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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 June 2007, 11:23 GMT 12:23 UK
Hong Kong Brits few but faithful
By Samanthi Dissanayake
BBC News, Hong Kong

Schoolchildren in Hong Kong
Schoolchildren Charlotte, Harley, Jack and Sashie speak Cantonese
"What British element?"

That's the response I generally get when asking people about what has happened to the British in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong still has double-decker buses, trams, hotels serving high tea, a district called Aberdeen and Victoria Peak, and Victoria Park and Victoria Harbour.

But what of the Brits themselves? There are fewer of them these days, but those who remain have no regrets.

"Hong Kong has been my home for years. I arrived in 1948 and I loved the life here," said Peter Malpas, 88.

Chris Forse
When I left Britain in 1974, it was a dive
Chris Forse
Mr Malpas lives at the China Coast Community, Hong Kong's only English-speaking retirement home, which in recent years has seen fewer and fewer British retirees.

Chris Forse came out to Hong Kong in 1974 to teach for two years. He stayed for the next 30, won over by the expatriate lifestyle in a safe, warm city surrounded by sea and mountains.

About to retire back to Britain, he thinks his home nation has undergone greater change than Hong Kong in his time here.

"When I left Britain in 1974, it was a dive. We had gone through two miners' strikes, a three-day working week. It was not a happy society," he said.

For more than 20 years, he taught at Island School, part of the English Schools Foundation, set up in 1967 to cater to the expatriate community.

At that time, Chinese students could not get in. Now, there are 16 schools and more than half the student population is Chinese.

Many colonial civil servants and their families left Hong Kong in the run-up to the handover, as key institutions were gradually handed over to the Chinese.

It is very difficult to gauge accurately the number of British expatriates in Hong Kong.

The immigration department provides rough estimates of resident foreigners, and it says that for the past two years the UK has dropped out of the top 10.

Numbers of Western expatriates in general have fallen in recent years and the biggest decline was among Britons.

British firms employ about 10% of Hong Kong's working population but, perhaps because of stricter visa requirements, fewer Britons appear to be making the journey out.

The returnees

Some, however, are returning.

Cat Honeyman first came to Hong Kong in the mid-1980s as a teenager. Twenty years on, she has returned with her eight-year-old daughter Charlotte.

She made the decision to send Charlotte to a Chinese school on Lantau Island, where they live.

Hong Kong schoolchildren Charlotte, Sashie, Harley and Jack
The next generation also enjoy the perks of life in Hong Kong

She is part of a new generation of British expatriates who are more eager to embrace the local way of doing things.

"I wanted her to have the opportunity to speak Cantonese. I felt I missed out by not learning," Cat said.

It is certainly an unusual sight to see Charlotte chattering away in Cantonese with her three blonde, blue-eyed fellow-pupils, Jack, 10, Sashie, 8 and Harley, 7.

"Knowing Chinese lets me have Chinese friends," Charlotte said.

Cat will stay in Hong Kong for the foreseeable future and it is easy to see the appeal - their little community lies on the edge of a pristine beach.

The adventurers

Hong Kong in the 1840s had a reputation as a place for adventurers and chancers.

Free trade was the cornerstone of the rocky island, where the opium dealers and merchants of the South China Sea rubbed shoulders.

"It's hard to believe today, but Hong Kong was a frontier. It was a boom town, not so different to the American West, a place where people hoped they could make a lot of money," said John Carroll, a historian at Hong Kong University.

Rachel Oliver
It took me about half-an-hour to settle in
Rachel Oliver

Free trade remained a bedrock of the Hong Kong experience throughout the 20th Century.

Many in the current British population are part of the banking community which made Hong Kong a major financial centre.

The city has retained its mystique in the British imagination.

For many of the Brits who come here, it is a place where fortunes can be made and lost, where people can reinvent themselves and take chances.

"The first day I ever saw Hong Kong was the day I arrived to live here, and it took me about half-an-hour to settle in," said Rachel Oliver, a freelance journalist and editor who took an opportunity to work out here and then set up on her own.

Hong Kong has made much more progress in the last 10 years
Shahid Shahid, Chicago

It was a similar story for actor James Gitsham, who arrived this April and has decided to make a living here as a storyteller and children's entertainer.

It is potentially a risky business, but he believes there is a gap in the market.

"If someone else told me they were doing this, I would think they were being brave. But with no responsibilities, I can take advantage of opportunities," he said.

Colonial elites

In its heyday, much of the British community in Hong Kong was rather more conservative.

Founded in 1846, the exclusive Hong Kong Club was notorious as a bastion of privileged Britishness, with a "no Chinese" understanding.

Now about half of its members are Chinese.

Ted Thomas
In the 1950s, the expat life was one of privilege, says Ted Thomas

Broadcaster Ted Thomas arrived in 1954 and found Hong Kong "a sad little place where people lived in wooden shacks, desperate to work".

He noted that life was different for the British expats.

"My package included a three-bedroom apartment, a garden, a maid and a boat."

Douglas Kerr joined the University of Hong Kong in 1979, also on preferential overseas terms. He married a Chinese colleague who was on the less salubrious local terms. During the 1980s the university abolished those differences.

"For someone like me it was quite a relief not to be a representative of a colonial power anymore," he said.

"I am just a foreigner now - and it is true of 1997 that it is better to be a foreigner than a colonial."

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