SEVENTEEN years ago Hong Kong couple Warren Rooke and Anita Lauder bought a traditional Chinese house to use as a weekend retreat in Macau's tranquil Coloane village. Two years ago, reflecting a lifelong interest in antiques, Lauder opened Asian Artefacts and they began spending more time in the enclave. Last month they closed their Hong Kong apartment, took a small studio in Central and moved everything to Coloane. Following in their footsteps is a Japanese businessman with a penchant for golf whose work demands frequent travel to Malaysia. He has given up his $70,000 a month Mid-Levels flat, moved his family into a Taipa apartment the same size for $7,000 a month, and now takes advantage of the three flights a week to Kuala Lumpur from Macau's new airport. A short drive from home are the lush greens of the Golf and Country Club. The movement of Hong Kong residents to Macau began with a trickle. Now, amid economic pressures and jitters related to the 1997 handover - two years before Macau is returned to Chinese rule - the Portuguese enclave is accommodating growing numbers of locals and expatriates seeking a more relaxed lifestyle. In some cases they are younger, single expatriate economic refugees who find Hong Kong increasingly inhospitable or the future uncertain. Some see moving their bases to Macau as an astute financial move or, in cases like Rooke and Lauder's, their motive is a mixture of business and pleasure. Others come with their jobs. Matthew Siegel, former manager of the Regent's Plume restaurant, relocated two months ago with the lure of being food and beverage manager at the Hotel Lisboa. Former Hong Kong Club employee Eddie Li made the move via Australia to become associate manager at the golf club. Chan Chi-shun, a former employee of Cable & Wireless in Hong Kong moved to Macau three years ago on a temporary consultancy basis. He is now employed by Air Macau as information technology manager and would be making more money if he had stayed in the territory. 'But this is a more interesting project,' he said. 'How often do you get to start an airline?' His wife, Marina Wong, now a marketing executive at the Hotel Lisboa, also believes she has the same opportunities in Macau as she did in Hong Kong. The Macau Government is encouraging the trend, its aim being to 'internationalise' the enclave. The arrival of Hong Kong people is seen as an integral part of this process as hopes rise that many more will move to Macau and adopt a 'watch-and-wait' position in the months between July, 1997 and December, 1999. Indeed, some Macau residents have waded into the depressed property market in anticipation of an influx from Hong Kong. 'History has always been like this,' said Macau-born lawyer Fred Kan, who lives in Taipa and commutes to his office in Central Plaza, a journey he describes as more comfortable than travelling from the New Territories to Wan Chai. 'When something happens to Hong Kong regarding stability, for some reason Macau booms.' In a paper he has written to stimulate development, Mr Kan argues the enclave is now in a strong position to attract multinational and China-based corporations to Macau, where overheads are among the lowest in the region, He believes European and American expatriates in particular will find Macau's lifestyle more appealing than Hong Kong's. 'The time for Macau's transformation has arrived,' he said. 'The window of opportunity comes while Macau, through its international China air routes, is establishing itself as a convenient springboard to China. It comes also from the uncertainty of Hong Kong after July 1, 1997.' But there are major drawbacks, which he identifies as the lack of an official international school, of a medical system sensitive to the needs of an international community and, in Mr Kan's words, of 'a more transparent and consumer-friendly legal regime'. His views are echoed by Macau airport strategist Carlos Almeida, an outspoken believer in Macau's potential, who is convinced the enclave could become another Hong Kong - provided it is carefully managed. 'It is just a question of infrastructure rather than culture,' he said. 'The airport was the final missing link, but now we have the conditions to get out of the shadow of Hong Kong.' He sees the Macau of the future as a key business centre with convenient access to China, an important subsidiary to Chek Lap Kok in terms of cargo, and finally as a place offering more to visitors and residents than just casinos and gambling. Mr Almeida once felt he was virtually alone in promoting the 'internationalisation' of Macau. Now he senses that change is in the air and that a development strategy for the enclave will soon be pushed forward. Associate manager at the golf club, Mr Li, who has poached several former Hong Kong colleagues to join him, said: 'Macau needs Hong Kong expertise. At management level in the hotels, almost all are Hong Kongers.' He said there was tremendous potential with plans to expand Macau's hotel sector. But a major movement of Hong Kong people to Macau will only come when big corporations move their bases to the enclave. Those who have made the move are usually people who have their own businesses, work as a freelance, and do not need to commute to Hong Kong on a daily basis. Lauder and Rooke, for example, travel to Hong Kong about once a week and believe three times a week would be as much as they could reasonably stand. Weekly travel between Hong Kong and Macau alleviates the problem of residency requirements. Hong Kong identity card holders have the right to stay for three months while passport holders can stay for 21 days. But many expatriates have lived in Macau for up to three years without problems, just as many live in Hong Kong without having an ID card. 'There has always been legislation that you need a permit to work, which allows you to stay for one year, and that after seven years you can receive a permanent card,' said a Macau lawyer. 'People without this card commit a technical breach - but how are you going to enforce this?' Shopping at the top end of the market is limited in Macau - although Emporio Armani is to open a store. But fresh fruit, vegetables and seafood are readily and cheaply available at the market, wine is inexpensive, and factory outlet bargains can still be found. All new Macau residents, irrespective of whether they are Cantonese speakers, speak of a friendlier community. It is one of the reasons Betsy Li, who left the Hong Kong Club to join Macau's golf club as a sales manager, enjoys her job so much. Air Macau's Mr Chan said: 'People take time to talk to each other and socialise. In Hong Kong, people socialise when they guess there is some business going on.' One Hong Kong Chinese said it could take time to get accepted by colleagues at a new company - who sometimes resented newcomers. Mr Chan also found it took him a while to understand the ins and outs of business in Macau. 'If you try to do things by the book, things never get done,' he said. 'Macau is very big on relationships.' Those who have made the move are usually reticent to talk about the rewards of setting up shop in Macau - in case waxing lyrical will bring hordes of newcomers and spoil it for those already there. But most Hong Kong people are probably already familiar with the pros and cons of living in Macau; low rentals, the cost of commuting, and an attractive living environment. 'They are in an enviable position to make educated decisions over moving their base here,' said Mr Almeida. And while Macau's image as a haven for gambling, loansharks and prostitution is hard to change, he believes history is once again on the enclave's side. 'Macau is now or never,' he said. 'The conditions are now right.'