Inside the bowels of a Hong Kong industrial building, Eric Pun was among two dozen people crammed into a classroom learning to drill holes — acquiring a new set of skills before heading abroad.
Savvy businesses have started offering crash courses in subjects such as home repair and hairdressing, capitalizing on a wave of people departing Hong Kong as China cracks down on dissent and strict COVID-19 pandemic rules upend the economy.
For Pun, a 35-year-old nurse emigrating to Australia with his family, taking the home repair class was both a practical cost-saving measure and a way to prepare mentally for the unknown.
“In Hong Kong, if there is a problem you can go to the property management office or hire someone from the mall ... but when my family lives in a house, I’ll have to rely on myself,” he said.
Spending a day at Renobro Co (?修兄弟), one of the handful of companies offering lessons in home repair, costs HK$1,980 (US$252.26) and courses are fully booked weeks in advance, company cofounder and instructor Lau Chun-yu said.
“More than a thousand people have participated in our course,” Lau said.
“When we first started, we didn’t expect so many people would be emigrating.” Lau said his students, who are mostly in their 30s and include doctors and teachers, race through a one-day syllabus of more than 40 skills, such as caulking, plastering and rewiring appliances.
“Most of them aren’t well-prepared, but ... they hope to go over as soon as possible,” he said, citing fears that foreign countries might tighten immigration controls in the long run.
Hong Kong is experiencing an exodus of local and foreign talent.
Many residents have baulked at Beijing’s sweeping crackdown on dissent following huge and sometimes violent democracy protests three years ago.
Stringent “zero COVID-19” rules also remain in place two-and-a-half years into the pandemic, restricting daily life and isolating the territory internationally.
The latest census figures showed a record dip in Hong Kong’s population, which fell 1.6 percent to 7.29 million compared with a year earlier. The labor force has plunged to 3.75 million, the lowest in nearly a decade.
Many of those leaving are families with school-aged children. Official primary school figures released earlier this month showed there were 70 fewer classes across 60 schools this academic year. More than 4,000 teachers have left their jobs in the past school year.
The UK became one of the most popular destinations for Hong Kongers after it announced a visa scheme that provided a pathway to citizenship, arguing Beijing had abandoned its pre-handover promise to allow residents key freedoms and autonomy. So far more than 140,000 people have applied under the British scheme since it was launched in January last year.
Other common choices for relocation include Australia, Canada and the US, mirroring a similar wave of emigration that occurred ahead of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from Britain.
Despite their optimism for life overseas, many would-be emigrants said they were worried about job prospects and wanted to learn more skills as insurance.
Fashion retailer Kimi Chau, 35, took a series of hairdressing classes in preparation for her move to Britain along with her husband and five-year-old.
“I want to be equipped for a job after I’ve arrived... If I could learn more skills before I leave, then if the opportunity came along for me to open up a business, I would be more confident,” she said.
Chau said her concerns about Hong Kong’s education system amid a shifting political climate drove her to leave.
“Because I have a kid, the issue felt closer to home and I didn’t take a long time to decide,” she said.
On a sweltering August afternoon, Chau and other hairdressing students brought along friends and family members to the salon where they took their classes for an informal graduation ceremony, and a bittersweet farewell.
Instructor Jason Yip said the hairdressing industry has a relatively low entry threshold and Hong Kongers can get a job quickly, adding that about one-third of his students plan to emigrate.
Yip added that many of his students appreciate the social dimension of hairdressing, as a way to stay close to family members and to connect with like-minded Hong Kongers.
“For them, [hairdressing] can become a kind of hobby, and they are quite happy to have it after arriving in a new place,” Yip said. “That kind of joy is shared and there is a sense of achievement.”
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