In the 1970s and 80s, numerous mainlanders illegally entered Macau and Hong Kong in search of freedom and better lives. Scholars later dubbed the mass movement of people as the “Great Exodus.” In Macau tens of thousands of migrants were granted legal residency in three phases of so-called “pardons.” Due to the city’s low population, these former illegal immigrants do constitute a large portion what now is called the “Macau people.” According to two immigrants who braved the deep waters and possible bullets to enter the Portuguese colony, many of them actually intended to go to the British colony of HK.
“I swam here with four of my friends, from today’s Wanzai in Zhuhai, about 200 meters north to the present Sai Van Bridge. The waterway was much wider than it currently is, so it took us three to four hours to cross the river. We arrived ashore at a site near the A-Ma Temple…It was 1979, and I was 19 years old,” Tin Kit Wah told the Times.
But similar to many other cases, his first attempt was not successful. “Two of us suffered cramps, and we could not run, so we got caught and dispatched back to Nanshan in Zhuhai, waiting to be sent back to my hometown, Zhongshan, where we had to work in labor camp because of ‘problems with our mind-set.’ In my case I suffered one month of hard labor because I was relatively young, but others might have had to work two or three times longer. I was fortunate to be released sooner than others.”
“Less than one week later I tried to swim to Macau again, and this time I was finally successful,” he recalls. Reflecting on the reason for joining the “exodus,” Tin said his answer is probably similar to others who tried to flee mainland China during the Maoist era: “For better living. It was hard then on the other side of the border, so people were willing to risk their lives for the sake of freedom and a better future. Some drowned in the water, and some (in rare cases) were even fired upon by border guards.”
Illegal immigration was not merely a police issue, but also had political implications: “In the late’ 70s illegal immigrants were branded as ‘traitors’ in their home towns, so people who came here would not even dare to disclose their identities for fear of implicating their families on the other side of the border. In some cases the families of the ‘traitors’ would have all their private property taken away, including their woks [which was among their ‘valuables’ back then].”
Tin recalled that a large proportion of the mainlanders that reached Macau did not intend to stay there: “Many people in southern Guangdong cities, including Zhongshan, Shaoxing, Zhuhai, Shunde, and others, came here by illegal means. But Macau was just a transit for most of them, to take a rest before heading to their final destination: Hong Kong, because living was also not that good in Macau at that time. Of course Macau was also acceptable as a second choice if HK became unattainable.”
For many migrants, however, the second choice became the final choice: “In the early 80s HK terminated its so-called ‘pardon’ [giving legal status] for illegal immigrants, so a huge number of mainlanders entering Macau had to give up their next exodus, at least for the time being.” Macau became their permanent home.
For those who survived the water and bullets, there was no guarantee of a better life: “Initially there was some assistance given to illegal immigrants, by the churches and other charities, offering things like congee and blankets,” said Tin, who is now in his 50s. “But then illegal immigrants had to fend for themselves. Many of them would work as a ‘coolie’ or undertake other menial work.”
“Many illegal immigrants found the hard and dark sides of life in the places they aspired for, including all forms of discrimination. But they kept coming in great numbers, and this resulted in working without a salary but with food instead, sometimes living in makeshift accommodation. This was because the labor force supplied by the immigrants was in too great a supply, and the employers had no difficulty in finding workers. If you were fortunate enough to have a job, you probably got no pay at all,” Tin Kit Wah continued.
“At that time, so-called accommodation, in many cases, was just a bed in a room full of double-deck bunks, at a monthly rent of around MOP300 – which was quite a lot then, because even a well-paid factory job would only offer a monthly salary of less than MOP 1,200. The coolies could have as much as MOP1,500, but that was when they worked for 30 days a month on a daily salary of MOP50.”
But then even these poor conditions could not be maintained, as after the first comers – the Guangdong locals – arrived, migrants from the coastal province of Fujian also began their exodus to Macau and HK. Our source recalls: “It developed into a state where employers would fire a worker and employ two others, at the same or at an even cheaper cost. The coolies’ daily salary slumped to just MOP25, and then later only food and accommodation were provided, without any salary at all.”
According to Tin, it was not just the employers but also the police who were taking advantage of the immigrants. “They would be stationed outside a factory because salary workers were better at that time, at the beginning or end of a month when workers got paid. Then they would check your IDs, which they knew you didn’t have, so as a matter of course you would have to bribe them, sometimes as much as MOP200 – 500, in order to escape arrest and deportation. After visiting the factories, sometimes the policemen would also go to the areas where most illegal immigrants stayed and check peoples’ identities in the streets, and again you had to pay them.”
“I was then too young and too angry, so I ganged up with a few friends to try to settle the problem. One night we climbed into the house of Mr. Ho Yin [Macau’s first Chief Executive Edmund Ho’s father], who was then the chairman of a local trade union, in an attempt to convince him to help us, because he was very influential as a Chinese leader in the social and business sectors.”
“It was around 10pm at night and the dogs were barking very noisily, which alerted Mr. Ho inside. His driver and guards came out and took us inside. After seeing the group of young men, Mr. Ho said: ‘Kids, you don’t seem to be burglars because the time is a bit early for that, so obviously you have some problems to negotiate with me, right?’ He was a very wise person, and that’s how we started to discuss the issue. We went straight to the point and told him that we didn’t mean to disturb him, but we were at the end of our wits coping with the situation. We asked him to help us settle the problem as the leader of Chinese workers, and our request was very simple: ‘Why can’t Macau have a “pardoning” like HK did?” We told him that although we didn’t enter the territory legally, the place is Chinese territory and we should have a right to stay and live in a decent fashion. We asked him to talk to the government. He promised to give us a solution but told us to give him some time, and reminded us to stay at home during this period in order to avoid further complicating the situation.”
After around one month’s time it seemed Ho Yin managed to reach an agreement with the Portuguese authorities, they organized not a ‘pardon,’ but an arrangement called a ‘blue card’ (temporary stay permit). It was 1980, when the illegal immigrants were given a certificate of temporary residence for a period of two to three years: If they didn’t commit any crimes during that period they would be given formal ID cards, or a permanent residency. The issue was settled.
Tin said over 10,000 such cards were issued back then: “But a real and comprehensive ‘pardon’ did not arrive until 1990, when huge crowds gathered at the dog racing pitch, and most of the illegal immigrants were given IDs. The number of people pardoned numbered as many as 80,000 to 100,000, but some were not actually illegal immigrants, but rather visitors coming here to see their relatives, or mainland laborers working here. Around 50 to 60 percent of them were real illegal immigrants, but then virtually all were given IDs, including the visitors and workers.”
“The incident was so eye-catching that the mainland authority dispatched nearly 100,000 border guards to station the major crossing points at Gongbei, Zhuhai, and Hengqin, fearing the amnesty would trigger an even bigger exodus in neighboring areas,” Tin Kit Wah mentions.
According to government records, the Portuguese authorities gave some 70,000 illegal immigrants legal residency in 1982, 1989 and 1990. The first instance of what was called the “amnesty” by the Chinese community for the illegal immigrants was in March 1982, when 23,800 illegal immigrant laborers and 6,000 family members were given the right of abode. The second instance in January 1989 was a special case, in which 8,611 of the illegal immigrants given legal status were youths, including 3,000 students. The finale was in March 1990 when some 31,200 illegal immigrants, including thousands of parents, were given a ‘pardon.’
Sixty-six year-old Liang Bo entered Macau in the 70s, several years earlier than Tin. His recollection of migration was a “smoother” but typical exodus of that period: “I entered here as an illegal immigrant, as did my two brothers and my sister, alongside my parents.” The Liang family came from the southern Guangdong town of Xiaonan, which is now a stop in the newly operated Guangzhou-Zhuhai Interlink railway.
“Getting from Zhuhai to Macau was very easy at that time, due to the lack of effective border control, and unlike getting from Shenzhen to Hong Kong, where you had to cross a river and mountains and trek for days and nights in order to get to the town. In Zhuhai there are shallow waters where, when the tide was low, an adult could wade through the water without the need to swim at all. More importantly, the residential areas were nearby upon arriving onshore, where one can easily mingle with the local community, who speak the same language,” the retired man told the Times.
But this didn’t mean life was any easier after crossing the water. “It was much harder than we imagined. Working as a coolie, I got only 30 patacas one month, which was way below the average pay of a local worker, around 600 patacas at that time.” It was not until the first time the colonial government gave legal residency to the illegal immigrants in 1982 that Liang and his family gradually improved their living conditions by switching to better jobs. Liang was also able to lead a normal life without the need to hide from the police.
Book details witnesses of the ‘Great exodus’
Shenzhen writer Chen Bingan has released a book entitled “The Great Exodus to Hong Kong.” The writer spent over 20 years documenting the stories of the survivors of that exodus involving millions of people. In addition to a huge amount of information and historical background, the book also features accounts by former illegal immigrants. The writer told the South China Morning Post that the issue has long been considered too sensitive to discuss until a few years ago. “I believe (the people who fled in the exodus) are all heroes and should be recorded in China’s history,” Chen Bingan states.
TEXT BY SUM CHOI/MDT
PHOTOS BY KARSTEN PETERSON/GLOBAL-MARINER.COM