On a foreign chore
As Chek Lap Kok airport celebrates its 10th anniversary, Tim Pile tracks down a few of the British workers who helped build it
It's a Wednesday night and the HeadQuarters Bar near Macau's ferry terminal is packed with a multinational construction crew supping pints. Raising his voice above the smoke-filled din, heating and ventilation specialist George Ryder says: 'It'll quieten down when happy hour finishes at 8 o'clock. The boys all have to be up early.'
The casino boom has made Macau a new gold-rush town for foreign construction workers. Ryder, a 72-year-old from Newcastle, England, and his drinking partner Andrew McMillan, a commissioning engineer from Greenock, Scotland, have worked 10-hour daily shifts in the former Portuguese colony for the past two years. It's the biggest job either has been involved in since they helped to build Hong Kong International Airport.
So when Chek Lap Kok marks the 10th anniversary of its opening on Sunday, Ryder and McMillan might raise a glass or two to the HK$20 billion complex. The airport project took about six years to complete and at its busiest had as many as 21,000 workers labouring on the Lantau site, including a significant number from Britain.
In the mid-1990s, hordes of Britons enjoying visa-free entry were lured to Hong Kong by the promise of lucrative jobs on its infrastructure projects. The media noted the pre-handover irony of British labourers toiling for Chinese masters. The Guardian wrote: 'The rigid racial hierarchy once imposed by colonial power has been turned upside down.' Other stories described the airport project's scaffolders, pipe layers and concrete specialists as the 'New Coolies' and referred to the tattoos, beer drinking and rowdiness of the so-called 'white trash' in watering holes around the city.
But the majority of airport construction workers were no trouble, says Paul Doherty, a former owner of Mui Wo pub Papa Docs, where many hung out at the time.
'There were a few who overdid it now and again but mostly they were just trying to save money to carry on travelling,' the Glaswegian says.
One traveller who stayed was John Wilcox, a welder from Birmingham. 'I wanted to learn about Chinese culture,' he says.
'My motivation for coming to Hong Kong wasn't financial.'
Wilcox vowed never to pick up a welding torch again after leaving England and was working as a waiter at Cafe Flip in Central when a customer, an airport contractor, made an offer he couldn't refuse.
'I realised I couldn't resist being part of such an important project,' Wilcox says. Work on the runway and the Haeco Building followed, but his fondest recollections are of welding on the Tsing Ma Bridge.
'My workmates were local Chinese and a handful of British lads,' he recalls. 'Everyone got on with each other and did their job.'
His memories of living on Lantau Island are mixed. 'I had a good circle of friends in Mui Wo but there
were plenty of louts who were disrespectful to the locals,' Wilcox says. 'The one thing I was trying to get away from in England suddenly rocked up on my doorstep. I couldn't stand it. I remember going to a bar at the airport camp with a Filipino workmate and was told Asians weren't allowed in. I had a few words with the barman and made sure I never went there again.'
Ten years on, Wilcox has learned Cantonese and supervises 50 men as site manager on the Stonecutters Bridge project. When his contract ends, he and his Hong Kong-born wife plan to live in Australia where they have bought a house, but Wilcox won't rule out returning to Hong Kong if the job is right.
British builder Peter Firth was among the earliest workers on the Lantau site when he arrived in 1992. At the time, transport links could be unreliable but 'there were only eight of us living in Pui O, so it was easier to order two taxis than rely on buses,' he says. 'Back then they were still dynamiting the mountains and you'd hear a couple of deafening explosions a day.'
As more giant contracts were awarded in the 1990s, backpackers, barmen and English teachers found jobs, sometimes without needing proof of qualifications or experience. 'We called the blokes who didn't have a construction background 'hairdressers',' Firth says with a hint of disdain. 'They didn't have a clue what they were doing half the time.'
But the money was good, he says. 'I was sending home HK$20,000 a month when it was HK$10 to the pound,' recalls Firth. 'One day I get a phone call from my mum in the UK. She's opened my bank statement and wants to know if I'm selling drugs.'
Now based in Cornwall, he has decided against joining crews in Macau because he now has a wife and a young son. Besides, 'the pollution puts me off', says Firth on a recent visit to Hong Kong.
South Africa-born Neil Morris has done well for a 'hairdresser'. He went from working as a waiter in a plush Causeway Bay restaurant to a desk job with contractor Pioneer Asphalt, which later sent him out to measure roads. 'I started at the bottom,' he says.
However, Morris used his time at Chek Lap Kok to learn about the construction industry and is now contracts manager for a large engineering company in Cape Town. 'If it hadn't been for the airport project, I'd probably still be working as a waiter,' he jokes.
Morris also might not have met his wife Janine, whom he got to know on the bus to Mui Wo. '[She] sat down and asked if it was going to Tung Chung,' he says. 'She was very attractive so I was a little less than honest with my answer. We chatted for a while until I had to tell her that she was on the wrong bus.'
It worked. They married within a year and now have two children.
By the time the airport opened, many British construction workers sensed their visa-free status wouldn't last and moved on to projects overseas. Those who remained in Hong Kong had a reality check, says Lantau resident Shaun Chapman, who started his own construction company in 1999.
Builders who called from Britain, desperate for an opening, soon had their illusions shattered too. 'I'd ask how much they wanted and they'd say, 'HK$2,000 a day',' he says. 'I explained that times had changed and we could only pay HK$750. They usually told me where to go.'
Ryder had anticipated a quiet retirement in Pui O when the airport work finished, but the leisurely pace of village life began to pall. So there was little hesitation when a contractor he had worked with called inviting him to help build casinos. 'So here I am in Macau.'
Ryder keeps a home in Hong Kong and returns to his family at weekends. The trade-off is a pre-dawn start each Monday if he's to arrive on site in Macau by 8.30am.
Ryder doesn't mind the early starts and has no plans to retire. 'I've done this kind of work for the past 50-odd years,' he says, totting up the decades on calloused fingers. 'I like what I do.'
McMillan, however, has settled in Macau. 'I have a big flat, there's work for the next few years and I'm taxed at 4.5 per cent,' he says.
So would he consider returning to Britain if the right job came along?
The Scot shakes his head. 'No. I don't go back any more. The place has changed. Asia is home now.'