Britons drawn to post-colonial Hong Kong

WHEN the Union flag comes down over a colony, most Britons usually leave. But not Hong Kong, where the number of British residents has just overtaken Americans as the second- largest group of foreigners.

At the handover last year there were 22,200 British residents; according to Immigration Department figures, there were 28,000 resident in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong at the end of February. Britons have rushed to apply for resident visas since the handover, partly because of a change in the law and partly because Hong Kong is still drawing Britons keen to take advantage of high salaries.

Many Britons work in the professions and in managerial capacities.In the past, many backpackers and less skilled people worked as waiters, barmen and delivery staff. When Hong Kong was a colony British citizens were admitted to stay for 12 months without needing work visas.

Last April the rules changed and Britons were treated like everyone else: if they wanted to work or stay longer than six months, they needed to apply for visas.

It was assumed lowering the flag and imposing visa restrictions would lead to an exodus. Many less skilled Britons did go, leaving a number of Western-style catering establishments without staff. But the authorities have showed an unexpectedly helpful attitude towards those wishing to stay. Paul Hicks, a public-relations executive originally from Somerset, said: "The immigration officials went out of their way to be helpful with my application".

He is one of 16,700 people who rushed to the Immigration Department in the first three months of this year, as his 12-month entry permit was due to expire. Of this number, 12,500 had applications approved. Only 229 were turned down or withdrawn; 3,900 are still being processed. Another 4,000 applications to live in Hong Kong have come from British citizens not already resident in the territory.

The new regime is keen to retain Hong Kong's international character and has told overseas chambers of commerce it wants foreign residents to stay. The British appear to have taken greater advantage of this than other foreigners. "It is still a very good place to do business, compared to the opportunities at home", Mr Hicks said. British and other foreign residents who have lived in Hong Kong for more than seven years are also being offered the chance to obtain more permanent residence status than was available under the old regime. They can apply for the right of abode, as opposed to the "right to land" or "right to remain". This gives them voting rights and makes it more difficult to deport the new permanent residents.