The Future is Female: Hong Kong’s Gender Imbalance

The controversial feminist slogan takes on a literal meaning in Hong Kong where the ratio of men to women in continues to favour the latter in numbers that have been alarming population health experts

Skye Causeway Bay
View of Victoria Harbour from Skye, Causeway Bay

Women all over the world love to complain about the dating scene in their city, but if you’ve ever been a single lady in Hong Kong – as millennials love to say – the struggle is real. This month, we dig up the cold, hard facts and figures that many have felt but few have quantified.

Last July, the government’s Census and Statistics Department (Censtatd) published the 2017 Edition of their data on Women and Men in Hong Kong. Their findings reveal a skewed gender demographic, with 852 males per 1,000 females in the city as of 2016. That means there are well over half a million women than men in this city of 7.34 million.

“The sex ratio [number of males per 1,000 females] decreased continuously over the past three decades,” the report goes. “In particular, there have been more women than men in the age group 20-39 since 1996 and also in the age group 40-44 since 2001.”

The author on Wilson Trail

The gender imbalance arises from three main causes, according to Professor Paul Yip, Chair of Population Health at The University of Hong Kong (HKU). “The first is migration and reunion – male immigrants bringing in their spouses from mainland China. The second pertains to life expectancy – women in Hong Kong live longer. Finally you have the influx of domestic helpers, mostly female.”

However, not counting foreign domestic helpers, women still outnumber men by 7.5%. “It reflects a public health issue,” posits Professor John Bacon-Shone, Director of HKU’s Social Sciences Research Centre. “The numbers are partly an indication of worse habits of males.” He cites the higher occurrence of male smokers as an example.

“Any imbalance disturbs the human ecology,” says Yip. “We see the marriage squeeze for women in Hong Kong, who have more difficulty finding husbands. Hong Kong men have been marrying mainland women – meaning less available men to marry local girls.”

The number of Hong Kong males marrying mainland brides increased from 1986 to 2006 by 78%, but the numbers went down in 2016 indicating a future trend reversal. “There is an increasing number of Hong Kong women marrying mainland men,” says Bacon-Shone. “Historically, the pattern was almost entirely Hong Kong men marrying mainland women, so I expect some correction as a consequence.”

Across the border, the opposite is the case where men outnumber women by 33.5 million. “Ironically, the mainland has the reverse problem with too few unmarried females,” says Bacon-Shone. As of 2015, the world’s most populous country officially phased out its 36-year-old one-child policy to correct their 115 to 100 ratio.

What exactly is so alarming about such disparate numbers? Is it really such a big issue to have more females than males and vice versa? Gafencu asks the experts.

“It is a problem if you believe that a unitary family is important,” says Bacon-Shone. The professor points out that low fertility and an ageing population – problems increasingly common to first world countries – are undeniable dilemmas for any society, case in point Japan. The latter has been called a demographic time bomb as its economy shrinks for lack of an expanding labour force to drive growth.

An empty playground in Nikko, Japan

“A city that can provide a healthy environment to set up a family reflects a stable ecosystem,” says Yip. “It’s basic social science: the more family units, the more stability. When you look at societies with more households and couples, poverty is lower overall, better on average compared to those with more single households.”

Yip also notes that single people are freer to move and travel, which makes them less dependable compared to family units who can be relied on more as consistently contributing members of society.

“Another major issue is the working participation rate,” says Yip. “Men’s working participation rate is always higher, so when you have more women, the labour force will be affected, impacting Hong Kong’s economy.”

According to Censtatd’s study, although there are more women of working age [15 and over] than men, the latter comprise a larger proportion of the labour force. “Women only account for about 54% of the workforce,” says Yip, “meaning only half of women in Hong Kong are working.”

However, all that is set to change in a silver lining that feminists would cheer. Several factors come into play pushing for higher female representation: improvement in educational attainment, marriage postponement, increased incidence of spinsterhood and an amplified number of never married women.

“This is going to change,” confirms Yip. “If women remain single, they need to support themselves financially. The educational attainment level is also improving – women are becoming more independent and employable.”

Let’s hope the recalibration translates into wage equalization as well; currently, men make HK$4,000 more than women on an average monthly basis.

Meanwhile, on the marriage front, Yip observes a female emigration. “Some women are already leaving Hong Kong to find husbands,” he says. “The few hundreds to few thousands of women are not sitting here waiting to get married..”

Hong Kong International Airport
A Cathay Pacific plane parked at the Hong Kong International Airport

That’s one way of correcting the demographic. For other ideas, the city could turn to its neighbour Singapore whose government has been meticulously strategising its eugenics since the 1970s. Bacon-Shone advises policy-makers to tread carefully: “I believe the government should facilitate society, yet be very cautious about intervening directly.”

“Hong Kong’s dating scene is tough,” says Nancy, who asked Gafencu not to use her real name. “It’s a very transient place, and it’s tough to find someone you have chemistry with but who also wants to settle down.”

Now in her early thirties, Nancy moved five years ago from London to Hong Kong – where her father was born. “The ratio is real,” she says. “My guy friends say it’s easier for them to meet women, but they have a lot of single girl friends who have trouble meeting the right guy.

“Girls do have a harder time because of the imbalance on top of the economic pressure to find someone who is financially stable – it’s a very expensive city. More women are choosing not to settle… I also think because Hong Kong is geographically a densely packed city, it’s too easy to meet new people. It’s easier to give up on a relationship that may not be working and find someone new.”

Cheers to the single life? Taken at Rech, Tsim Sha Tsui

Nancy, whose background is in law and finance, says she didn’t feel too much pressure in her twenties, but as she approached her thirties, her parents got particularly anxious about her settling down and getting married.

“My mum tried to pressure me into meeting this divorced single man in his mid-40s with a 7-year-old daughter,” she says. “It was pretty humiliating. The man had a questionable career and has lived in a town with less than 1,000 people most of his life. In his defence, he was nice. But we were worlds apart in terms of education and expectations.”

For the past two or three years, Nancy says she stepped back from dating as she changed track from finance to art. Upon a friend’s encouragement, she recently downloaded the dating app Coffee Meets Bagel.

“The guys have been nice so far,” she relents. Nancy had earlier resisted due to the stigma and horror stories preceding apps like Tinder.

Lonely at the Ritz

We ask her if she’s ready to meet “The One”. “I don’t really pressure myself,” she says. “If I meet someone along the way doing what I love and living the life I want to live, then fantastic. If not, it doesn’t matter so much.

“I fear being trapped in a loveless relationship more than being alone,” she continues. “Being in a relationship doesn’t guarantee happiness. What we see in adverts, movies and social media are curated to show only the good parts. ‘In a relationship’ should not be seen as a superior status to ‘single’.”

Her advice to younger women? “Have the courage to be yourself, never try to be anyone else in order to please or make someone love you.”


The original version of this article appears in Gafencu’s November 2017 print edition as “Ungroomed”. Parts of the text have been altered for online use.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s