“Expatriate” – and its diminutive form, “expat” – is probably Hong Kong’s most overused, misapplied label. While its literal definition does not relate to race, the word has assumed a racial meaning for a generation of people accustomed to political correctness.
In consequence, “expatriate” is habitually deployed – in the South China Morning Post and elsewhere – to refer to local residents of European descent and cultural tradition.
“Expatriate” also crosses national boundaries – Americans, Australians and Canadians, in earlier times, were considered European. But not all Europeans in Hong Kong were expats.
Historically, the term defined someone employed from outside their country of origin on unambiguous terms of service. Expatriate status normally meant that the individual and their immediate family were provided with return sea (and later, air) passage from their country of permanent domicile; accommodation while in Hong Kong, but not during “inter-tour” leave; education for their children, either locally or overseas; and a pension or gratuity at the end of their contractual service.
Most expatriates left Hong Kong on retirement; their employment terms ensured that few ever bought property here, and, in some job categories, they were explicitly prohibited from doing so.
From the colony’s beginnings, Hong Kong had a significant number of non-expatriate, permanently resident Europeans. “Beachcomber” was one of the more polite terms used to describe Europeans who simply turned up, found employment and forged a life here for themselves on local terms. These people were not considered expatriates unless they happened to get a job with the aforementioned type of package.
If they didn’t, they became “local Europeans” – or “poor whites”, to the snobbish.
Other beachcombers, known as “remittance men”, usually made a life in Australia, Oceania and parts of Africa. Individuals from comfortable family backgrounds who had committed serious social indiscretions at home, they were paid a regular remittance if they moved somewhere suitably remote, where the living was cheap and no one knew them.
Financial support continued only as long as they stayed away. If circumstance meant that they washed ashore in colonies where European prestige was considered important, such as Singapore or Hong Kong, they were swiftly moved on by the port authorities. Hong Kong’s other European residents – neither expatriates nor local Europeans – were usually refugees. Thousands of White Russian escapees from the 1917 Bolshevik revolution poured into Manchuria and northern China in the early 20th century; when international powers eventually recognised Soviet Russia in the early 1920s, they became stateless, and remained so for decades.
Elsewhere, different labels were used. In parts of Africa, “settler” was the predominant classification for Europeans domiciled there. Like Hong Kong’s “expat” community, African “settler” society was far more disparate, and much less homogenous, than these simple, allembracing labels suggested.
Settlers (and expats) who eventually aligned themselves with the broader interests of the country where they had made their lives, rather than the narrow interests of their particular “community”, usually found themselves ostracised when these views became widely known.
This happened in Africa in the 50s and 60s, and in Hong Kong in the 90s, when realistic-minded community leaders (and others) were perceived to have opportunistically “changed sides”, or otherwise accommodated themselves to the prevailing winds of political and social transformation.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong