Of all the events in the weekend leading up to the Hong Kong hand-over, the last night of The Proms, as the popular orchestral series is known here, was the most unapologetically nostalgic for the British empire. Confetti, streamers and Union Jacks flew while the orchestra struck up patriotic favorites like “God Save the Queen” and “Rule Britannia.”
It was a time for heavy drinking and, for many, a good cry. Even the very level headed, like Michael Laven, a director at First Pacific Davies, a real estate consultancy, were prepared for a little patriotic indulgence.
And why not? With the return of Hong Kong, Britain’s once glorious Empire will now decline from an already reduced 6.1 million people abroad to a minuscule 100,000.
“I think it’s a party atmosphere but in some ways it’s very sad,” said Laven.
But behind the silly hats, Union Jack dresses and gooey sentimentality, many people were quite sensibly taking stock of their futures.
“It’s just the kind of thing that makes you think, ‘Am I going to stay here forever’?” said one British professional. “And my answer was no.”
Within a year, he says, he’ll move to Australia with his wife and daughter.
This is a latest wave in a British exodus that has been taking place over the last several years. Many of the top level civil servants, for instance, have already retired from their positions and more will leave now with Gov. Chris Patten’s departure. Due to a localization policy which has been stepped up since 1985, all but a handful of the 184,000 government jobs are now filled by non-British Hong Kong residents.
These days young professionals may be timing their departures to the hand-over but it’s not because there’s any imminent problem with their job status.
“After twelve years in Hong Kong, we just got to the stage where we wanted a change,” says Laven, who is moving with his wife to New Zealand, where they will run a pub.
But there is still one very compelling reason for British professionals to stay in Hong Kong — it’s booming. So, while the hand-over makes many stop to think, they quickly come to the same conclusion as a growing number of Americans and other foreigners here.
Julia Mart, a Londoner who has lived here for more than six years, owns an event management company. She sees no reason to leave.
The same goes for Simon Turner, a 34-year-old who handles China operations for his company. For him, Hong Kong as a part of China’s growth is where the future lies. And as long as the economy continues on this track, he’s not going anywhere.
The people who will no longer have much say in the matter are working class Brits who flocked to Hong Kong for jobs during Britain’s recession. It used to be that bars, restaurants and construction sites and retail stores were chock full of twentysomething British workers. So were clubs and all-night “raves” around the territory.
Now Brits will be subject to the same visa restrictions as other foreign nationals. They will have to prove that they’re employed and that their jobs are not positions that could be filled by locals to stay on in Hong Kong.
Some British workers extended their visas before a spring deadline, giving them one more year in Hong Kong. Even so, the change is already clear at places like the Shamrock Sandwich Company, which employees dozens of people to deliver lunch to office buildings in Hong Kong.
According to Andrew Monks, an employee who started about a year ago, Brits now make up only half the staff compared to virtually all of it when he started.
Monks has a visa until next year but in the meantime he’s employed one of the most common strategies — he’s waiting to see how it goes.
But today, as Britain hands China the keys to Hong Kong’s government, all eyes will be on the departing governor of the territory, Chris Patten. As he left Government House for the royal yacht Britannia with his wife and three daughters, a band played a chorus of Auld Lang Syne. The first family’s car did three laps of the mansion’s circular drive, representing a vow to return some day.
In the meantime, Patten’s daughter Alice will head off to Cambridge to start her studies. His wife Lavender is toying with restarting her career as a barrister and the governor will retreat to his house in the south of France to garden and complete a book on Asia. If he has political aspirations, Patten is not showing his hand.