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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