Raindrops started to rattle the leaves on the night of Oct. 21, 1980. Chan Chun-man was biding his time on Wutong Mountain, facing the shallow headwaters of the Shenzhen River, with a boy and a young woman from his same village. The three sat in the grass, shirts soaking wet.

A rainy night was the best time to sneak across the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border. Soon they heard footsteps rushing towards the barbed wire. The boy was itching to go. But Chan stopped him.

Shortly, there came the sounds of police dogs growling and people screaming, like ghosts, Chan said.

Chan was 17, yet experienced.

“I had tried over 10 times, maybe even 20. I cannot remember, too many to count,” said Chan. “Most of the time I chose to run at night, which is peak time for escaping, but also a good chance for the border guards to capture us all.”

Approximately 443,000 Cantonese sneaked across the border to Hong Kong in 1979, one of the four major waves of illegal immigration to Hong Kong in China’s history. Only a quarter succeeded.

Before the launch of the Touch Base policy in 1974, the British Hong Kong Government accepted all immigrants, which put great pressure on the city. The policy, meant to stop the influx, allowed immigrants from mainland China who reached urban areas and met their relatives to register for a Hong Kong Identity Card, while those who were caught near the border would be sent back. But it failed to work as intended, instead encouraging people to try, and was halted in October of 1980.

The other three immigration waves were in 1957, 1962 and 1972, during the agricultural collectivization movement, the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution. More than 1 million immigrants crossed the border, according to Chen Bingan, a journalist who spent over 20 years collecting materials for his book “Vast Escapes to Hong Kong.”

Chan said people didn’t try to hide the fact they were fleeing the mainland for Hong Kong. When people met on the street, they would greet each other in the following way:

“Hey, where are you going?”

“Hong Kong, of course.”

He also remembered when it got dark in downtown Shenzhen, hundreds of people would throng from nowhere, filling the streets and carrying floating devices.

According to various reports, there were three major escape routes. The western route started at Shekou in China and took swimmers around an hour to cross Shenzhen Bay and reach Yuen Long. Tides were hard to predict in this area. The middle route was from Sha Tau Kok (near Wutong Mountain), and across the Shenzhen River. And the eastern route went across Mirs Bay where sharks were sometimes spotted.

Not all people swam to Hong Kong. Yeung Fai, who paddled a boat across Mirs Bay with some 10 countrymen in 1977, pulled the oar for two whole days and nights. “I got a blister this big on my hand because of the non-stop pulling,” said Yeung, using his thumb and index finger to form a circle the size of Ping-Pong ball. “After I arrived in Hong Kong, I could not even hold a pair of chopsticks.”

Swimmers used all kinds of floating devices, including the inner part of basketballs or footballs, bicycle tires and foamed plastic. Some people even tied blown condoms to their necks.

But Chan, who boasted he could swim for three hours without rest, chose an almost dry route during his final escape attempt, leaving Shenzhen from Sha Tau Kok, heading towards Ping Che. The riverbed of the headwaters was covered with a thin layer of sand and water, ankle-high.

“It was stupid trying to swim,” said Chan. “Those remote bays were far from traffic. You were already exhausted when walking there, and then you had to swim for a long time, at least four hours across Shenzhen Bay. It was also dangerous. Two girls in my village died.”

Chen Bingan also wrote in his book that the Shenzhen River, which forms part of the border between Hong Kong and mainland China, is 37 kilometers long and two to 75 meters in width. It is possible for someone to jump across it in the narrowest part.

No one becomes a master the first time. Once Chan planned to swim across Shenzhen Bay but because the tide was out, there was no water, only knee-high mud filled with sharp oyster shells. He lost one shoe and walked for over two hours before he reached a place where there was enough water for swimming. He was then caught by water policemen and kept in their rubber boat, full of illegal immigrants, scores of them, Chan said. Chan got punched by the police and sent back home the next day. His feet were full of festering wounds from the oysters. He couldn’t start his next escape attempt until a month or two later. Chan jokes about it now, after 33 years, but the scars can still be seen on his feet.

Police dogs were terrifying. Some people would bribe zookeepers for tiger feces, which when scattered on the road deterred dogs. Once before reaching the Shenzhen River, he heard a dog chasing him. He stopped immediately, knowing that he couldn’t outrun the dog and it would bite him if he didn’t stand still. He was caught and the dog bit him anyway. He was also fined 30 Yuan, which equaled 10 percent of an ordinary farmer’s yearly income.

Chan’s precursors were often regarded as traitors and faced with being beaten and imprisoned if caught. But around 1979, with political movements subsiding and the number of illegal immigrants soaring, it became impossible to put everyone in prison. People like Chan would only be kept in the police station for one night or two, and then be sent home in police vans.

The huge economic gap between the mainland and Hong Kong was the main cause for escaping around 1979. Ordinary Hong Kong people ate bread and milk while people on the other side of the river ate porridge and pickled vegetable roots. A farmer in Baoan earned an average of 0.7 Yuan per day while a Hong Kong farmer earned HK$ 70, more than 100 times higher, Chen Bingan wrote in his book.

Chan’s father, a technical worker, and mother, a farmer, raised five kids. The work points they earned from the government did not buy enough coupons, needed for nearly everything from rice to clothes under China’s ration system then. So the family bought food on credit and their debts grew.

Chan’s grandmother, who left Malaysia and settled down in Hong Kong in 1964, often brought household items and food to the family in Baoan.

Each time she went to visit the family in the small village, even on a scorching summer day, she would put on five or six pieces of clothing and several pairs of trousers.

Chan also remembered his grandmother sewing a whole bundle of cloth into a thick bag. As soon as she arrived at Chan’s home, the first thing she would do was to take off the clothes and undo the bag, turning it again into a long piece of cloth.

This was because customs charged fees on the things people brought back to the mainland, but they didn’t charge the clothes people wore or the bags people used to carry things.

“At that time, people in my village were wearing similar dark blue or black shirts like the North Korean people today. I started to wear T-shirts and jeans Grandma brought back, dressing like a Hong Kong young person,” said Chan. “But I could not count on Grandma forever. I had to fight on my own. And many of my fellow villagers already made it to Hong Kong then. I could see their families started living a much better life shortly after they succeeded in escaping.”

That dark and rainy night, Chan and his companions stuck to their plan. After climbing over the first six-foot-high barbed wire fence, “a-piece-of-cake,” Chan said, the three were at the foot of the second fence. This one was three-stories high.

Unable to climb over it, they started walking. There were gates positioned at intervals on the fence. Chan walked up to pull the gates each time they met one.

Pull, locked. Pull, locked…Then Chan unintentionally gave a slight push.

The gate opened.

“Wasn’t I stupid? You had to push, not pull,” said Chan.

Why was the gate unlocked?

Less than 20 feet from them rose a large observation tower. They started to creep past it. Chan looked up. On one side, a leg of a sleeping man stretched out, in a British army uniform. On the other side, another leg.

“At least two British soldiers were nodding off up there. The gate was so near to the observation tower, maybe the soldiers would make their rounds down there every now and then. I guess that was why the gate was left unlocked,” said Chan.

The whole area near the tower had been burnt, leaving nowhere to hide. They sneaked several hundred meters before they wormed their way into the grass.

The young woman with Chen got separated after the first fence, and was later caught after she entered Hong Kong at Shetou by human traffickers. They ransomed the people they caught to their families. The family of this woman was charged 4000 yuan to redeem her.

Luck was with Chan. On Oct.22, after several dozen hours, Chen arrived in Hong Kong.

Some local farmers heard Chan’s accent and asked where he came from. Then they told Chan the house he had just passed where the dogs were barking was his fellow villager’s. It turned out the owner of the house even went to the same family temple as Chan.

Led to his grandma’s muggy squatter’s hut built with wood and iron down in the valley in Tsuen Wan, Chan felt unprecedented cheer.

“I escaped from an unpleasant place where you could see no future. Back at home, there was no chance for me other than being a farmer. I was stuck in that class,” said Chan. “And I fled here, to this land of hope, where I were granted a second chance.”

Under the Touch Base Policy, Chen got his Hong Kong Identity Card, and started working in factories and studying English at night school. He earned around HK$ 5000 per month working in shoe factories during the early 1980s, nearly 17 times of his mother’s yearly income farming in Shenzhen. He soon sent money back home to build a new house.

“I am so proud. We didn’t need the Hong Kong government to cultivate us. We were here to produce. Like a son raised up by others, and came back to his father and helped him to support the family,” said Chan.

After 1950, there was more than 1 million in population growth in Hong Kong every 10 years, providing “intensive, semi-skilled” labor “in their prime working age” to promote the booming Hong Kong economy, Professor Ho Piu-yin, a historian at Chinese University, told the South China Morning Post.

Now a contractor for interior decoration, Chan travels abroad with his wife and two sons every year, this year to Indonesia. Though sometimes joking that he might have become a top official if he hadn’t escaped to Hong Kong, Chan is happy with his choice. Not far from him, in his living room, trophies his sons won in swimming competitions fill the corner.

“I’m hard-working yet with little ambition. I won’t be the richest or the poorest in either mainland or Hong Kong. So I would rather choose where I like, and Hong Kong is such a place,” Chan said contently.

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