On the Border of China


4 minute read. Note: We are currently in Busan, Korea. This post is about our visits to Hong Kong last year. //

The full Tang Clan lineage stretched above us in the empty ancestral hall, narrow containers holding name plates of each progenitor neatly arrayed across the back wall. The oldest relative had passed away in the 11th century and the youngest in 2016. The building was quiet, humid, and August’s afternoon sun filled the interior courtyard with an empty light. Outside was a vacant carpark-cum-basketball court and several abandoned lots.

We were in the New Territories, which is the buffer region between mainland China to the north and Kowloon and Hong Kong Island to the south. It is comparatively empty as it still has low-rise buildings rather than the dense forest of skyscrapers that make Hong Kong famous. It is also empty as it is primarily managed by the five indigenous clans that began arriving in the 11th century. (Self-reverentially referred to as the Five Great Clans.) These families own all the land and buildings, and have a tendency towards running construction companies.

[ Caption: The full Tang Clan lineage in the Ancestral Hall ]

In addition to the Tang lineage, these Five Great Clans include the Man, Hau, Pang and Liu families. There are another 40+ clans that don’t receive nearly as much attention, and I will also ignore them. Each clan has a careful record of their family line and control over a village or several villages. The Tangs, for example, have five walled villages (The Five Wais) and six villages (The Six Tseuns). They have tremendous clout locally, as I learned when I asked our guide to read a menu written in Cantonese out for me from a pleasant outdoor café. She was reluctant to even approach the gate, as only Tang clan members may eat there. I noticed the few café patrons were staring; we swiftly carried on.

[ Caption: The Tang Clan cafe for Clan members only ]

During a return visit in December, we visited the Peng Tang family museum and admired their ancient cricket fighting paraphernalia (a bucket and a miniature whisk broom to coax the crickets into violence – I assume by tickling?). There was also a stone platform commemorating where a flag had been placed in turn commemorating a Tang clan member reaching the next stage in imperial examinations three hundred years ago. My mother and I wondered how one incites a cricket to fight, even with a broom, and whether the clan member had passed all his exams. If he had, surely there would be another statue or flag?

While the air is viscous with humidity and living history, there is a vibrant grey-market trans-border economy humming away. Many Chinese and Hong Kongese have found a loophole to selling goods in Mainland China, goods which are in desperate demand due to taxes and severe lack of consumer confidence. This method? The bus. Some distributor will buy up a load of items (baby formula being a popular one for reasons explained below), and stuff a shopfront full of them. Individuals (known as parallel traders) will come by with two to three Bags for Life and purchase enough items to stretch the canvas seams. They will then totter down the block to the bus depot, where trans-border buses leave every 15 minutes.

The bus journey is about twenty minutes long including customs, and then the vendors sell their items to other distributors in China. Individuals are allowed to bring a certain amount of goods with them when they cross back and forth from Hong Kong, and these items are exempt from whatever tariffs apply on professional importers. A dedicated parallel trader might be able to make the border crossing four or five times in a day, and hundreds (thousands?) of people do so. Each person is allowed 1.8 kg of baby formula in 24 hours, according to a recent Hong Kong law written in a desperate attempt to keep at least some formula available for Hong Kongese babies.

[ Caption: Typical neighbourhoods, a few streets back from the bus depot ]

We happened to wander through the main street of distributors and peered into the different shopfronts / warehouses packed with boxes and cases and pallets of everyday items. Nappies, dried foods, make-up, face creams, Chinese medicines, baby formula. In 2008 there was an enormous food safety scandal in China surrounding adulteration of milk and baby formula with melamine. Around 300,000 people were sickened and 54,000 infants hospitalised. Investigations by the government revealed that adulteration with unsafe ingredients (to make milk appear thicker, the right colour, have a high protein-content and so on) was endemic, and later investigations showed it remains a looming problem across the Chinese food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industry. Domestic confidence in the safety of Chinese food products plummeted, especially in infant formula, and remains very low.

And so the border is an area full of entrepreneurs loosely governed by the Clans, bringing in safe baby formula and creating a thriving arbitrage economy. It is not only at the border, either: There was a recent news story that one woman makes AUS$90,000 a year selling baby formula and vitamins to China, and she is shipping it from Sydney. In China, tins of baby formula can cost anywhere between AUS$70 and $90, leaving a tidy margin to be made by enterprising people. In Australia, a tin of formula costs around AUS$23; in Hong Kong, a tin sells for AUS$35. Australia is even having to implement purchasing restrictions on baby formula as supplies are often sold out within minutes to be resold in China, leaving what I imagine must be a big opportunity for someone to open more formula manufacturing plants.

[ Caption: Quiet neighbourhood with Indonesian housekeeper on an errand ]

As we wandered away from the bustling parallel traders and explored streets only wide enough for one motorbike at a time, the area quietened down. A group of dour women played majong behind net curtains, two dogs slept on top of sand piles, an Indonesian housekeeper (or ‘helper’ as the thousands of Filipina and Indonesia women are called) headed out to do the shopping for her employers. The buildings were well maintained but old, decorated in styles from several decades ago. However outside on the main streets, wherever it was wide enough to park a car, were gleaming Mercedes, Jaguars and even the below eye-opener. It’s like that old saying goes for how to achieve success: Location, location, location. And being a Clan member.

[ Caption: The name of the cafe next to the car was...ah, you guessed it. Also we can't remember the brand of this car, but it was new to all of us! ]

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