Goodbye to the Hong Kong high life: Young Britons heading for a last outpost of empire are in for a shock, says Jojo Moyes

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The British expatriate in Hong Kong has long been known as FILTH. The acronym stands for 'Failed in London, try Hong Kong' and refers to the ease with which below-average candidates have for years walked into jobs with above-average salaries.

But for increasing numbers of recession-weary young gweilos (Caucasians, literally 'white ghosts') still pouring into the territory on the promise of easy jobs and a luxury lifestyle, the adage no longer holds true. Instead, they are forming a new class of highly qualified young Britons, unable to find work at home, who are taking the manual labour jobs that have traditionally been the domain of native Chinese.

Lamma, one of the outlying islands, is now disproportionately populated by low-income expats disparagingly referred to as 'white trash' by long-term residents in much the same way that their colonial forerunners might have viewed the Chinese.

Westworld, one of Hong Kong's up-market night-clubs, has been nicknamed by some 'Eastworld' because richer and better-dressed Cantonese are perceived to be replacing expat customers.

Jonathan Wright, from Essex, an economics and geography graduate, is the kind of young man who 10 years ago would have risen effortlessly up the career ladder of one of the territory's hongs, or trading companies. A confident 23- year-old, he arrived in the territory in December on the advice of his brother, who was working there as a civil engineer.

''I wanted to do economic planning and marketing, and the construction industry seemed to be booming out here,' he says. But after writing more than 200 unsuccessful application letters and spending countless days on the telephone, he took to tennis coaching by day and waiting tables by night.

'Doing two jobs was a killer, but I couldn't afford not to. And while I was waiting tables, I met loads of people who were in the same position. There were recently qualified solicitors and graduates, sharing tiny flats and not earning anything near what they had expected.'

The sense of urgency for jobseekers is heightened by the rising cost of living in Hong Kong. Rents have increased by between 25 and 30 per cent this year alone, and the standard of accommodation is far lower than in Britain.

Jonathan is still sleeping on the floor in his brother's small flat (three are sharing the two- bedroomed apartment). He says that had he been alone, he would have been forced to admit defeat and return to Britain. 'I did think about going home,' he says, 'but there's nothing at home to go back for, apart from my parents.'

Jonathan finally found a job as a trainee money-broker - ironically earning less than he was as a tennis coach. 'I earn pounds 680 a month, pay almost half my salary in rent. The remainder doesn't go anywhere out here.

'I'm probably proportionally as well off as I would be in England. What disappoints me is that I've ended up working in finance, which I didn't want to do. But I'm here for the experience,' he says.

He does not regret coming to Hong Kong, but says that if other graduates want to follow 'they should be more realistic than we were'.

Clare Forestier-Walker, an English graduate from Liverpool University, came out in January to earn money to finance a future postgraduate course and pay off her student debts. Instead, she found herself living with friends and juggling two poorly paid jobs - waitressing and commission- only estate agency. She says that the chances are 50/50 as to whether she will earn any 'real' money or return home at Christmas.

The past eight months she describes as very stressful. 'I got to the point where I was just bursting into tears because I was so tired. And Hong Kong is the worst place to be without any money. I can only go out once a week and have to be very careful. It's not what I expected at all.

'I get sick of people assuming we lead the life of Riley. There are quite a few struggling like us. Both my previous flatmates here had to have two jobs.' When things were really bad, she reminded herself of the well-qualified friends in England who have been working in McDonald's.

Part of the problem for new arrivals such as Clare is the increasing competition for jobs and the trend towards 'localisation' in the run-up to 1997. As the handover approaches, employers are understandably keen to take on Mandarin-speaking staff. Unlike most English expatriates, many of the graduate-level Chinese applicants are not just bilingual but trilingual.

'It's not even easy to get a secretarial job because the Chinese girls are so good,' says Clare.

As rents soar, companies are less keen to finance the huge expatriate 'packages' that have traditionally been responsible for the glittering lifestyle. In March, two of the territory's biggest employers, Hongkong Bank and the Mass Transit Railway Corporation, ceased offering special packages for employees recruited overseas. Local and overseas workers are now employed on the same terms, removing one of the biggest causes of resentment felt by the local community.

Meanwhile the number of well- qualified Chinese in Hong Kong has been rising: fewer are leaving the territory, while recession in the West is forcing others back home. This year, the number of returnees is expected to be well above the 12 per cent average of the past two years.

Britons continue to be drawn by the promise of the glittering harbour. The British expat community has risen from 20,300 to 24,600 in the past six months alone.

'We're reaching saturation point,' says Sarah Warrington of the employment agency Kelly McKenzie. And her clients are likely to want people who speak Cantonese or Mandarin. 'The only ones who don't have a problem are senior management, as at that level the most common spoken language is English.'

But not all expats are unhappy to be excluded from the white-collar job market. The construction industry, dominated until recently by mainland Chinese labourers, is being invaded by streams of workers from Europe. There is a growing number of gweilo labourers and tradesmen, earning on average pounds 55 a day.

One 15-strong crew working on a demolition site in Wan Chai on Hong Kong island is almost entirely British. Labouring work has become more readily available, says one, because Chinese labourers were being tempted home by the rapid growth in construction on the mainland. Ian, aged 34, doesn't see anything odd about white labourers in Hong Kong. 'Labour is labour,' he says, 'and it doesn't matter what colour your skin.'

Other expatriates can be found around the central area of Hong Kong island doing a range of 'menial' jobs. It is common to see gweilos doing sandwich deliveries ( pounds 3.30 per hour), flyposting ( pounds 2.90 per hour), or even dressing as fuzzy creatures to entertain at children's parties ( pounds 20 to pounds 42 a party).

For the lucky few, the territory still promises rich financial and personal rewards. One recent arrival, a bond salesman, was transferred here two months ago by his company, which covers the cost of his luxury pounds 8,200-a-month apartment, pays him a basic salary of pounds 200,000 a year and will cover the cost of his two London mortgages should he not be able to let the properties.

'For me, this place is very low risk and very high reward, both financially and personally,' he told me. 'It's a fast, exciting lifestyle and there's a romance about being in the last significant British colony as it approaches the twilight of the British Empire. It's an experience you would be foolish to miss.'

(Photograph omitted)