Throughout its urban history, Hong Kong has hosted a diverse range of transnational residents, and their numbers have continued to grow. The transnational is not, on the face of it, the stereotypical expatriate. Rather, transnationals are those whose citizenship and travel documents (which, as certain countries, such as China, increasingly make clear, are not always one and the same) and actual place of residence and cultural identity differ markedly.
A century ago, Asia’s transnationals were, for the most part, ethnic Chinese (and, to a lesser extent, Indians) living in colonial Southeast Asia who had acquired British nationality, either by birth in British territories such as Hong Kong, the Straits Settlements or Burma, or by registration as a British subject. Various early consular memoirs from places where Britain enjoyed extraterritorial treaty rights, such as China, Japan and Siam (modern Thailand), vividly describe instances in which these rootless people became the bane of the diplomat’s existence. Otherwise invisible within the wider community, these “British” nationals often materialised only when they had a request or a pressing personal problem the consul was somehow expected to resolve within the scope of such powers as he possessed.
As local society continues to evolve in ways the younger generation find themselves unable to influence – much less control – it is inevitable that transnational “evaporation” from Hong Kong will accelerate. Unlike emigration, which shows up in immigration statistics in destination countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, transnational exits from Hong Kong tend to go unrecorded, as most already have a foreign passport. When local circumstances no longer suit them, they simply pack up and go “home” without any need to announce the fact officially.
Or do they? Technology now makes it possible – for those whose jobs permit it – to take a “Hotel California” approach to their Hong Kong lives and, to paraphrase The Eagles’ classic, “they check out, but they never leave”. Increasingly, the work of marketing professionals, business consultants and even doctors can be carried out remotely, and intercontinental cyber-commutes are ever more commonplace; at least one well-known newspaper commentator now files his daily column from the comfort, convenience and – let’s call it what it is, in these unsettled times – ultimate safe haven of faraway Toronto.
For the generation who came of age after 1997, today’s Hong Kong is a very different place from the one their parents were prepared to accept. As various protest movements have demonstrated in recent years, these young people are no longer content to be (at best) misruled by the sorry shower of proxies, puppets and stooges allegedly in charge of their city since the handover. This generation – and here’s the kicker – regard “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and Co as simply not radical enough to effect any meaningful change.
According to recent surveys, some 42 per cent of Hong Kong’s population has seriously considered permanent emigration, citing concerns about rule of law and governance, the collapsing education system, air pollution and a general decline in quality of life. Permanent departures to Canada doubled in the first quarter of last year, compared with the same period in 2015, while the number of Hong Kong people who moved permanently to Taiwan rose by 36 per cent, according to at least one report. And that’s without counting transnationals.
The famous verse of the Tang poet Wei Zhuang, weeping disconsolately over the ruin of Loyang when the dynasty fell in 907AD, echoes prophetically in contemporary Hong Kong:
Spring is bright in the city of Loyang, but the flower of its youth grows old under other skies …