Expat or immigrant?

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Many Hong Kong residents exist in the blurry zone between 'expat' and 'immigrant', neither firmly one nor the other. So what separates the two? Who decides? And why does it even matter? Hamish McKenzie explores what it means to be a foreigner living in Hong Kong and finds the answers are as slippery as the questions

Mike Rowse's journey to Chinese citizenship started with a 1986 trip to Beijing. Rowse, who was born in England, was one of four expatriate Hong Kong civil servants sent to meet Lu Ping, the then deputy head of China’s Hong Kong and Macau office. Rowse’s mission was to find out what would become of Hong Kong’s expats after the transfer of sovereignty to China.

“We were very frank,” recalls Rowse of the meeting with Lu. “We said, ‘Look, we’re not troublemakers, we understand history, we just want to know: do you want the expats to stay after 1997, or do you want us to go?’”

Lu’s response, says Rowse, was unambiguous and emphatic. “He said, ‘We want you all to stay, and go back and tell all of your colleagues that we want you all to stay’.” The only condition, Lu said, was that the top 15 to 20 posts in Hong Kong’s administration be reserved for Chinese nationals.

One of Rowse’s colleagues then asked, “Is there any way I can become a Chinese national?”

Lu replied: “You can apply.”

Upon return to Hong Kong, Rowse reported that intriguing response to David Ford, who was then secretary of the civil service and would later become Hong Kong’s last non-Chinese Chief Secretary. Ford soon sent Rowse a copy of the Chinese nationality law in English. He found much to capture his interest.

China’s nationality law, as it turns out, is very liberal. There are no ethnic requirements, no language requirements, and no oaths of allegiance. To assume Chinese citizenship, you must simply renounce any other citizenships you hold, and to qualify you only need to meet one of three basic criteria: be a near relative of a Chinese national, be a long-term resident of China, or have “other legitimate reasons”.

Rowse would ultimately come to qualify under all three. And so, in 2001, having lived in Hong Kong for 30 years and then serving as the director general of Invest Hong Kong, he decided to become Chinese. He was Hong Kong’s first expat civil servant to do so.

“It’s such a big decision that you don’t actually take it in one go,” he says of the naturalisation process. “You take it like sliced bread – you take it a slice at a time and you wake up one morning and three-quarters of the loaf’s on one side of the scale, and one quarter’s on the other side of the scale, and the three quarters are getting bigger and the quarter’s getting smaller.”

Hong Kong had become home for Rowse. While the scale of the decision was grand, he says it wasn’t a difficult one. But few other long-term expats on our shores have followed suit – Lan Kwai Fong and Ocean Park chairman Allan Zeman, who took up Chinese citizenship in 2008, is a notable exception – and recent figures suggest the numbers are getting lower. The number of applications for Chinese citizenship in Hong Kong fell 16 per cent – from 1,541 to 1,295 – in 2008, far below a peak of 1,840 in 2006, according to local immigration department data. Those figures contradict trends in other parts of the world. The UK, for instance, saw a huge increase in citizenship applications in 2009 – numbers in the first quarter were up 57 per cent compared to the same period the previous year – and the US a moderate increase, despite recent application fee hikes.

So why the reluctance? Is there some mystical quality intrinsic to our expats that makes them cling to their birth countries even when it has become clear to them that Hong Kong is home? After all, a Hong Kong passport is pretty handy, offering visa-free entry to 140 countries. On top of that, Chinese citizens can visit the Motherand with ease on a ‘return-home’ permit.

But then, does citizenship even matter? The commitment to become a Hongkonger surely extends beyond a piece of paper, however important and symbolic that paper is. While some might argue you can’t truly call yourself a creature of this land until you bear that certificate, there has to be some leeway. Hong Kong, after all, is a special case whose history is a duality of Chinese foundations and British influences. It is a place where people of both cultures have long felt they belong, even sometimes without formal recognition. In today’s post-colonial context, that sense of ‘Hong Kong as home’ is also broadening so it now applies to a diverse and growing population of South and Southeast Asians, even as the population of Westerners declines.

Citizenship, then, may be the end-point confirmation of one’s sense of belonging, but it isn’t the ultimate decider. In determining whether or not you are a Hongkonger, you have to consider a raft of complicated factors, subjective and pragmatic, emotional and rational, cultural and physical. The ultimate question, though, is one of commitment. Are you squatter or settler? Drifter or denizen? Expat or immigrant?

Taking chances

Steve Tennant has what is a pretty common Hong Kong expat story. The 57-year-old Brit, who grew up in Singapore, came to Hong Kong in 1980 with a small suitcase and an 18-month contract to work for a construction company. He was staying in the New World Hotel at the time and his company gave him a food allowance. With a friend, he started working his way through Hong Kong’s restaurants until one day he struck upon Tsim Sha Tsui’s Fung Lum Kok, a popular Sichuan restaurant. There he was served by a bubbly young Chinese girl – “Far more extroverted than usual Hong Kong girls,” he recalls – who captured his imagination. A few weeks later, he returned with his friend and managed to get her phone number. He arranged a date with her, and when he picked her up and she got into the car, she said, “Oh, I thought you were the other one.”

The two eventually married. At that point, Tennant hadn’t yet decided where to live. He had worked in the Middle East and Africa, and when he initially came to Hong Kong he had also been considering work in South America.

Two daughters arrived, Tennant bought property, and gradually, by the late 1990s, he came to the conclusion that he would retire here. He’s very comfortable in Hong Kong and now owns a construction consultancy business. He understands Cantonese, can speak enough to get by, and has worked in a number of Chinese-dominated workplaces. His daughters, now 23 and 19, speak Cantonese, Putonghua and English. “We don’t live here as expats,” he says. “We just simply live as comfortable Hongkongers.”

He’s grateful to Hong Kong for not only the obvious perks – the Sevens, the seafood, and the junk trips – but also for the “unique Hong Kong society, particularly if you live here and mix more with the local society as opposed to simply living in a gweilo ghetto.”

Hong Kong’s can-do spirit, too, was a big factor in his decision to stay. “Hong Kong dramatically changed me from being just simply another salary man to someone who takes some chances.” Tennant has transcended expat status in Hong Kong. He is considering applying for Chinese citizenship.

Defining factors

On a basic level, the definitions of ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’ are pretty clear cut, but they are subtly – and, for the purposes of this story, crucially – different. Most dictionaries will tell you that to expatriate yourself is to voluntarily withdraw yourself from your native country. The destination, in this case, doesn’t really matter. Meanwhile, the same dictionaries define ‘immigrant’ as someone who moves to another country, usually for permanent residence. Here, the destination is all that matters. The expat merely removes himself from his country, not necessarily severing ties with it. The immigrant, on the other hand, removes himself to another country in search of a better life away from his home.

There are historical connotations to each, too. In many cases, expats were initially posted overseas by their companies. The motivations were often financial – they moved for money and a career boost – and as such they tried to make their lives in the new country as similar as possible to their lives back home. On the other hand there is a sense that immigrants move to improve, or even salvage, their lives, more or less forsaking their home countries in the process.

“In lots of people’s view, an expatriate is someone who lives in isolated splendour on The Peak,” says May Holdsworth, author of the 2002 book Foreign Devils: Expatriates in Hong Kong. “There’s a slight derogatory tinge for them.” That view has it that such expats don’t relate to the natives, they haven’t bothered to learn Chinese, and they see the locals are mere providers of services. This is an old view that has to be seen in a context of colonisation, when the British sent boatloads of citizens here to run the administration and serve in government agencies. Prior to 1997, such expats would have been more prevalent, but today they are becoming increasingly marginalised.

Hong Kong’s expat culture is changing and has been since before the Handover. Westerners from other parts of the world – the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand – have also come here because Hong Kong is a finance centre. They’re attracted by low taxes and favourable business conditions, and, ever since Deng Xiaoping opened China for business, the territory’s proximity to the Mainland. Today, the expat landscape is significantly different.

“There was an exodus of senior civil servants after 1997, so in one stroke a whole set of people had gone,” says Holdsworth. “There’s [since] been an infusion of younger people who, with globalisation and so on, are commercial mercenaries. They come here for a couple of years, they move on.”

The shift, at least when it comes to Westerners, has resulted in a younger expat population with less long-term interest in Hong Kong. The remnants of colonial Hong Kong are fading, even disappearing, a point encapsulated by the recent retirement of senior assistant police commissioner Mike Dowie, the last expat to hold a senior management position in the force. The civil servants who constituted the backbone of Hong Kong’s expat population – who were heavily invested in both the economic and cultural health of the territory – have been replaced by a more itinerant bunch largely intent on accumulating a lot of money. That’s not to say that the heavily-invested types are gone completely – Mike Rowse and Allan Zeman are clear proof against that – but they’re in shorter supply. And then there’s the tax thing.

“The overwhelming reason from my observation for people to settle here is that they in fact become tax exiles,” explains Holdsworth, who is ethnically Chinese but was born in England. “Hong Kong then becomes a residence of convenience. They probably enjoy living in Hong Kong, but they remain rooted in the culture of their home country, and they probably have friends of their own sort who are in the same boat.”

That question of sticking to your own is especially pertinent to Hong Kong, where the divide between the local population and the expat population is especially sharp. “Hong Kong is a strange place,” says sociology professor Lui Tai-lok of Hong Kong University. “On the one hand, you may say that it is reasonably global and international... but at the same time, you don’t really see a lot of mixing [between locals and expats] in everyday life.”

Even with the changing expat dynamics, reasons Lui, the cultural gap remains yawning. “It has not been a kind of change of people closing their doors and becoming more segregated,” he says. “It’s always been like, everyone knows the other group exists, but it’s always been ‘out there’.”

David Smith, a history lecturer at Lingnan University who specialises in Western representations of China, says his Chinese students have split views on the expat population here. “Some will associate us with Lan Kwai Fong, casual sex and alcoholism,” says Smith. “A couple will say Westerners are stand-offish or arrogant. But you also hear things like friendly, nice, affluent, well-mannered, even interested in Chinese culture or Chinese people.”

Then there’s the other side of the equation. “Even among the most liberal and enlightened Westerners, I think deep down there is this sense of slight superiority over the locals,” reckons Smith. The attitudes they harbour wouldn’t be out of place in the early days of colonialism: the local Chinese are cold, inscrutable, hard to reach, there are impenetrable barriers between the two cultures, and it’s not Westerners’ faults if they’re not able to integrate into local society.

Ultimately, Smith says, the question of who is an immigrant – who can qualify as a Hongkonger – comes down to attitude. Are they just here to make money, or are they here to live?

A place to live

Cecilie Gamst Berg isn’t so sure where she fits in to Hong Kong. In fact, she doesn’t like the term ‘immigrant’ and thinks it calls to mind negative connotations. “I think ‘immigrant’ sounds even less belonging somewhere than ‘expat’,” she says. She is, however, a long-time resident with a stake in the city. The Norwegian, who has lived here for 20 years, is a fluent Cantonese speaker who reads and writes Chinese. She is co-host of RTHK’s Naked Cantonese segment on the Naked Lunch radio show, writes a blog about life in Hong Kong, films instructional Cantonese videos, takes people on tours of Guangdong, and does crash courses in everything Hong Kong for expats.

However, she still feels like – and is happy feeling like – an outsider in the city. “I just speak the language, play the cards and eat the food,” she says. Although she doesn’t feel at one with the “Hello Kitty” side of the culture, she is enthusiastic about many aspects of Hong Kong life.

“Hong Kong made me what I am today. Do you think a Chinese could go to Norway and just establish himself as a Norwegian teacher?”

She doesn’t know whether or not she’ll ever leave Hong Kong, but she is “deeply entrenched”.

Rowse and Tennant seem pretty clear-cut cases of immigrants, if not by strict legal definition then at least in an ideological sense. Gamst Berg, perhaps, has a more complicated relationship with the city. But these are people who have found their place in Hong Kong and have decided it is home. They have made contributions to it beyond just showing up to work and paying tax.

Mutual benefit

And then there's my own perspective. Mine is a familiar story for Hong Kong. I came here in 2006 as a young man seeking opportunities. Granted, unlike some I wasn’t looking to make a wad of cash – a career in journalism never promises that – but I was at least hoping to exploit Hong Kong’s proximity to China to promote my career, as well as get to know a new culture. Four years on, I have fully taken those opportunities, milked them for what they’re worth, and now I’m moving on to do the same in the US.

I admire the people who have found a place in Hong Kong, who have fully committed themselves to the city and the culture. I can see why they view the interlopers with a degree of disdain, chiding them for living in a cocoon of gweilodom, lamenting their exploitative ways. Ultimately, I’m an exploiter, not much better than May Holdsworth’s “commercial mercenaries”. When Steve Tennant talks about the “gweilo ghetto”, I know what he means. I haven’t learned much Cantonese beyond “turn left”, “BBQ pork with rice”, and “please stand back from the doors”, and if not quite all, at least the majority of my friends are expats.

I have also frequently complained about Hong Kong’s shortcomings – the thin-on-the-ground arts scene, the pollution, the obsession with money and materialism – without doing much to address those issues myself, knowing full well that in a matter of time I’d be out of here and they’d be someone else’s problems.

But to what extent does that matter? Would I expect more of an outsider living in my home country? Would I expect more of myself if I were living in a different country? In this increasingly globalised world, a mixing of cultures is as fluid and easy as crossing a border. Time spent in countries away from home needn’t always be an all-in cultural conversion. And these questions of integration, assimilation – whatever you want to call it – are not endemic to Hong Kong. Could we not be talking about anywhere in the world? Ultimately, the scrabbling to make sense of one’s place in this city is academic. There needn’t be a qualitative ‘good’ or ‘bad’ label attached.

If an ‘expat’ is to be understood as a broad idea rather than a narrow definition, then I embody the term. The broad idea – my broad idea – is that a Hong Kong expat is someone who arrives here knowing full well he will one day leave. He feels as if he is operating outside of the local population rather than from within it. I’m comfortable with that. I wouldn’t have lasted even four years here if I wasn’t.

Immigrants, on the other hand, aren’t to be assessed merely by the number of years they have lived in the city. They have to invest in the culture; they have to understand their place in the city and come to grips with what surrounds them, physically and socially.

Without the come-and-go expats, Hong Kong would survive just fine. For as much as expats add flashes of colour to the city, this place doesn’t need them. The immigrants, on the other hand, have a stake in the city, and the city has a stake in them. If one thrives, so does the other.

Hong Kong as home

So what does it mean to be an immigrant in Hong Kong today? The question is essentially the same as ‘What does it take to be a Hongkonger?’ One approach would offer numerous boxes to check off in order to see if you qualify. The first check box, naturally, would be Cantonese. Do you speak it? Do you understand it? Are you making an attempt to do either? Because without Cantonese, you will never properly understand this city. You will always be, to some degree, an outsider. Ditto if you can’t read Chinese.

There are other obvious factors. Do you attend and contribute to cultural events? Are you part of the community? Are you engaged with political matters? Have you invested money in Hong Kong?

To a degree, these are facile measurements, but they all hint at one overriding consideration: you have to make a commitment to Hong Kong. That commitment can’t be expressed with a permanent resident’s card, or even a decision to live here long-term. It relies on a deep sense of contribution to the territory, a mutual give-and-take.

Being an expat isn’t necessarily a permanent condition. It is possible to transform. In fact, it happens all the time. Many non-Chinese Hongkongers are accidental immigrants. There are thousands of people like Mike Rowse and Steve Tennant, who came here with no intention to stay for long – as bona fide expats – and merely took Hong Kong life one slice at a time, until they one day woke up to find three quarters of the identity loaf was on the Hong Kong side of the scale.

Rowse, in fact, is able to describe the moment when he personally shifted from expat to immigrant. “For my first few years, going to England on leave was going home,” he says. “And that changed. I don’t know whether it was 1979 or the early 1980s, but going to Hong Kong was going home, and going to the UK was visiting.”

It’s a mental shift, he says, that happens without you really noticing.

“It’s a very interesting moment, because you’re in the check-in queue at Heathrow and you see ‘CX Hong Kong’, and you’re saying to yourself without realising, ‘Ah good, I’m close to going home’.”

Further reading: Hong Kong's words to live by. What's our equivalent to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?'

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28 Comments Add your comment

  • last year, my partner (chinese-canadian) and i (south african) actively sought out an opportunity to move to hong kong as a place to raise our little, transnational family. i can't help but compare my experience of immigrating to hk to my initial experiences as a new canadian. in canada, the dominant culture is white anglo-saxon protestant, but imposed on that is also an openness to newcomers - and a welcoming of the richness in culture and language that they bring with them - that i rarely see elsewhere in the world. in canada, it’s almost as if the country adapts to the immigrant (rather than vice versa)! after only six short years of having immigrated to canada, i not only gained dual citizenship but i can say that i feel canadian. naively, i thought this would be my experience of hong kong. i had hoped that there was enough of a western narrative here that i could one day call myself a westerner *and* a hongkonger simultaneously. unfortunately, no matter how fluently i speak cantonese (or how vigourously i rap the table upon having my teacup filled for me, etc), i doubt i will feel that i belong here in the way that i feel i belonged in canada. the reason, in my opinion, is that locals have not considered accepting the Other as a bona fide part of a native hong kong discourse. we are tolerated as interlopers; a necessary means to raising the overall wealth (and international language proficiency) of the territory. to me, this is totally understandable, because of colonial history (let’s call it: the city itself was founded on the arrogance of western opium pimps!), but regrettable: that to be a true hongkonger you must be chinese. whether i’m an expat or an immigrant, it seems to me, really isn’t my decision to make.

    Posted by Jonathan on April 14, 2010 at 08:59 AM
  • this is probably the most important article i've seen in the history of this insipid magazine. TOHK has never lived up to their initial hype but finally instead of where to eat the best shrimp dumping with caviar or that dude their food columnist flirts with every thursday, they're actually talking about something culturally important. living in HK makes you racist, it's a society bent on compartmentalizing all its residents. i think this article missed on big point - the huge role status plays in HK. it's obvious, look at the conspicuous consumption of LV bags. being an expat has the cache of a higher social status, but you can't have it both ways. you either take that free social capital (god knows you didn't deserve it, it's post colony stuff) and suck it, or you toss it and get involved in the local culture. it's not a toss that many expats make. also our companies should stop giving jobs to people who don't give a sh*t about our city.

    Posted by bettie jane on April 14, 2010 at 12:27 PM
  • There is a middle ground in here, in that Hong Kong allows a resident to become a permanent resident (of Hong Kong) and take part in nearly all aspects of life with the exception of holding government office. You can vote, pay taxes, protest, whatever... The fact that many expats choose to congregate in ‘gwai-lo’ zones, rather than mixing-in is in part because of the tendency to cling to what you know. This same logic is why you get pockets of ethnic diasporic developments nearly everywhere in the world (though in some places it is still forced), the key difference in Hong Kong is that it is less of an ethnic diaspora and more of an economic one, as more often than not ex-pats from various western locales come here for the salary and perks, rather than the culture and social life or fleeing some social upheaval For Chinese ‘nationality’ however, the real issue for some does boil down to aspects of race over national identity. Just refer to this Time article from last year to see just how alive this sentiment is; http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1925589,00.html

    Posted by Foxlore on April 14, 2010 at 02:50 PM
  • great, great read. strongest piece in the mag maybe ever. as someone who's lived 15 years in US and 15 years in HK, i'm a bit torn myself as to what i am (although i aint no gweilo; i'm chinese)....i like hk but kinda know one day im gonna leave to move back to the US. one thing i notice though, is that most english speaker in hk refuse to call hk home, even if they've lived here for years and years or will be here for years and years. it's like ther's this unwritten rule where it's cooler to claim US or london as home or something. i know international school kids who's lived in hk for 18 of their 22 years but they claim another country as home cause they speak fluent English and went to school there. please. freaking snobs.

    Posted by ben on April 14, 2010 at 04:10 PM
  • finally, this magazine dares to tackle an issue that is so embedded yet never discussed openly. despite china being hailed as the new super world power, you won't ever see an immigration queue at the wan chai office. that's because even though we are firmly in the 21st century, expats are still treating hong kong like a concubine.

    Posted by janice on April 15, 2010 at 06:09 PM
  • but janice, the concubine is commitment phobic. it makes little stride in social integration - so what's a married man to do?

    Posted by perry on April 16, 2010 at 06:15 AM
  • also, it used to be with the Brits that you had to have some language skill and interest/investment to be sent to HK. now they let anyone in. also there is a queue at immigration but it's mostly mainlanders. for such an over populated city i guess you can understand why they don't want people to immigrate here

    Posted by perry on April 16, 2010 at 06:52 AM
  • Very interesting article. As an ABC (American Born Chinese(, I have found it to be less an issue of "expats" or "outsiders" not wanting to integrate into HK culture, as it has been that many Hong Kong-ers do not see anyone who is exactly like them (from HK, speaks Cantonese Chinese, follows the HK entertainment scene etc) as one that can ever "be a true Hong Konger." I am not speaking of all Hong Kong people--I have definitely met a few HK-ers that have changed my impression, but I would have to say having worked in an environment as the only non-local Hong Kong-Chinese, I can definitely feel that there is a lack of acceptance towards "the other." What I find truly ironic is that HK Chinese people do not accept those from the Mainland or returning Chinese and cast groups of people off just as easily as they do with "gweilos." I think it is a tragedy of the Hong Kong culture that this city has bred such an intolerance and lack of curiousity of international affairs in general and of people from other countries. Let's hope that those of us who stay (I'll be here for at least another 3 years!) will be committed enough to help change this!!

    Posted by LT on April 16, 2010 at 08:34 AM
  • Nice article. As a recent arrival who enjoys mixing with the local culture whether it mean going to the streets in Sheun Wan for groceries and duck to taking a journey to Shakiwan (spl) to try a non English speaking barber the key is to make an effort. Many expats simple are here for the paycheck and the tax break. As an American (US) I find the differences between locals and Americans far less than between an American and the UK expats. This is not simply a cursory observation. Many classes in business scholls and courses have focused on the same language/different culture of English. The incident of the American exec being sent to London and promptly failing are readily available. There are many deep layers here. The key is to make an effort to intergate your self but enjly your own cultural interests at the same time. Any other (expat or otherwise) baseball players interested in joining me the Sunday as I attend my first practice with the local Dragonflies Baseball Club? :) (yes, that is really their name)

    Posted by Reuben S on April 16, 2010 at 09:50 AM
  • A great read - Hamish, you will do well in your next move I'm sure. I agree with the comments on the incredibly materialistic culture that HK is. But, it's partly us expatriates to blame - the easy, cheap money that Westerners accumulate and fritter away only encourages. I agree wholeheartedly that to truly integrate with a local culture, be that HK, India or Canada, long term visitors must try at least to immerse themselves as much as possible in the language and see beyond their own cosseted and isolated worlds. Hong Kong does have a long way to go though in making its temporary residents feel more at home though.

    Posted by JN on April 16, 2010 at 01:32 PM
  • JN, you say HK has a long way to go in making its temporary residents feel more at home, i think on the contrary we go out of our way to make them feel like they are still in THEIR home. Look at all the international schools - HKIS, ESF, GSIS, FIS, SIS so their kids won't feel "out of place", the Cricket club caters to brits while the American Club coddles the yanks (have you been to the country store in their tai tam club house that sells m&ms at an astronomical price because they are made in the USA ad shipped to HK?) I had previously worked in Tokyo and every expat I knew took some form of Japanese lesson, in HK I see expats chastising hotel waiters for not prounoucing chateau briand correctly. so who is making more effort here?

    Posted by susanna on April 16, 2010 at 01:50 PM
  • Nicely written. Some of the issues raised are broad enough to relate to those of us living on the mainland too.

    Posted by Troy Waller on April 17, 2010 at 09:46 AM
  • Great piece of read! Definitely generating some food for thought. Susanna, I totally agree with you. When I was studying and (eventually working) abroad, it was by default us who will adapt and fit into the local culture, not the other way round. Guess expats have been spoiled over the years for setting up "micro-expat societies" and HK locals being complacent.

    Posted by tom on April 19, 2010 at 09:12 AM
  • I think in our ever changing world - like the 8 track, word processor, or palm, expat will soon become irrelevant and obsolete. people have become extremely mobile, and a bicoastal lifestyle is now a way of life for many people. why is there still a need to self-segregate? i was born in HK but grew up in the US and I feel perfectly at home eating a burger or a pineapple bun. If to be an expat one purposely try to avoid participating and assimilating into another culture, then it's very sad indeed, because they miss out on so much enrichment.

    Posted by aaron h on April 19, 2010 at 01:36 PM
  • What a somewhat decent article in a normally shit magazine. Unless one naturalises, one is still an expatriate, regardless of the adoption of local language and culture. As a speaker, reader, and writer of Cantonese, Mandarin, and (speaker of) Shanghainese who has lived here for fifteen years, I'd never be so foolish as to call myself an immigrant as I'd never take on Chinese citizenship, just as I never took on Japanese citizenship despite having been born and raised there. Why on earth should one want to? In both cases, they're quite limited, though at least one can travel widely on a Japanese passport.

    Posted by Lai on April 20, 2010 at 12:42 AM
  • agree with susanna. come on expat/gweilos, dont play the "oh woe is me" card. even if you guys are not accepted in mainstream culture, locals put you english speakers on a pedesdal. everyone knows you guys live in the expensive areas eating expensive meals (seriously, a typical english speaker's lunch in soho is like triple the typical meal a local eats in say, mong kok). furthermore, a high majority of english speakers in HK have never attempted to even get or adapt to local culture. most of you guys stay in the same LKF/Central/Wanchai circle. Hell, traveling out to like, Sai Wan Ho is out of the way for you guys. Don't blame no one. you guys live a fluffy life here. just sadly in a tiny bubble.

    Posted by ben on April 20, 2010 at 05:39 PM
  • As an expat I had never felt un-welcomed in Hong Kong until I just read through all these comments... It is sad that we live in a world without tolerance - for people's race, color, gender and financial situation. Not all expats live cushy lives and not all expats live in a tiny bubble. If you Hong Kongers travel outside your tiny little bubbles, you will find very large communities of Hong Kong Chinese all around the world who are doing exactly what you are accusing us expats of doing. Travel to any major city in the US and you will find a China Town where most people don't speak a single word of english and really don't care to assimilate into the american culture. In the end, we leave our homes, our families and all that is familiar to us and move to another country for reasons that are all very unique and personal and I don't think we should be criticized and ostracized for wanting to be in environments that remind us of home. It is human nature and happens with every culture and nationality and people that immigrate. As far as the comment about local companies giving jobs to foreigners, I can only say that maybe if the locals had better command of the english language, then this would not be an issue. It is very expensive for a company to support an expat and they would not do it unless there was a real need...

    Posted by hg on April 21, 2010 at 07:48 AM
  • hg, you dont get it. most of us locals (im half local i guess, as mentioned earlier) arent looking down or insulting the expats/gweilos for staying in a bubble (okay so not all, but a high majority do). our comments (me and susanna) are in response to the expats actually accusing locals of not welcoming you guys or discriminate against you guys. i understand if filipinos complain about racism or discrimination because they get it bad here. but expats/gweilos, as i already said, are put on a pedestal here. I wasn't criticizing you guys for staying in Eng-speaking areas, my comment was directed at JN's comments, who said locals werent doing a good job of making you guys feel more at home. anyway, have a read thru susanna's comments and i bet you cant counter that. everytime i hear an expat/gweilo make fun of a local persons english, i am rolling my eyes.

    Posted by ben on April 21, 2010 at 11:12 AM
  • i must say i concur with ben. i don't endorse racisms of any kind - to filipinos, nepalese, pakistanis, or expats. and as an ABC i have plenty of expat (westerner) friends who came to HK jobless to seek their fortunes. but unfortunately, although the term expat can be "broad", ie, describe anyone who is NOT a HK citizen, it is still reserved for those who, either through their job position or race, enjoy a "higher" status. Many of the indian or pakistani population who live in HK actually learn chinese, because there is no "indian international school" or "pakistan international school". many expats from the US or the UK come to hk courtesy of their rich multinational companies like morgan stanley or procter and gamble. but hg, do you realise that many chinese who live in Chinatown have no other choice because they simply cannot get a job in NYC or LA or whichever city they move to? so they end up being waiters or work in some garment factory. HK is generally an extremely tolerant place and sometimes I can't but feel that even in our hometurf, we still "look up" to or are envious of expats.

    Posted by donald on April 21, 2010 at 05:14 PM
  • I am originally from San Francisco and now live in Shanghai. I work for an international real estate company and many of my colleagues are, naturally, Chinese. I am learning to speak Putonghua and people in my office make an effort to speak English with me. It takes hard work on both sides, is what I am trying to say. So stop the debate and start getting along.

    Posted by michelle on April 21, 2010 at 05:24 PM
  • well said, donald. i bet many HKers look at these expats and think, why do they live the high life here without contributing much? why is our government letting them thrive while oppressing other ethnic minorities? there are companies who pay expats better than locals for the same job, for no apparent reason. i am HK Chinese, and have dated several expats who make no attempt to assimilate into HK culture. what are they here for? just money and easy asian chicks? These are the worst of gweilos.

    Posted by audrey on May 6, 2010 at 04:42 PM
  • A majority of gweilos here take HK for granted. It's generally very easy for foreigners to work and live here, but the same is not true for people on this side of the world: very few asians could work and live in europe and american because of strict immigration. This looks like globalisation only works in the favor of europeans and americans, which is very unfair. also usually asians can't enjoy jobs of high status in a foreign country while foreigners are usually put on a pedestal and lead an easy life in Asia. the reasons why foreigners and locals can't easily mix are very complicated and not easy to fix. but foreigners must take the initiative to get off their high horse and make an effort to show that HK means more than just making money and having fun

    Posted by kkk on May 11, 2010 at 03:00 PM
  • Finally a relevant article but I wish Hamish had dug deeper. The sense of superiority in my mind is the key reason why so many Western immigrants here insist on holding on to their "expat" label despite having settled here in all practical purposes (often married to locals with children growing up/grew up here). I mean I have never ever seen people who moved to, settled and intend to stay in the US for good call themselves expats. They are immigrants. I have no respect for Cecilie Gamst Berg at el who have made HK their permanent home and yet refuse to see themselves as part of Hong Kong. But I understand--at least in her case--why: she makes a living based on the appeal of herself as a blonde outsider. Take that outsider tag off the appeal becomes diminished. There are too many similar cases like hers. Understandable? Sure! Disingenuous? You bet!

    Posted by helen chou on July 21, 2010 at 12:13 PM
  • This is a very interesting article, but it completely assumes that expats and immigrants in question are all come from North America or Europe. People who come from these places to seek work are, since we all seem to be making generalizations, highly educated. The reason that the government allows them to work here, at least in present day, is because they have this education. At the same, I have had Chinese coworkers blame a lot of social ills and bad manners on mainland immigrants (e.g. public spitting, muggings, adversity to queuing). I don't know if the education requirements for mainland immigrants are as stringent for mainland immigrants, but I suspect not. So there are far more mainland immigrants, and they have generally less education than Western expats from elsewhere. Is this the expats' fault? I don't see how one could blame Western expats for the social ills in Hong Kong, especially since, as Hamish points out, it is quite difficult for expats to participate in the legislative process. Besides, there are far more pressing social questions about how foreign domestic workers, refugees, and other ethnic minorities can integrate into society. One might also wish to research an article on the sex trade in Hong Kong and where sex workers come from. It seems like a bit of a self-indulgent and exceptionally bourgeois tangent to argue over whether it is a good idea for Western expats to congregate in LKF.

    Posted by another ben on July 29, 2010 at 10:54 AM
  • I'm a student at an ESF school in Hong Kong now - and have grown up with locals, lots of Brits, Canadians, Australians, South Africans, lots of Indians, Americans, French etc the list goes on and on. And really reading this article helped summarize much of Hong Kong culture and life as I have witnessed, though I really cannot identify with many of these groups listed. Having grown up in Hong Kong, Hong Kong is my home first and foremost - and always will be. Irritatingly I was born elsewhere, but ironically delivered by a Hong Kong doctor (my calling!). I think frankly we in Hong Kong see in black and white us and them, depending if you are local local or really expaty. It isn't like that, not at all. I have so many local friends but we all have the same shared culture - really developed a Hong Kong one. There is an idea that there is one Hong Kong, the 'local' one - really is not true - really really is not. Most of Hong Kong is bilingual (or biliterate atleast) and many are trilingual - especially the affluent, and really they resemble much of the 'expat' culture too, despite being 100% Chinese (though many holding foreign passports). Many of them socialize in English, Cantonese and particularly a mixture of the two! Usually depending on what they talk about. And I think many of the international school students (particularly ESF because 30% is funded by the government) who have grown up in Hong Kong, from kindergarten to high school (And then I suppose studying abroad is a Hong Kong institution) and then coming back (As most do), we come back as part of Hong Kong - it is our home. Say what you want about pieces of paper not meaning much (As they often do, especially in Hong Kong) - for a foreigner to gain HK citizenship they have to renounce any foreign one, really pinning their commitment to Hong Kong and their willingness to integrate. I love Hong Kong, and though I do speak very little cantonese (Enough to get me to understand the subject matter, and get around in taxis, conversational stuff), I believe I am a Hong Konger. I live in an isolated village on Lantau island amongst the real locals (indigenous villagers) and have come to realize that we are all immigrants as Hong Kongers. I have met the 'expats' who really could not be further from the truth, having been born here, and their family dating back so long - much longer than most hongkongers, and yet people still seem to think that they are foreigners. Hong Kong is not just one culture, there is another here that is a convergence of the two, where all the Hong Kong raised, born and bred 'foreigners' live along with many if not most of the wealthy 'locals'.

    Posted by k bryce on January 12, 2011 at 02:06 PM
  • Great article. I was told by immigration in HOng Kong that even though I am a permanent resident and married to a local I cannot become a Chinese National since I have no Chinese blood in me. Gues they like to lie down at immigration.

    Posted by David Schneider on July 12, 2012 at 04:30 PM
  • Interesting article. I have lived in Hong Kong for 19 years and definitely consider it home; I have managed to become a member of the Hong Kong Club and HK Golf Club and my circle of friends is comprised almost totally of HK chinese or 'expats' that have lived here the same or longer than myself; I try to avoid what I term 'first generation expats' - those who arrive from overseas and spend their entire time complaining about Hong Kong; for them we have an excellent airport that is ready to take them back from whence they came; Hong Kong is a city that once you are accepted by local families, and they will only accept you once they realise you're not a transient; becomes an amazing place to live; yes we have urban problems of pollution etc but the reason so many stay in Hong Kong is because we fall in love with a city, that on a clear day, is simply beautiful ...

    Posted by Mark on September 26, 2012 at 10:28 AM
  • I am proud to have been born in Hong Kong (of British parents) & even though I have lived in Australia (a wonderful country) for 33 years I still carry my old HK Identity card (long since expired). I took lessons in Cantonese & though I had little chance to use it in HK (locals usually preferring to practice their English) I still endeavour to speak it whenever chance permits. I still identify strongly with Hong Kong (where my father and son are buried) and have never felt at home in any other country. I admire and respect Chinese people, their history, their art and their culture.

    Posted by Joan Izard on October 5, 2012 at 06:55 AM

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