Staying on

Britannia sailed out a year ago. What happened to the Britons who wouldn't leave?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE post-colonial cleansers have had a busy year in Hong Kong removing the symbols of British rule such as royal crests, red letter boxes and Union flags. At a subtler level, the former colony's old bilingualism is giving way to the increased use of Chinese, and a new political correctness has crept in. Tung Chee-hwa, the head of government, talks about "Chinese values" and the "Chinese way of doing things". Those who want to succeed in the new order stress their "Chinese-ness" at every opportunity. More substantively, the new regime has done much to claw back measures intended by the outgoing administration to increase representative government and make it more accountable. The dead hand of the Chinese state is clearly evident in these matters.

Most outward signs of the British presence may have been scrupulously removed from Hong Kong, but a great many British continue to live there. There are no crusty, pith-helmeted old colonials among the 28,000 or so who chose to stay when Britannia sailed away with Chris Patten, the last governor. Rather they represent the kind of mix that made Hong Kong great.

I went out to find some of them, a group of people who, in their various ways, reflect the unusual experience of being post-colonials at the tail end of the 20th century: a lawyer, a retired administrator from the colonial service, a PR entrepreneur, an economist and a former British soldier turned character actor.

Whatever their misgivings a year ago, no one thought the end of colonial rule had changed their lives much. There has been no anti-British business backlash and no discrimination against individual Brits, although some colonial companies have felt the influence of chilling winds.

"We thought that, come 1 July, they would move everyone to Siberia," said Pam Baker, a Scottish lawyer, "but they've done nothing of the kind." She was not the only one who feared for the future. Bill Lake, a former British soldier who has lived in Hong Kong for almost 30 years, was ready to leave before the handover: "I thought it may be better if we got ready to make a move."

Now, having decided to stay, Janet Henry, an economist who has been in Hong Kong just four years, reflects the view of her peers: "Nothing has changed to affect me personally." John Walden, 73, who was once part of the ruling British elite, is less sanguine. He describes himself as "a Brit and a Hong Kong person", and worries not so much about the fate of the British community as about the way that the British legacy has helped to deprive Hong Kong of democratic government.

A wiry, intense man with almost boyish enthusiasm, Mr Walden joined the colonial service in 1951 having, he says, been recruited primarily because he was good at sport. He served in Hong Kong with the forces just after the war and was sent back to work as a green colonial service cadet. He did not think he would stay long but ended up serving in the Hong Kong government for three decades, retiring as the Director of Home Affairs, close to the top of the colonial ladder.

By rights he should have taken his not inconsiderable pension and joined his colleagues somewhere in the British countryside, travelling up to town for the occasional Hong Kong reunion.

Instead he lives in a matchbox-sized flat bursting with an archive he has been collecting since his retirement in 1980. "I thought there ought to be a record so that people can look at it," he says. The record is one of broken promises, of British betrayal of the people in Hong Kong and of the double speak of local politicians.

Why on earth is he spending his time on this painstaking endeavour? "I was so concerned about what would happen after 1997 if the civil service didn't get its act together," he says. Already disillusioned during his last years in office, Mr Walden started publicising his views and assembling the archive. "I was outraged that, although the Brits did a very good job over the [handover] negotiations, after the deal was signed it was clear it was a double deal in which Britain privately agreed to restrain the development of representative government while pretending they were on the road to full democracy."

Some hint that Mr Walden is a bit of a crank - the usual response of a bureaucracy thinking it has been betrayed by one of its own. However, they have nothing quite so nice to say about

68-year-old Pam Baker. By the time she arrived in Hong Kong in 1982, she was a grandmother and a divorcee and had suffered the indignity of being blackballed from a place in a lawyer's chambers. "It became apparent that Scottish grandmothers were not really wanted in chambers," she says.

On a whim she applied for a Legal Aid vacancy in Hong Kong, getting the job despite knowing "bugger all" about the place. Working with the seriously poor, she quickly established a reputation as a fully-paid-up member of the awkward squad.

However, her work for the poor, especially battered wives, was relatively uncontroversial compared to the venom she attracted for taking up the cause of Vietnamese boat people. Brian Bresnihan, an old-school colonial administrator who was the last Brit to hold the post of Refugee Co-ordinator, wrote to her after his retirement, saying: "I wished you had taken your excessive energies elsewhere and left me in peace."

These excessive energies led her to resign her job at Legal Aid after being banned from the Vietnamese detention centres by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for giving "false hope" to the asylum seekers who were trying to avoid deportation back to Vietnam.

The real problem was that she was giving real hope to many Vietnamese whose cases for refugee status she fought and won. For 30 years, Hong Kong received floods of boat people. They were, to put it mildly, not welcome visitors. "A lot of people have said to me," says Ms Baker, "why do you spend all your time working for the Vietnamese, not the Chinese? My answer is that if you really believe in the rule of law, the person who's most unpopular is the person you defend."

There is no doubt that Ms Baker is a nuisance. "I'm such a nuisance that people think I've been here for ever," she says. Like Mr Walden, who is now devoting his life to exposing what he sees as the deceit of his former masters, Ms Baker is single-minded in her crusade to redress the injustice suffered by underdogs. Hong Kong has been "Treasure Island" to those London barristers who have scrambled for lucrative briefs to bring them here. But Pam Baker works for a pittance in scruffy offices in the deeply unfashionable Mong Kok district. Her law firm sees a steady stream of down-at-heel people passing through its doors. "Last Christmas the chap who does the accounts said 'I've got bad news for you'," she recalls. "'You've made a profit.' Well, I was appalled but at least it keeps us going."

There are few greater sacrileges in Hong Kong than not wanting to make a profit but many people grudgingly acknowledge that, if there were not a few Pam Bakers around, Hong Kong would be a far poorer place.

Susan Field, 41, certainly wants to make a profit and is not afraid to work all hours to succeed. Her story is rather more typical than that of Ms Baker or Mr Walden because she is a businesswoman who came to Hong Kong in 1986 without a job, with little cash and a less than clear idea of what she wanted to do. Her friends had told her that there were plenty of jobs around but it took a while before she managed to secure employment as a medical secretary.

It was a bit of a comedown for someone who had held down good jobs in the hotel industry. She could have called it a day, but sensed that this was a place of opportunities for people determined to seize them.

Sitting in her modern office backed by a panorama of high-rise apartments, she says: "The whole buzz of Hong Kong gives you the enthusiasm or daredevil to do it." She did, moving from a secretarial job into publishing and then to public relations, most famously as the person who launched the Harry Ramsden fish and chip operation in Hong Kong. "People think of me as the fish and chip woman," she says with a chuckle.

She now thinks of herself as an entrepreneur who has launched an "integrated communications company, whatever that is". I write down what she says, but she asks me to make it clear that she really does know what it is; apparently it consists of design, marketing, public relations and all the things which lie in between. "If I had stayed in England," she says, "I might have started my own business but not as fast or as aggressively." It is now up and running and pulling in the clients. "You get carried along; the months roll into years. The thing which keeps me here is not necessarily the pace but the rewards." To put it bluntly, there is more money to be earned, more people around to do all those menial tasks which you frankly prefer not to do yourself and more opportunity to head off for a weekend on a palm-tree-lined beach.

But the good life takes its toll. "There are days," says Ms Field, "when I think what the hell am I doing. You see television pictures of people swanning around in California without a care in the world and you think, 'why the hell am I not doing that?'" The answer is that she is hooked. "I'm not mercenary. I'm not a greedy person but what happens is that everything around you revolves around money and you get caught up and strive to do more business. It's very difficult not to be striving for more."

High above Hong Kong's financial district in the starkly modernist Norman Foster-designed Hongkong Bank, Janet Henry, a 29-year-old economist, is also striving. "Your twenties are a great time to spend in Hong Kong," she says.

In many ways, Ms Henry is typical of the biggest group of Brits left in Hong Kong. Work in the financial sector means very long hours in front of a screen. And play means parties, working out in the gym, a hefty swing at the golf course, not to mention a bit of water ski-ing. "I don't sleep much," she says with measured understatement.

"The material standard of living would be hard to replicate in the UK," she says. But career development prospects for her husband, who works in advertising, are limited in Hong Kong and so they will probably leave some time. "Making the break will be very difficult," she says. "I have so much fun."

Like Mr Walden, who was amazed by how much power he exercised as a junior civil servant five decades earlier, Ms Henry was also impressed by how much responsibility she was given on arrival in Hong Kong at the age of 24. She, too, felt the buzz, liked being pressed to the limit of her abilities and is living life furiously while stocks last.

Her friends are also out on the fast track. "The majority have done very well," she says. "What you had in Hong Kong was not necessarily the traditional expat who came here on a big package. What you had was the sort of person who got a job in a bar and worked their way up."

Many of these self-starters are now leaving. For various reasons they feel the party is over. Ms Henry is wearying of attending leaving dos. "One night I went to three leaving parties," she recalls. For her, Hong Kong is something of an adventure where contact with the surrounding Chinese world is mainly at work. In her free time she mixes with a cosmopolitan crowd. She does not speak Cantonese and does not feel she has integrated into the life of the majority community.

In this and most other senses, she is very removed from Bill Lake, 48, who pitched up in Hong Kong in 1968 with an Army artillery corps. He is known to a few expats as Bill the decorator and to others as the bloke who does rather nice glass engraving for plaques. But to many Chinese he is very well known as "Gweilo Bill" (literally, ghost person or foreigner), the star of Cantonese TV and film who gets parts playing evil foreign cops and anything else which requires a rough-looking foreigner with a command of Chinese.

For the first few months after arriving in Hong Kong, his main aim in life was to get another posting. Nowadays it would take something closer to a civil war to shift him.

He found that his attitude changed when he started learning Cantonese. "Doors started to open for me," he says. It is hard to exaggerate how unusual it was for a British serviceman even to attempt to learn the language. However, Mr Lake was single-minded; he wanted to improve his chat-up technique and found that the best way was to say he needed help learning Cantonese.

It worked spectacularly and he soon found himself courting his first wife, a local girl. The military brass said he would be posted elsewhere if he didn't leave her. He retaliated by threatening to go to the press. He was temporarily sent back to London and the stand-off ended with his marriage. By then he was hooked and asked the Army if he could stay in Hong Kong longer. "They said, basically, f*** off," he says, so in 1972 he bought himself out of the Army.

A succession of jobs followed: he worked as a security guard, a professional football player, a barman, a designer and seller of handbags, a decorator and glass engraver and even a teacher of Cantonese during a spell back in his native Portsmouth.

The acting jobs grew out of some modelling work. He made his debut in a docu-drama about police corruption, playing the notoriously bent copper Taffy Hunt. He must have been convincing because his second wife's family were initially wary of him, thinking that he was like his film character.

Living now with two small children in a modest flat in Hong Kong's New Territories, Mr Lake cannot think of returning to Britain. "There would have to be something drastically wrong for me to pack up and go to the UK," he says. He likes doing a bit of this and a bit of that, and fears he would never get the chance to find such variety back in England without having "reams of diplomas".

"The people make Hong Kong nice for me," he says. "As soon as you speak their language they will do anything to help you." However, he is not starry-eyed about the Chinese. "They're the most racist people on earth," he says cheerfully. Alone among the Brits I spoke to, he has regrets about the end of the colonial era: "Britain's getting smaller. When you spend your life in a place, you have colonial thoughts."

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