On a night out with expat friends in Hong Kong five years ago, I mentioned the then-upcoming Brexit referendum. They almost visibly glazed over. “Thing is,” said the husband after a long pause, “we’ve both lived our entire adult life here. What happens in the UK is so remote, we don’t even think about it.”
Their plan on Hong Kong’s becoming fully part of China in 2047, his wife added, was “to bury our heads in the sand”.
But being a subject of the People’s Republic has come much more suddenly than anyone expected; so much so that a rising number of “repat” Brits are now streaming back to the UK. The old, fiercely democratic Hong Kong is dying at pace and Covid has proved to be the last straw: borders are closed, schools often are too and the creep of political interference now dominates.
When I Zoomed them last week, my friends asked to remain anonymous in this article, already nervous about who might be snooping.
“Covid has given Beijing the excuse to turn Hongkongers into obedient citizens,” says another expat still there. “So if there’s one case of a kid testing positive, the entire school is closed down and your children can literally be taken away from you to quarantine.”
At the same time: “Subway trains are packed as ever. It makes no sense, but it’s designed to wear us down, to show the rule of law is gone. You can even go to jail for disrespecting the Chinese flag now.”
Some of these “repats” have never lived in Britain as adults; many, according to an employee at an agency sourcing schools for returners, have settled in East Anglia – even though they have no connection with the area. Perhaps it’s a subconscious need to be as far east as possible.
My friends, although still in Hong Kong, have sent their children to boarding schools in Britain, bought a house in the West Country and are now debating when they will come back to what they once rather reluctantly called home. Many of their friends are in the same position, reassessing the situation week by week.
For the growing tribe of Hong Kong repats, “home” is more like a new foreign posting. Lucy Barrett, who after 24 years between Hong Kong and Japan has now settled in Cambridge with her husband Andy, likens the experience to TV show Mork and Mindy. “We feel like Mork, the Martian who comes to Earth,” she says. “It’s little things that often make you feel you have lived in another world. We got fined when we first came back for driving in a bus lane, not knowing what they are... And we’re desperate for someone to explain what Strictly Come Dancing is supposed to be. Neither of us gets it.”
The pair left when John Major was prime minister; living in Hong Kong made home news feel “like a movie playing out somewhere else”, says Andy. “Things like 9/11 would happen, or Iraq, but you weren’t part of it.”
Wildly different political systems play into this too. In the UK there is much more involvement from voters on decisions that are made, whereas there: “You don’t get a vote, or not a meaningful one, so if there’s a new security law, there’s nothing you can do about it,” says Andrew Ford, who has moved to Cambridge from Hong Kong with his wife, Helen. Politics “wasn’t as impassioned in Hong Kong, not so aggressive and full of hatred and vitriol.”
Still, there are benefits to being back, he says. Namely the weather: “Hong Kong has the world’s worst. There’s the NHS. The breadth of education for children of different needs. Country pubs. No communication problems. The price and availability of groceries...”
“Also,” says Helen, “you can buy clothes that fit you, instead of being thrown out of shops and told you’re too big and fat.”
Building up a social network once home often proves tricky, though. Hong Kong has long resembled a giant cruise ship, where everyone lives close by and where babysitters often live in; taxis are cheap and plentiful and the famed MTR railway is spotlessly clean, safe and efficient. Yet long lockdowns – earlier this year police officers were dispatched to neighbourhoods, permitted to forcibly enter homes and fine anyone refusing a Covid test HK$5,000 – and raging street protests have largely put paid to those fun times.
What previously drove social life in Hong Kong “is that everyone can go out any night without notice”, Andrew explains. “You’d meet people at a party or a work event and immediately arrange to go out for a drink... You could make good, deep friendships extremely quickly.” Meanwhile in the UK, socialising is “quite a commitment and you need to be sure it’s a good friend you are investing in. Also here people are very entrenched in their circle, whereas there, everyone is transitory and on the lookout for new people.”
More money helps fund the fun in Hong Kong too; the average expat household income is up to 50 per cent higher than in Britain, according to some estimates, with many expats still amusingly given a “hardship allowance” from companies after making the move.
Emma Andrews-Linnitt was struck by the many limiting factors of socialising back home, and quickly started a local coffee club for people new to her area near Ipswich when she returned. “If you’ve lived overseas for 20 years, you know that if you don’t make an effort you’ll never have any friends.” She is less forthcoming with sharing where she has been for the last 20 years. “You’re given a rather wide berth, sometimes,” she says. “I tend to say just that we’re new here.”
“I always feel if I talk about Hong Kong and Japan, people will just think I’m being flash or making myself out to be special,” Helen agrees. “I’ve had to stop myself doing that.”
International schools in Hong Kong were once another attraction for expats. Pupils tended to be socially assured, racially colour blind and Mandarin-speaking – increasingly a meal ticket in the global jobs market.
But months of Covid closures – and no refunds for fees – saw the shine wear off that, too. Acclimatising to schools at least has been straightforward, repat parents report, mostly thanks to the internet. “International kids tend to be more adaptable, anyway,” says Andrews-Linnitt. “Living overseas gives them social skills... and with social media, they are used to keeping in contact with anyone anywhere.”
“The kids have been like ducks to water,” agrees my friend over Zoom from Hong Kong. “They already live in a global village, linked by Instagram and all that, like the same music, the same celebrities.”
Some remain nostalgic for the good Hong Kong days; they miss the vibrancy and noise of the streets, the beautiful country walks, tropical beaches, amazing food – and the gems of the Far East being a couple of hours’ flight away. Having changed so much in such a short time, though, Britain has provided a soft landing.
As Andrew puts simply, “All in all, I’m glad to be back.”