Francis Moriarty: A tale of two different cities

WILLIAMSTOWN — Settling back into the Berkshires after nearly three decades in the crowded quarters of Hong Kong involves culture shocks that are pretty much to be expected.

You can't move from a city with 7.3 million people living in 1,063 square miles, to a city with less than 45,000 people residing in a county of 946 square miles, and not experience some changes.

But what I had not foreseen are a few similarities below the surface.

An aging population, tough job prospects for youth, an economy that shifted in short order from manufacturing to service, smaller families and yet - somehow - increasing prices for land and living space. A key factor in both places: money flowing in from elsewhere.

Toss in culture clash, rising demand for environmental protection and the makings of nativist politics, and you've pretty much got the picture.

Two very different places on vastly different scales but subjected to not dissimilar pressures.

Hong Kong is projected to reach about 8.2 million residents over the next 25 years. Yet it has a fertility rate per woman of only 1.2, less than the births needed to replenish the population. At the same time, average life expectancy is increasing to 81.3 years for men and 87.3 years for women - topping the global longevity tables -- thanks in part to good quality socialized health care. But there are fewer young people to bear the costs - even if they can find a job.

Left to themselves Hong Kong couples would opt for three-person families and the population would decline. This would decrease social and environmental pressures, allowing for larger living space and improved quality of life. But Hong Kong's population is projected to increase by more than a million. Something contradictory is going on.

That something is immigration from mainland China. Under an immigration criterion determined by Beijing, an average of 150 mainland people a day can to enter the former British colony to live.

Hong Kong itself also grants visas to immigrants with useful skills, or who are able to make large investments in property or businesses, effectively buying residency.

There are also immigration categories for professionals needed for business purposes or whom the Hong Kong government feels are otherwise desirable.

The mainland influx has implications. Most speak Mandarin (Putonghua), China's official language. But Hong Kongers speak Cantonese. They are as different as French is to Italian, and the written language is not the same. Hong Kong and Taiwan people use classical, complicated characters. Mainland Chinese use simplified characters, instilled by the Communists.

Beneath these language and script differences runs a deep cultural rift. The two groups see society very differently, have often-conflicting identities, and hold worldviews and values that reflect their divergent histories.

Mainland immigrants also are a means to get bogglingly large amounts of cash out China and into safe havens across the world. Hong Kong is both a conduit and a destination.

These cash flows, legal and illegal, are enormous. China's banking system does not operate with the same reporting requirements found elsewhere, and the quantity of off-the-books loans made by financial institutions is unknown. Any statistics are iffy.

China's rapid transformation into the world's factory has produced stupefying wealth. One of the major investment targets for China's billionaires is real estate. Sometimes these investments may also be strategic, like raw materials or farmland. China needs resources for its industries and food to feed its nearly 1.4 billion people. Vast as it is, China has little arable land and a shrinking number of people willing to do farm work.

Hong Kong's financial system plays a key role in this massive capital flight. The Hong Kong dollar is officially linked to the U.S. dollar, making it a de facto greenback. Hot money from mainland China fuels real estate speculation. In Hong Kong, apartments of only 130-square-feet have recently sold for more than US$ 385,000.

London, Vancouver, New York and other cities are experiencing rising prices thanks to China's capital flight. In turn, this puts pressure on places at the outskirts of a metropolis far away. Places like the Berkshires.

Wealthy immigrants from China can afford to climb the property escalator. The average Hong Kong person cannot. In fact, many poorer immigrants from the mainland cannot afford these prices either. So older apartments are subdivided into tiny units that violate building codes but are profitable investments. So the average Hong Kong person who can afford to move is now looking elsewhere.

When it comes to age, Pittsfield has some 10.900 persons aged 60 or older, with an average life expectancy of 78.4 years. Many elderly are females living alone - about 59 per cent of those aged 65 years or more are female, a figure reaching two-thirds of all people aged 80 or more.

The average house here is worth about $176,000 - compared to the statewide figure of $372,000, we look cheap. Put in a Hong Kong context, $176,000 is not enough for the down payment on a one-bedroom flat. With New York City apartments renting at Hong Kong levels, it's easy to see why both the poor and the rich see places like the Berkshires as attractive options. Either they can afford to move here or don't have much choice.

But like those ordinary folks in distant Hong Kong, can locals afford to stay?

Francis Moriarty is a regular contributor to The Eagle


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