What to call unpatriotic green-eyed opportunist devils?

Time Out Hong Kong, a magazine usually devoted to nothing deeper than surveys of up-market hamburgers, gets philosophical and asks the age-old taxonomical question: in what box do Western residents of the Big Lychee go? Are they expatriates or immigrants?

The classic ‘expat’ still exists. Ordered to come here by a company, accompanied by maid-dependent bored wife/bratty kids/smelly dog, living rent-paid in a white enclave, following their native land’s soap operas and sport, eating only meat/potatoes/veg, doing stereotypically – even self-consciously – expatty things like junk trips, going to Phuket, buying a property in some place like Perth, joining the Hash House Harriers (if they’re still around), and looking forward to their next trip home. But they are very much a minority.

Those of us who turned up for whatever reason 10, 20, 30 years ago and never left will say that Hong Kong at some stage became home: our friends are here, our job is here and our whole life is here. Many of us find the lands of our birth are now unfamiliar and maybe uninviting. Through years of exposure, we have absorbed some local culture and, to whatever degree we are comfortable with, speak, eat and even act or think locally. It all sounds respectable and honourable. And then, halfway through the article, along comes someone called May Holdsworth who hits the nail on the head by saying, in effect: “Naaah, they’re just tax exiles.”

At this point I stop and look at myself in the mirror. When I arrived in Hong Kong I had a 29-inch waist, little money, no job, little useful work experience and a distinct lack of any sort of burning ambition. That last item on the list still holds good, but everything else has changed. I came in search of an income as much as exotic adventure – we all need to eat. Today, I have a crummy but convenient and long paid-off property and an accumulation of liquid wealth equivalent to several decades’ worth of current monthly outgoings. Where else in the world could I have done that? Not somewhere with 2% annual GDP growth and 40% tax. If Timbuktu had hit on the right economic formula, we’d all be able to get by speaking Bambara in the street market, enjoy chicken and peanut stew and know a fair bit about and genuinely appreciate Malian history and culture. But Hong Kong did it instead.

Inevitably, Time Out interviews Mike Rowse, the 1970s British backpacker who ended up in a senior position in the Hong Kong civil service and took Chinese citizenship. Other non-Chinese Hongkongers have disowned their existing citizenship to do this. Some are of south Asian extraction and were left here with only second-class British documentation after 1997. German-born Canadian entrepreneur Allen Zeman quite possibly thought it would help his local political connections and mainland business interests. Rowse seems to have done it because it emotionally felt right.

He likes to tell the story of how, when he worked for the government and would travel with an ethnic Chinese colleague with Australian citizenship, he would hand both passports over to the immigration inspector and enjoy the look on the official’s face as he tried to puzzle it out. Also, you can use the fast PRC home return permit channel at Lo Wu. That’s about it as far as advantages go. (I am pretty sure that Rowse, being UK-born, could reapply for British status any time he wants.)

One thing you can be absolutely sure of, regardless of your Putonghua/chopstick/erhu skills, is that you will never be considered Chinese without serious cosmetic surgery. Ask young, gifted and half-black Shanghainese Lou Jing. Who would want her detractors as fellow citizens?

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8 Responses to What to call unpatriotic green-eyed opportunist devils?

  1. Maugrim says:

    The only thing that gets my gander up is that no HK-Asian Australian or Canadian would ever put up with ‘you look Asian so therefore you are not/cannot etc’. They would be off to Government sponsored equal-opportunity collectives in five minutes using words such as racism and discrmination. Ok, so I’m a ‘Gwai’ would I be so rude as to use similar colloquialisms based on race or skin colour in say the UK and get away with it? It’s worse for those from the Sub-continent, particularly those whose families have been here for generations being sneered at as second class citizens by those who may have entered HK at night by fast boat. /rant.

  2. YesMinister says:

    More delusions of grandeur but top marks for admitting you live in a slum. A tax exile indeed! You don’t earn enough. With your reactionary views and talent for disinformation, you would be Assistant Deputy Under-Secretary with the UK Civil Service by now, small house in Surrey, index-linked pension, retirement hideaway in the Algarve and no need to store up decades of subsistence funds. And think of all those people you would meet in the British National Party who have the same views as yourself. The oood news though is that expats in Hong Knng tend to drop off the twig early. Poor Hemlock!

  3. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    You’re kidding, right Maugrim? I can’t speak for Canada, but Australian born Chinese put up with that sort of stuff all the time without complaint, at least in Sydney. Cantankerous Anglo Saxon middle aged men aren’t the only grumbling-but-not-officially-complaining victims of banal discrimination.

  4. Maugrim says:

    Tiu Fu Fong, i think the sentiments behind the original article dealt more with acceptance and the feeling about whether in choosing HK as your home, that others accept you as Hong Konger, or alternatively, a dark-skinned woman in Shanghai being accepted as being Chinese. If you as an ABC were to declare yourself to be Australian, who outside a few yobs would dare say ‘but you look Chinese you can never really be an Australian’?

  5. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Fair point and I don’t disagree with anything in your response.

  6. pcrghlll says:

    A quick search of the web reveals a truly frightening array of Hash clubs on HK Island alone. And their cryptic chalk marks are often to be seen in remote, wild corners like Bowen Road. But I’m relieved to say I rarely bump into them when out and about.

  7. Another Opinion says:

    “Ok, so I’m a ‘Gwai’ would I be so rude as to use similar colloquialisms based on race or skin colour in say the UK and get away with it?”

    Maugrim, In England the point you raise is more subtly dealt with using the terms English and British.

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