Tea Leaf Nation

Where Are Hong Kong’s Expats?

Most new arrivals to this diverse city are staying out of the Umbrella Movement.

Getty Images
Getty Images

HONG KONG — A burly man with gray hair and a bit of stubble paused at Civic Square in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong late one night, holding aloft a pink umbrella. He was doing his best to imitate art: Nearby rose the wood-block sculpture dubbed "Umbrella Man." It’s a tribute to the student protesters calling for universal suffrage and the resignation of Hong Kong’s head of government, Leung Chun-ying, who have have used the umbrellas to defend themselves against rain, but also the police use of tear gas on Sept. 28. A friend snapped Moore’s picture.

Soon Moore would bunk down for the night on pavement, his backpack as his pillow. He would be joining maybe 100 protesters sleeping on a highway stretch and sidewalks outside of the government center, part of an ongoing sit-in for democratic elections. The numbers have since swelled. After the Hong Kong government broke off talks with student organizers that had been scheduled for Oct. 10, thousands more people have turned out at protest sites.

Moore is rare in this crowd. He’s 46 and was born in England, and still carries a British passport. But his home for more than 20 years — where he has a wife and children — is Hong Kong. The English teacher says he was drawn to help students as they try to convince China to heed their wishes. "People know what they want," Moore said. "Give them what they want."

Seeing an expatriate at the Umbrella protest is akin to glimpsing a panda — they are rare, docile, and slow to reproduce. A few Americans, Australians, Canadians, and Brits who fill the nearby corporate banking and finance offices roam the crowds. Some may wander through on weekends, snapping photos. But with protesters blocking roadways in the central business district, making commutes torturous, most people from democratic lands haven’t been eager to sacrifice their time or mental energy supporting a quixotic quest to convince an autocracy in Beijing to grant free elections in the former British colony. "I wish it would end," said an American employee of massive investment banking conglomerate Citibank who asked not to be named. "I’m sick of it."

As a former British colony handed over to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, Hong Kong has an expatriate community whose size and influence far surpass that of other Chinese cities. Among those expatriates, many Westerners who live here spend but a year or two, and tend to regard the city as little more than a piggy bank, where they collect their hefty corporate salaries and benefits. All this speechifying and occupying is delaying them from closing deals and getting to dinner at the glitzy, members-only American Club. "A significant part [of the expat community] doesn’t give a snuff about the Hong Kong community," said Philip Bowring, a longtime British author and journalist who lives here. "They are here for lower taxes and cheap maids.”

Yet support for the demonstrators exists, notably among the former empire’s subjects who have lived here for decades. Many longtime residents say that a democratic Hong Kong is right and overdue.

For its part, London hasn’t signaled great support for the Umbrella Movement. The consulate here warned passport holders to "avoid all demonstrations." After the Sept. 28 demonstration, when tens of thousands of people choked on tear gas, the foreign office issued a tepid response, stating that "Hong Kong’s prosperity and security are underpinned by its fundamental rights and freedoms, including the right to demonstrate. It is important for Hong Kong to preserve these rights and for Hong Kong people to exercise them within the law."

That hasn’t kept Philip Metcalf from exercising those rights many nights. The investment banker stood on a pedestrian bridge after 2 a.m. on Oct. 8, gazing down at the 100 or so people trying to sleep on the highway. Born in Belfast and raised in Japan, Metcalf, a missionary’s son, said that when he visited Hong Kong as a child, it was like going home. "This was England," he said. Because of that, he said, he cares what happens. "I work here. This is my home." 

He had climbed up to the perch, fearing that the large truck he had spied meant police would move in. He kept glancing toward the island’s police command center before turning to a young man adjusting one of the many banners hanging from the overpass. "What you’re doing is your one chance," Metcalf told him. "As long as you stay with it, you’re going to win." 

 Twitter: @ssataline

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