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Birth rate concerns dampen our mood

Toronto, 23 August 2023: Heads up, movie buffs, at least those of you in London. The capital’s Prince Charles Cinema is currently hosting “The World of Wong Kar Wai”, a series of special screenings of the Hong Kong director’s greatest films. Of course, his visually resplendent romance In the Mood for Love – made in 2000 but set in 1962, with Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung brilliant as shy neighbours who fall for each other – is included. I’m due in the UK next month and plan on watching, again.

The Prince Charles Cinema is the last of the independent outlets still operating in London’s picture house-packed West End. It used to offer rather more racy fare before being reborn 32 years ago as a film-goer’s paradise. It will just as easily host an Ingmar Bergman series as a James Bond season and offers up ingenious promotions, such as an all-nighter dedicated to the Jurassic Park franchise. It even has ushers.

Alas, little such joy in Hong Kong where our cherished Cheung Chau Cinema no longer shows movies. Listed as a Grade III historic building, the 600-seat venue was established on the outlying island of Chueng Chau in 1931 and screened Cantonese and Western films until it closed in 1997. Like the exquisitely-framed scenes from In the Mood for Love, it belongs to a long-lost era: that of rickshaws, neon lights and governors.

Now it is about to have a new lease of life – as a restaurant. A major renovation project, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, has been announced by the Cheung Chau Culture Company, a private organisation seeking to revitalise the island. A multicultural park next door will soon be operational while the cinema itself – structure strengthened and original façade preserved – will open as a Chinese-themed eatery in 2025. Culture Company CEO Eric Chiang promises to honour the venue’s heritage by organising film-related activities – the park will, at least, offer outdoor screenings – as well as using it to promote the island’s history. “We hope this new attraction can drive an influx of visitors to Cheung Chau,” he says.

Such are the sometimes-poignant changes taking place before the eyes of Hong Kong’s ageing population. Leung and Cheung’s lovelorn screen characters would be well into their 80s by now, part of a sector of society that is swelling quicker than originally thought. In its latest population projections report, the Census and Statistics Department concludes 2.74 million residents will be aged 65 or above in 2046, accounting for 36% of the population, up from the 34% estimated six years ago. In comparison, just one-fifth of the population was elderly in 2021.

This trend naturally presents our government with increasing socio-economic challenges. Geriatrics expert Professor Jean Woo notes the rise in life expectancy reflects public health success in reducing maternal and infant mortality, but “extended lifespan is not necessarily accompanied by prolongation of health span”. Health services are dealing with increased frailty, falls, cognitive impairment and mobility limitations.

Lawmaker Regina Ip warns the current public health care system will be unable to cope. “There is a huge discrepancy between what members of the public have to pay for public medical services and the costs they trigger,” she points out. She’s urging the authorities to set up a working group to tackle the issue.

But longer life expectancy is only one factor in the growing proportion of grey-haired citizens. The number of childless couples has reached an “alarming” level, the Family Planning Association warns, with a survey finding the percentage of respondents without offspring has more than doubled in five years. The average number of children has dropped to below one per family for the first time.

“We have an ageing situation because we do not have enough young people,” observes population expert Professor Paul Yip. Hong Kong is not alone. In Singapore, Tokyo and London, fewer people are tying the knot and are doing so later in life. High property prices, cramped living conditions, long working hours and society’s changing attitudes are all drivers of this. Hong Kong, it should be noted, is ranked as the world’s most expensive housing market for the 13th straight year in the latest Demographia International Housing Affordability report.

Yet, somehow, our city is enjoying a population rebound. True! We now have some 7,498,100 citizens compared to 7,346,100 a year ago. It appears various talent importation schemes and the post-Covid border reopening – allowing one-way permit holders from the mainland and residents stranded overseas to return – have combined to boost our numbers. Not that we can consider the problem sorted. Talent schemes “will not entirely solve the fundamental issues, especially without more births”, opines Baptist University demographer Adam Cheung. For inspiration, perhaps our government can look to my current location, Canada – I’m visiting relatives in Toronto – for inspiration. The country’s population has increased by over a million people in a year for the first time ever, with immigration accounting for nearly 96% of the population growth.

Always on the case, Chief Executive John Lee has been out and about meeting citizens, hosting his first public consultation session to gather suggestions for his forthcoming annual policy address. Responding to audience concerns, he has promised to look at ways to boost the birth rate.

He could consider more romantic movie screenings. This, at least, might put Hongkongers in the mood for love.

Until next time, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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