As costs and societal expectations rise, Evan explores through his personal situation the roots of a rising sense of hopelessness among a generation at once tied to traditional concepts of family and dignity, yet forced to survive in a more individualistic environment. The Chinese translation is provided by Sally.
在生活成本和社會期望的上升下，很多人都被迫繼續單身生活。方禮倫透過他的個人情況，探討在傳統家庭觀念中長大的這一代，何以這種無望感會越來越強。譯文由 Sally 提供。
Like so many Hong Kong people of my generation, I no longer aspire to a better life than that which my parents enjoy. Life will be an exercise in managing decline. I accept that whilst my income may well one day be more, it will buy me less of what one needs today to live with dignity. But nature has made the loss of another dream far more difficult to accept: the dream of being able to afford to have a family.
I am in my mid-30s, and my partner and I have been together for 7 years. I love her dearly, and we would like to get married. We have also reached a stage in our lives when we would also like to have children. It feels right. Both our mothers want, like other mothers of their age, to be grandmothers. And yet having a family of our own, something by nature we both instinctively feel we should do, also feels like a luxury beyond our reach.
There are those who may ask what’s stopping us from just getting married and having a child? We were both raised, like the majority of my generation in Hong Kong, to see marriage and children as integral to our most personal and socially critically relationship: that with our family. To those neither burdened nor supported by these ties, I ask only that they do not demean the importance of such ties for those of us for whom they are critical in defining who we are.
In a society in which familial bonds are central, marriage is not a decisions to be made by two people. It is a union between two families. Marriage is defined by the family, and dignity in marriage defined by familial expectation; and to have and raise a child responsibly is similarly defined by ones family. Our children will also be grandchildren; our sons and daughters also nephews, nieces and cousins. Meeting the most basic of our familial expectations costs money we frankly do not have.
This was not always the case. Families of immigrant refugees, including some of my relatives, had once crowded into temporary squatter settlements, and coped with conditions that were materially far worse than those today. Expectations more closely matched what people could afford. However the young of today must contend with a far higher bar of respectability – and with fewer opportunities and also fewer reasons to fail the bar has been raised far beyond the reach of most.
Unusually, the numbers tell much of the story. The median monthly income for people aged 25-34 has for the last decade been stable at around HK$12,000. The average Hong Kong wedding last year costed a little over HK$310,000, according to a survey by EDSLife. The costs of raising a child, with the degree of dignity afforded by a middle class life, was estimated by an independent financial advisory firm to be HK$4 million – coincidentally the figure windsurfer Lee Lai Shan stated in a controversial 2006 advertisement for Hang Seng bank. (Whether or not this figure is accurate does not take away its social influence: many families do not consider the figure unreasonable, and any responsible son or daughter would be expected to afford such an outlay.) Even without factoring property prices and inflation, the sums do not add up.
Coupled to this, many young people must pay back substantial loans, often accumulated on their behalf by family’s keen to invest in their education. Many must also support parents and grandparents who, though often having spent a lifetime working double shift (16 hours a day), could not afford retirement when forced to take it. The young, it would seem, must also pay for the social cost of the greed of past generations.
In my own extended family their are many who today continue to suffer from poor health resulting from a lifetime spent working in Hong Kong’s nascent manufacturing industries. The same tycoon families, who two generation ago refused to pay a living wage to “these Chinese” and happily turned a blind eye to child labour, today lecture the young for being “spoilt” and not working hard enough, whilst offering their own selectively edited stories as examples of success and the Hong Kong spirit.
Yesterday morning, whilst talking to a group of Hong Kong University graduates of a similar age to me, I was reminded of the relative fortune of my circumstances. Though I share their sense of obligation to do so, I do not need to support my parents or family financially. Neither do I have a critically sick or vulnerable relative to support. I have a family who can pay for me to enjoy those little highs on which, for me personally, a sane and stable life is dependent: long walks, Sunday yum cha and family holidays. Most of all, I am privileged by my birth and background to have access to private space. If I do not own a home, I do not lack for office or recreational space.
Why don’t young people just get a better paying job that would afford them the dignity their families expect? There is something very child-like about such a question, for it presumes a world where for every want there is an opportunity. Sadly, real life is not like this.
Firstly, the hollowing out of middle incomes has meant that whilst there is still the possibility of young people landing a job that affords them dignity, it can no longer be reasonably expected that they will. It is not only that the bottom of the pyramid has expanded to support an inflated 1%, but that to even find yourself in hollowed out middle no longer affords you the dignity it once did. In a society of extremes, expectations as to what represents a dignified life too shifts further from the centre, and thus for many, from the achievable.
That to be in the middle no longer equates to middle-class security was apparent when I recently caught up with an old friend. He and his wife are both medical doctors working at public hospitals. Both come from privileged backgrounds. Yet over dinner their concerns and sense of resignation were surprisingly familiar.
“There’s no way we will ever afford the lifestyles that our parents enjoy”, he said. “We would not have been able to afford our wedding if we hadn’t had our parents support. And we’re pretty well paid!”
Knowing I have run community interviews for some years, he asked, “how do people earning average incomes survive?”
“With even less hope,” I replied, “of that you still take for granted.”
Like an increasing number of my privileged, middle-class friends, they are considering leaving Hong Kong. They see that they elsewhere their income will stretch that bit further in securing them quality of life. Having already wed, it is the cost of setting up home that they must now contend. But it is the majority less fortunate than them for whom I most relate and for whom I have most sympathy. It is those with less that must stay.
Secondly, and for a growing minority, work is no longer understood as it was for their parent’s generation.
Marx was right to highlight the alienating effect of work. But whilst he sought to understand this by focusing on the alienation of a system, I believe a better understanding is to be found in the more personal: in how our upbringing shapes how we understand and relate to work as an idea. A more mercenary understanding, more prevalent when Hong Kong was a society shaped by immigrants, today being challenged by a generation who relate to Hong Kong differently. These young people, myself included, are ironically often those in our community closest at heart to those “Asian values” of familial piety. We care about what we do because we care and define ourselves through our families, whom we no longer see as in transit, but as increasingly rooted in the fabric of Hong Kong.
This changing relationship with work means that an increasing number of young people I speak to share with me a sense that it is equally immoral to accept too much as to offer too little. Behind this is an understanding that to distort value is to distort what we perceive as the norm. Whilst this may at first seem intellectually driven, outside of a small westernised and foreign educated minority, it is not. Most young people in Hong Kong with whom I have spoken are unable to frame their sense of fairness and social justice within any set of values or principles, but instead describe an inherent feeling derived from a personal and deepening sense of their local roots.
There may be some who will label me as one of the “undeserving young” or an “expat brat”. Unfortunately, looks are exceedingly deceptive in a society shaped by face and first impressions. Whilst my upbringing meant I moved within expatriate circles, I did so as a distinctly locally rooted Eurasian. These roots give me strength, but they also burden me with an expectation, both as a member of my family and, within society, as a Eurasian.
我行年三十有五，跟伴侶一起也有 7 年。我很愛她，想跟她結婚了，亦到了一個想生孩子的階段。我們的母親，像同齡的母親般，想做祖母了。然而，這些最自然不過的想法，卻成了不切實際的夢想。
根據 EDSLife 去年做的一項調查，在香港結婚，去年每對平均消費超過港幣三十一萬。一家獨立的金融諮詢公司估計，中產家庭要供養一個孩子的成本，是港幣四百萬，恰巧跟 2006 年風之后李麗珊為恆生銀行拍的那富爭議廣告時說的不謀而合。姑勿論數字是否合理，它對社會上造成的影響是不容置疑的：很多家庭都不覺得這個銀碼不合理，而任何一個負責任的人也得預計需承受這樣的費用。
以下一些數字清楚地說出了很多問題。過去十年， 25-34 歲的人口月均收入大概為港幣一萬兩千。這些還沒加上房價和通貨膨脹的數字。很明顯，支出已跟收入脫了軌。