‘Escaping’ back to Mainland China

By Bonnie Lee

On the night of Sept. 3, 1975, five Finsen lamps were flickering at the Hong Kong Marine Police pier on the Lau Fau Hill. They were safeguarding the border of two worlds separated by Deep Bay. One was socialism in Mainland China; the other was capitalism in Hong Kong.

Zishu Lam, a 20-year-old “zhiqing,” or educated youth, was wandering on the edge of the two worlds. On one side was his beloved motherland; on the other was the shore of a legendary paradise. He struggled mightily in his mind.

Finally, he snuck into the Shekou District and dove into the water quietly. It seemed to be the point of no return.

Shekou is located in the southeast of the South Head Peninsula, neighboring Deep Bay on the east and the Pearl River Estuary on the west. The Yuen Long District of the New Territories in Hong Kong and Lau Fau Hill are on the other side of the sea. Here was once the most popular site for Mainland Chinese to flee to Hong Kong. Compared with the shark-infested Mirs Bay and the guards at Wutong Hill, Shekou was the first choice because of its shallower water and limited security.

After the tide had ebbed, sea sediment under Deep Bay was exposed on the surface. The searchlight was moving back and forth, scanning for every movement on the ground. To escape from the garrison’s attention, Lam was crawling for an hour through the mire covered with oyster shells. When he reached the deep water, his legs and hands were cut severely by the oyster shells.

“About halfway, I felt like I was dying. I shouted, ‘Resolute, fear no sacrifice and surmount every difficulty to win victory’ from Quotations from Chairman Mao to pump myself up,” Lam said. Shouting socialist slogans, he successfully arrived at the shore of capitalism after nine hours.

“When I finally climbed on the shore, I found dozens of bodies of people lying beside me. Their feet got caught in the swampland when the tide was down, but once the tide went up, they were drowned.”

Lam took a deep breath as he pondered what happened. “At that very moment I told myself now that I survived, I must live on.”

Wearing only a pair of swimming trunks, he ran to the Department of Immigration to obtain a Hong Kong permanent resident identity card.


Zhang's HK Identity Card
A Hong Kong identify card was a prized possession.

Back then, Lam was just one of the hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants fleeing from the mainland to Hong Kong.

Before the policy of reformation and opening up China were launched in the 1980s, Guangdong Province had undergone three large-scale events that led to people fleeing for Hong Kong: class struggle, famine and economic misery. During 1976-1981, nearly half a million people from the mainland migrated illegally to Hong Kong, the equivalent of one-tenth of the population of Hong Kong in 1976.

According to statistics from the Guangdong government in 1979, more than 300,000 people tried to flee to Hong Kong, among which 75,817 people succeeded. From January to August in 1980, 143,134 cases took place, and 36,673 people managed to escape.

The Shenzhen Bay between Hong Kong and Mainland China was the ladder to heaven in the hearts of all illegal migrants. Remember the three routes–the eastern way was swimming across the Mirs Bay, the middle line was climbing on the Wutong Hill, and the west site of Shekou, starting from the mangrove forest and then swimming across the Shenzhen Bay to reach Yuen Long, Hong Kong.

Three Routes
Three basic routes existed to flee from Mainland China to Hong Kong.

The methods to flee varied greatly from different routes. “They used life buoys, foamed plastic pillow cases or table tennis rackets to swim across the river. As for me, I blew up condoms and hung them around the neck,” said Sitong Zhang, Lam’s friend who also fled to Hong Kong in 1978. “I was so afraid the border officers would find me that I hollowed out a watermelon and hidden my head inside it.”

Despite the long-term struggle against illegal migration, it seemed that people’s arms and legs never stopped. Guangdong authorities recognized that they must take another way to solve the increasingly severe problem beyond simply strengthening the border defense.

On Aug. 26, 1980, a special economic zone was set up in Shenzhen, where the problem was most serious. One of the most significant reforms in China’s history was launched.

As the beneficiary of the reform and opening-up policy, Shenzhen has witnessed a significant change, growing from a small fishing village into a modern metropolis. Since Guangdong Province, which includes Shenzhen and Guangzhou, surpassed Jiangsu as the wealthiest province in 1989, it has been the leader in China for over 20 years.

“Many of my relatives who did not flee to Hong Kong at that time were assigned to a house by the government as the country reform policy launched. Later, they invested in real estate and became wealthy. Those who fled to Hong Kong like my parents missed the great opportunities in this special period. Now their life is much better than us,” said Steven Chen, a 26-year-old native of Hong Kong, whose parents escaped in the 1970s. Since then, they have been working in a small garment factory and living in a small rental house. However, many of his relatives in Shenzhen have bought several villas.

“It is such an unimaginable miracle that the mainland developed so fast in recent years,” Lam said. Amazed by the tremendous market on the mainland, Lam and his friend Zhang decided to return. They established a cosmetic factory with joint ventures in Shenzhen in 1996, producing foreign brands. “Our products are sold in the duty-free shops in Hong Kong and targeted at mainland consumers. Tourists from the mainland love foreign brands,” Lam said. They invested ¥1 million, or about $151,000, in a French brand skincare product, which reached annual sales of 10 million items last year. “In Hong Kong, it is unthinkable,” he said.

Thirty years ago, they risked their lives to swim across the border. Now in the 21st century, they are coming back.

“I still remember when I was young, the party instructor told me that Hong Kong was an evil capitalist society. It just like a flower quilt: beautiful outside, but smelly inside. But now that it was smelly, why did so many people escape there? But no one comes here?” Jason Chen, Steven’s father, said.

Fang Bao, the former party secretary of Baoan County in Shenzhen, said, “No one wants to leave their beloved motherland and risk their lives to search for unknown future. Those who fled were not bad guys. They just had no choice under such harsh situations at that time. Defending the border was of no use. To retain people, we had to develop the economy and raise people’s living standard. We had to learn the experience so that the history does not repeat itself. ”

As the mainland’s economic reform is in full swing, illegal migration problems have been brought under control. In 1997, Hong Kong returned to China. The “individual visit” policy provides convenience for mainlanders to visit Hong Kong. In 2006, the illegal stowaways from the mainland had been significantly reduced to 3,173 people. In recent years, with the rise of China and the expanding market in the mainland, more and more people from Hong Kong have come back to invest and do business.

Now, with the integration of Shenzhen and Hong Kong, the boundary is virtually blurred. “In the future, maybe people do not know about ‘Hong Kong’ and ‘Shenzhen.’ They may have long been integrated,” said Zishu Lam, who once wandered on the edge of the two worlds.

As he sees it, the two worlds are gradually becoming one, and the harsh history of fleeing to Hong Kong may eventually be over.

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