It had been just two weeks since Mei-fong escaped from a Chinese village where she felt there had never been enough to eat, yet she would not touch the eggs offered her at dinner. She had eaten 26 goose eggs, the only thing she could easily hoard, during her four-day trek to the border, and she was sick of them.
At a steady trickle of about 20 a day, refugees from China still slip into this little British colony. Amid the worldwide controversy over human rights, the well-publicized escapes of Eastern Europeans, and the spectacular defection of a Chinese jet pilot to Taiwan, this is still where most of the disenchanted from the world's largest totalitarian state come. Their stories are remarkably bare of political dissent and yearnings for freedom.
For young people like 19-year-old Mei-fong, who comprise the bulk of illegal Chinese immigrants reaching here, there is little more to their urge for a change than a rumbling stomach and calloused hands.
By and large, they leave their homes because of a shortage of food and the changeless grind of farm work, and because of legends that the bright lights of Hong Kong bring riches to anyone who dares to cross the wire.
So far this year, the number caught trying to cross the border over the mountains of the New Territories or by swimming the coastal inlets has reached almost 800, the total for all of last year. No one really knows why. The ebb and flow of politics in Peking dose not seem to affect the numbers.
"It would be quite wrong to talk about these people as refugees," said one long-time observer of the immigration problem here. "Let us not look at the border as some kind of Berlin Wall. If they are anything at all, they are economic refugees. All these people have grown up under the Communist umbrella. They don't know anything but communism and are thoroughly fed up with the whole things. Life is just dull."
Perhaps good wealth entices more people to try the crossing. Perhaps some political turmoil distracts the border guards who might turn back escapees, although it is curious that more people did not try to cross the border during the 1976 nationwide struggle over the succession to Mao Tse-tung.
By the Hong Kong rule of thumb, there refugees escape detection for every one caught by Hong Kong authorities, so about 2,400 probably have made it here safely this year.
This is considered an acceptable number for a colony of 4.4 million and the bureau crats of London and Peking have done their best to prevent a return to the panicky days of 1962 and 1973.
At the time of the great Chinese famine in 1962, as many as 60,000 people entered the colony in just a few months, and the British were arresting some people for awhile and taking them back to the Chinese border, something they had never done before.
"They were just walking over the fences in droves," said one Briton who witnessed the 1962 influx.
In 1973, the number of illegal immigrants mushroomed again to about 24,000. Much worse, the Chinese in that same year granted legal exit permits to more than 55,000 people, compared to only about 500 scuh permits granted in 1970. Hong Kong's program to provide food and housing for the newcomers was nearly submerged in the flood.
Diplomatic discussions were held in London and Peking and suddenly the number of legal immigrants entering Hong Kong dropped. The next year further diplomatic talks were held, and the British resumed the 1962 policy of returning anyone caught in the act of crossing. As before, however, refugees who made it past the immediate border area were safe.
Since the British began to enforce what they call their "repatriation policy," the influx of immigrants has stabilized at about 80 a day, about 20 of whom are illegal.
Local volunteer agencies like the Chinese Refugees Industrial Organization and the International Rescue Committee say they have been getting fewer requests for financial and legal assistance from Chinese refugees since 1974. The U.S. Assistance to Refugees and Migrants program, operated out of the U.S. consulate here, also has reported a drop in demand for funds to provide refugees with food, housing and job training.
"Those who entered Hong Kong illegally after 1974 had a better reason for doing so than those who came before," said the director of the Internationl Rescue Committee, office Henry Allen, referring to the impact of the repatriation policy on those who are caught.
A refugee arrested at the border and turned back to the Chinese becomes a political misfit. He draws a fine equivalent to only $15 and serves a short time on a labor farm, but his chances of getting ahead in China are just about gone, giving him incentive to try to escape again.
Some refugees say the Chinese have strengthened their border patrols since 1974.
"There one militiaman patrolling the highways and paths for nearly every 100 feet of border." Mei-fong said. "You see many observation towers extending to the mid-level of Wusung Mountain, one of the most popular routes for escapees."
Mei-fong, not her real name, came from a small village in oen of the communes of Wei-yang district, about 60 miles from Hong Kong. Over the years tales of riches in Hong Kong have lured more than 80 young men and women from the village. Only and the younger teenagers are left.
Mei-fong's uncle reached Hong Kong in 1962 on his seventh escape attempt. As a newly registered Hong Kong resident he was able to return to the village to give Mei-fong vivid descriptions of city life.
After spending three unhappy years on the commune following graduation from junior high. Mei-fong finally decided to leave. Without lefting her family know, she saved up the 26 goose eggs and boiled them the night before she took off with five friends.
"We slept in the days among bushes and walked at night. The enormous light shining from Hong Kong was our sure guide. We hardly needed a compass," she said. "I was lucky enough not to be bitten by snakes. We crossed a number of rivers and the current was so strong that we had to tie our food on our heads."
"I made it as far as the border but I was caught by the People's Liberation Army," she said. "They took me to the Wei-yang district jail and kept me there for 10 hours. They sent me back to the commune after I have written a self-criticism and put me on a farm labor camp where they kept other escapees.
"There were 100 of us women altogether and we filled the three empty rooms, each 10 by 10 feet. Our food ration was small. We got nine ounces of grain per day. The place was filthy. There were bugs everywhere. We were not allowed to bathe. We ate, slept and relieved ourselves in the same place.
"But the security was slack. There were only three cadres guarding us. One night, when everyone was asleep, I sneaked out.
"I met five other people on the way back toward Hong Kong. One of them was a 74-year-old man who wanted to be with his son in Hong Kong. He was very kind and I hope he made it.
"I crossed the border in the middle of the night. I was so tired and desperate that I knocked at the first house I saw. I begged the family to take me in. They treated me nicely and promised to look for my relatives."
Mei-fong said her feelings toward her benefactors changed after she discovered that they had threatened to reveal her to the police if her uncle did not pay a "ransom" of $200.
"I hated working in the farm. There was no hope for me except to escape." Mei-fong said. "I don't know how evil the 'Gang of Four' was and I don't know how good Hua Kuo-feng is. All I know is that we didn't have enough to eat."