I always wondered what happened to them. Even those born in Hong Kong were not entitled to Chinese citizenship unless they were of Chinese descent. I wonder if these British permanent residents in Hong Kong learnt to speak Cantonese.
What's the first word that comes to mind when you hear the term "Hong Kong expatriate?"
Thought so. Everyone says banker.
Twelve years ago this week, Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony. Just after midnight on July 1st 1997 Chris Patten boarded the Royal Yacht Britannia and sailed away to the strains of Land of Hope and Glory.
His departure coincided with rumours of an accompanying exodus of British expatriates. Traditional red post boxes had been painted green and purple and bank notes no longer carried a picture of the Queen – for some, there seemed little point in staying.
As it turned out, not everyone left when the last governor did. The British Consulate in Hong Kong estimates that there are currently between 25,000 and 30,000 UK expats based in the city. And contrary to popular belief, we're from a diverse range of professions and backgrounds – from former civil servants to clergymen; wheeler-dealers to washed-up backpackers.
Car mechanic Derek Brooks followed his girlfriend out to Hong Kong in 1994, found work maintaining a fleet of buses and decided not to return to Britain. When contracts started going to Chinese firms after 1997, the native of Harrow, Middlesex, took a job installing state of the art desks on the dealing floors of international banks.
In a form of economic irony, the recent wave of layoffs in the finance industry mean Brooks has never been busier. "I'm taking back out all the desks I put in," he jokes.
Mark Knight joined the Hong Kong Civil Service in the late Eighties and was impressed with the perks. "We had a huge apartment, a maid, gratuities and generous travel allowances," he says.
When the privileges ended in 1997, Knight qualified as an English language examiner and now specialises in corporate benchmarking across Asia.
"The opportunity to reinvent yourself is far greater here than back home. Switching careers in the UK would be much more difficult," he says.
David Tait would agree. Colonial Hong Kong was a sought-after posting for British military personnel and the Scottish Royal Navy officer liked what he saw during two tours of duty in the Eighties. He quit the Submarine Service and settled here permanently in 1993.
"I had no fixed career plans when I returned but the place was awash with money," the former lieutenant remembers. After a stint selling advertising space, Tait set up his own publishing company which has been in business for a decade this year.
At a time when the transfer of sovereignty was causing anxiety for some long-term expats, others saw the chance of a lifetime. Large numbers of young Britons poured into the colony for a last hurrah, attracted by preferential immigration and employment status and the chance to witness history being made.
Clutching CVs of varying pedigree, they slept on friends' sofas and hustled for job openings. These eleventh-hour arrivals became known as FILTH (Failed In London, Try Hong Kong). Many are still here.
British backpackers also arrived in droves. In need of a cash injection after extended jaunts around south-east Asia, they could turn up in Hong Kong in the afternoon and be serving drinks in a bar by evening.
Paul Docherty landed a job at Joe Bananas, a popular city nightspot. Realising he was never going to get rich pulling pints for homesick tourists, he decided to set up his own pub on rural Lantau Island.
The timing and location were perfect – construction of the new Hong Kong International Airport had started nearby and thirsty workers crowded into Papa Doc's from the day it opened. "The airport project definitely affected my decision to look for a place on Lantau," Docherty admits.
For another group of transplanted Brits, the Chinese passion for education is a blessing. No one has ever counted but there are probably more UK born teachers than bankers in Hong Kong.
From tutoring in language clubs to lecturing at universities, anyone with (and sometimes without) a qualification can usually find a teaching position.
Dominic Abbott arrived in 1993 and in another "it could only happen in Hong Kong" tale; he combined teaching English with work as a bouncer at a bar in Kowloon. The primary school teacher from Bradford says his nocturnal employment was infinitely more interesting than his day job.
"Triads would come in and offer money to spend the night with the barmaids. I had to tactfully explain that it wasn't that kind of place without upsetting the gang members. Then after a couple of hours' sleep I had to go and teach grammar to a class of Chinese housewives."
A different kind of violence was about to erupt as one visitor was deciding whether to put down roots in the city. Reverend John Chynchen first ventured to the Far East in the Sixties, arriving in Hong Kong for the first time in 1966.
The Communist-inspired riots a year later didn't dampen the former marine surveyor's enthusiasm however and he moved to the colony permanently not long after. Ordained as a deacon in 1989, he has no plans to abandon his flock.
"I was all set to leave in 1997," he recalls "but I realised that I wasn't ready to retire." Like most "old China hands" Chynchen, originally from Enfield, deals with bouts of homesickness by returning to the UK at regular intervals.
"I would definitely describe myself as an expatriate," he says "but I still retain membership of my London club."
Under the "one country, two systems" policy, Hong Kong is rapidly integrating with mainland China. Colonial privilege and residual goodwill are waning and resourceful British expats are discovering that adaptability and cultural awareness are more useful than membership of the cricket club.
This morning I asked my four-year-old son to sing me a song he'd learned at kindergarten. I recognised the tune immediately but not the words. He was singing in Mandarin.
06 July 2009
The FILTH in Hong-kers
British expatriates living abroad write in to the (UK) Daily Telegraph about their lives "as an expat". There was a great piece by Tim Pile about what happened to the Britons who stayed behind in Hong Kong after the colony reverted to Chinese control.