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We may be Hongkongers but we’re also immigrants

THE DEMOGRAPHIC COMPOSITION of the contemporary population of Hong Kong might appear to be homogeneous, where 92% of the population is ethnic Chinese, as shown in the 2016 by-census.

However, in recent years, a narrative has spread across some generations in Hong Kong calling for the reidentification of the people and asking for a review of our immigration policy, essentially to retract the quota for One-way Permit for family reunions from Mainland China.

More than often, supporters of the above proposition overlook the fact that Hong Kong has been essentially an immigrant society for hundreds of years.


Hong Kong reflects a complex and vibrant history of a melting pot city that has grown out of successive waves of immigration stretching back nearly 900 years. It all started with the Five Great Clans settling and becoming sizable in the New Territories as early as the Southern Song Dynasty. The Tangs immigrated to Hong Kong from Jiangxi province and settled in Kam Tin, New Territories in the 11th century. 

Fast forward to the early 20th century, and we see that more than 60% of the population were born in the Mainland before moving to Hong Kong.

After the intervening wars in the first half of the 20th century, many Chinese refugees fled to Hong Kong seeking a safe haven, quadrupling the population to around 1.8 million in 1947.


In the first large-scale universal census conducted in 1961, we could glimpse the population’s demographic composition in Hong Kong. According to the data collected in that census, over half of the 3.2 million Hong Kong people were born in Mainland China.

Based on the demographic profiles of different age groups and other relevant factors, one could safely assume that close to 80% of the population in 1961 were either immigrants or second-generation immigrants from the Mainland. 


Immigrants from different Mainland cities brought their fortune, labour, and skills to Hong Kong throughout the past 100 years. Many rebuilt their businesses in light industries such as toy and plastic manufacturing, which added variety to the economy of Hong Kong and helped the city rise to its status as an international entrepot. Their education and skillsets enriched the depth of the economy, bringing novel knowledge and experience/technologies to the textiles and clothing industries.

Hong Kong is international entrepot. Photo by Airam Dato-on on Unsplash

 From the 1980s onwards, immigrants from the Mainland came to play a significant role in commercial and financial links between Mainland China and Hong Kong. The less-educated immigrant population brought affordable labour to support the early manufacturing plants in the city. This tremendously increased the competitiveness of “Made in Hong Kong” products sold worldwide.


Apart from immigrants coming from the Mainland, Hong Kong also welcomes everyone worldwide with open arms. Many people from all over the world, from Southeast Asia to the West, have contributed vastly to the city’s development in different sectors since the 19th century.

Many notable figures or families settled in Hong Kong in the early days, where infrastructures are named after them, such as Sir Mody and the families of Swire, Kadoorie and Ruttonjee.

And Hong Kong has continued to attract talents in the 21st century, such as the father of Lan Kwai Fong, Allan Zeman.

We can go on for days with immigration stories from people all around the world who have essentially built Hong Kong to where we are now and brought in one of the most diverse communities in East Asia.


Immigration has been a constitutive feature of the historical development of many nations. Our neighbour Singapore is another excellent example. A rapid influx of people from China, India and the Malay Archipelago, further afield in Asia, moved to Singapore in the early 19th century.

The population in Singapore exploded from the 1,000 people who populated the peninsula in 1821 to about 60,000 by the beginning of 1850. Immigrants, as usual, provided labour, capital and, more importantly, the connection with their home countries, which equipped Singapore to turn into a world-class city.

Similarly, first or second-generation immigrants to the United States have been founders of companies such as Google, Intel, Paypal, eBay, and Yahoo! In fact, skilled immigrants account for more than half of Silicon Valley start-ups and over half of patents, even though they make up less than 15% of the United States population. 


Human capital is an important driving force for enhancing Hong Kong’s competitiveness and promoting economic development. Against the backdrop of an ageing population and a declining labour force, Hong Kong needs sufficient high quality talent to meet the needs of a knowledge-based economy and diversified development of industries, as well as to seize the tremendous opportunities brought about by the development of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, the National 14th Five-Year Plan and the Belt and Road Initiative, and so on.

Various talent admission schemes and policies, from General Employment Policy to Technology Talent Admission Scheme, have been attracting hundreds of thousands of talents from around the world, contributing to the economy of Hong Kong as taxpayers and main economic drivers in the past ten years.

Looking past the talent admission schemes, the Hong Kong government should make a timely review of the related packages that Hong Kong could offer to worldwide talents.

Problems such as expensive housing, prohibitive admission to international schools, and unbearably small living spaces might be detrimental to the attractiveness of Hong Kong for worldwide talent to move here. And it will eventually hamper our position as one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. In the past decade, we have been preaching about the competitiveness of our economy. Maybe it is the right time to rethink how to holistically enhance the packages that Hong Kong could offer to global talent.

Andrew Lam is a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council

Image at the top by Cheung Yin/Unsplash

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