British Workers Flock To Hong Kong Jobs Before July Handover

Last summer Martin Armor was earning very little money in a factory in an economically depressed part of South Wales. So he decided to do what thousands of others Britons have done over the past 100 years: Seek his fortune in Hong Kong.

He got a job as a mechanical supervisor on a mammoth airport construction project and now lives on the "Gold Coast" - a fancy new seaside development popular with expatriates here. He's hoping to bring his Filipina wife and baby to Hong Kong soon. "The whole situation in Britain today makes it difficult for a married couple to live on only one salary," he says.

Mr. Armor is part of an unusual phenomenon. At a time when one might expect most of the foreign population to be packing their bags in anticipation of Hong Kong's return to communist China in July, foreigners are flocking to the island.

For example, the British population has more than doubled from its 1987 levels to 35,000-plus people in a territory of 6 million. According to government statistics, there was nearly a 25 percent increase in the first five months of 1996 alone.

Historically, Hong Kong has offered an out for the unemployed and served as an entry for British working-class youths into the middle class. But in the 1980s, in anticipation of the transfer of sovereignty, the government began to fill civil service jobs once held by Britons with Chinese.

Despite this, working-class Britons are returning to Hong Kong in large numbers. They are frequently happy to take what used to be dismissed as "coolie work": driving bulldozers, selling sandwiches in offices, and working on construction sites.

They don't mind. Per capita income in Hong Kong now exceeds that in Britain. Even fairly menial jobs pay more in Hong Kong than they do at home. "There's work here, and if you consider the options, it's a good place to be," says Peter May, an engineer from Dover, England who is also working on the airport site.

He says there is another reason for the surge in the British population. "You hear people say it all the time: 'I want to see Hong Kong as it was, before it changes forever.' "

Nostalgia aside, Britons find practical benefits to emigrating to Hong Kong: They can move here without a visa or work permit. Apart from the distance and expense, it is as easy as moving from England to Scotland. However, that will soon change. After the handover, British expatriates will need to apply for visas if they want to move to Hong Kong, just like other foreigners. And would-be employers will need to prove to immigration officials that they can't find an equally qualified local to do the job, making it difficult for foreigners to find unskilled jobs.

Other foreigners are flooding into Hong Kong. Businesspeople from Canada, Australia, Japan, and the US have been arriving in increasing numbers, drawn by the opportunities offered by China's expanding economy. Today's expatriate population is more than double what it was in 1989, during Beijing's suppression of the pro-democracy movement on the mainland.

Another type of "immigrant" is also swelling the crowds of returning people. Many Hong Kong Chinese who, over the years, moved abroad to obtain foreign citizenship, are returning home with the added confidence that comes from their "insurance" against communist repression: another country's passport.

What many had feared might become a stampede to get out of the territory as the handover date approaches has turned into a mad scramble to get back in. The reason: Chinese who have foreign citizenship must be in Hong Kong next year in order to live here without obtaining a residency permit after 1997.

Several Canadian airlines - Canada is a favored destination for Hong Kong emigrants - have been forced to implement strict ticketing deadlines for the busy weeks preceding the changeover. The airlines are being booked-up by people who want to get back into Hong Kong - before it's too late.

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