In Hong Kong today, it's the Brits who are the 'coolies'

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The Independent Online
You can hear the noise from the Papa Doc bar on Lantau island, close to where Hong Kong's new airport is being built, well before you get there. It is the sound of young Brits determined to get completely legless.

We know about Geordie brickies heading for Berlin, and Essex nurses putting up with purdah in Saudi Arabia, but the latest destination of the Brit in search of a better life is Hong Kong. As Britain prepares to depart from one of its last colonial outposts, its own citizens are taking over many of the most menial jobs. "Coolies", once a pejorative term for cheap Chinese labour, could now be more accurately applied to the former colonial masters.

"The money's far better than back home," says Paul Crighton, a 27-year- old labourer from Manchester, "but it's bloody hot out there at the airport." There are Filipinos and Thais doing similar work, but the Hong Kong Chinese, he says, "wouldn't be seen dead doing these jobs".

Gone is the time when young gentlemen came to the colonies to join great trading firms who strictly organised their social as well as their working lives, and frowned upon mixing with the natives. Now Hong Kong sees young British men and women fresh from the dole queue and ready to do work which many Chinese think distinctly inferior. The number of British passport holders living in the colony has more than doubled in the past five years to more than 34,000.

Young Brits can be seen on building sites, serving in bars and restaurants, despondently giving out leaflets on street corners and hauling themselves around town as messengers bathed in layers of sweat.

Ten years ago Hong Kong's newspapers were excited by the news that a Brit had landed a job as a doorman at the 1997 bar in the trendy Lan Kwai Fong area. It was unthinkable that a person from Britain would take such a job more typically the preserve of sturdy Indians who had lived in the colony for several generations.

Today, door-keeping is considered one of the better jobs. Well-qualified but inexperienced youngsters are willing to take whatever employment is on offer. The owner of a local sandwich shop boasts that he only employs British graduates with a good degree to deliver his sandwiches to the surrounding offices.

The pay for Brits at the bottom of the ladder is not spectacular, hovering around about pounds 420 to pounds 840 a month, but it is far higher than most of them could expect to earn at home. However the lure of Hong Kong is more than money - many of the backpackers and others making their way to the colony want to be here in just over a year's time when it is handed over to one of the world's few remaining communist states.

Some professionals are still lured by the enormous sums of money which can be made. Members of the London Bar, for example, often refer to Hong Kong as "Treasure Island" because the fees for appearing in Hong Kong courts make British fees look decidedly anaemic. A top silk can pull in almost pounds 9,000 a day.

A British passport, pink skin and a public school education used to be enough to guarantee good jobs to the most mediocre of expatriates. They used to be known as Filth - Failed in London, Try Hong Kong. Now, employers want executives who actually speak Cantonese, or at least Mandarin, and they want MBAs from somewhere such as the Harvard Business School, rather than Oxbridge degrees.

In the bars on Lantau and Lamma islands, where the new British poor gather, sales of canned Boddington's beer and Malaysian-brewed Guinness are roaring away. The talk is familiar to anyone from back home - about jobs and where to get them.

Here in Hong Kong it's not so much a matter of "Auf Wiedersehen Pet" as "Joi Gin Ying Gwok Loh" - or Goodbye English Person: well, goodbye a certain type of English person.