas. Rented bunk-beds, apartments subdivided to cram in more tenants, the so-called "cage homes", bed spaces made of wire-mesh and stacked wooden box "coffin homes" are some of the inventive solutions landlords have found to offer cheaper accommodation. These spaces house immigrants, low-income workers, the elderly, those on welfare, the vulnerable and the mentally ill.
This is Hong Kong’s housing shame, our hidden poor in a vastly wealthy society.