Tshering Chumpel Bhutia's parents never expected their son to live in Hong Kong - a hectic place they knew little about, far from their quiet life in Nepal and the beauty of the land from which they are exiled, Tibet. But sitting in a Staunton Street restaurant on a weekday afternoon, Mr Bhutia's mind is occupied with an issue that has little to do with his parents. Wearing a quizzical expression, Mr Bhutia, known to friends as Kiki, asks: 'I've never heard of Amelia Earhart. Have you?' Mr Bhutia, a Tibetan, is referring to the American aviator chosen recently as a substitute in an ad campaign for Apple Computer because, company representatives said, she was more recognisable in Asia than the Dalai Lama. As a former monk, it would be understandable if 27-year-old Mr Bhutia did not support the image of the spiritual leader being used to market computers. But he is quite sanguine about it. 'Buddhism is about helping people and if it helps Apple, I don't see why it should be portrayed as a bad thing.' Mr Bhutia is one of an estimated 10 Tibetans living in Hong Kong, not including the small number of monks who pay short visits to spread the dharma. Like many of his fellow Tibetans in the SAR, he has spurned the quiet life in Nepal and India, where his parents fled with the Dalai Lama after China annexed Tibet in 1959. Not surprisingly, he refuses to discuss politics with the press or in any public forum. Tibetan independence, like Taiwan's, has ranked among the most sensitive issues in the SAR since the handover, when Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa stressed that advocating either one in an organised manner would be against the interests of national security. So locating the few Tibetans living in Hong Kong is difficult. Many prefer to remain invisible and their friends and acquaintances have never made an effort to determine their whereabouts. 'I know about them. I know they're here. But friends don't believe me when I say I don't want to know more,' says one woman often contacted by members of the Tibetan community through her work at a Buddhism centre. 'I just excuse myself. It's too sensitive.' Mr Bhutia, an Indian passport holder, is well aware of this. He declines to address issues concerning Tibet and China directly, but will discuss the role Westerners have played in advocating Tibetan independence. He says he hopes it is not out of pity that their campaigns abroad have been relentless. In his experience, they do not want to discuss politics. 'They want to know more about Buddhism; what is emptiness, what is karma,' he says. 'I don't mind. It's fun talking about these things.' Despite the interest of Westerners in Tibetan Buddhism, he says their general knowledge of Tibet is poor, which is why he is glad movies such as Seven Years In Tibet and Kundun have been made. (Seven Years opened in Hong Kong four weeks ago; it is uncertain whether Kundun will be screened in the SAR.) Still, Mr Bhutia - the only Tibetan of those interviewed who had watched Seven Years - was disappointed by the movie. 'Non-Tibetans went to see the film because of Brad Pitt, not because of Tibet,' he says. On a more personal level, he adds: 'All the people from the East were warriors and they only showed the West. It was disappointing because my family is from the East.' Mr Bhutia's parents are now in Nepal while his grandparents are in India. Fulfilling his grandfather's wish for him to become a monk, he entered a monastery in India at age 10. But seven years later, Mr Bhutia rejected monastic life 'because of the distractions of the material world'. 'What I wanted to do, [the monastery] didn't let me do, and what I didn't want to do, they forced me to do,' says the bartender and waiter who works in one of the warmly lit SoHo restaurants. Free to dress as he pleases, Mr Bhutia wears his black, wavy hair long and slicked back, and with his jeans, a fitted white T-shirt and a pair of stylish glasses, he looks as if he could have walked right out of a Calvin Klein ad. Gone are the days when he would spend his time gazing at India's Kanchenjunga Mountain, the third-highest in the world. His memories include the heavy summer rains and the 'freezing cold' winters, and towns where everyone seemed to know each other. Because his family are exiles, he knows of Tibet only as his grandparents described it: beautiful, similar in some ways to the place romanticised by recent Hollywood films, a harsh land hemmed in by the Himalayas, with the brightly coloured robes worn by monks adding warmth to the clear, cold landscape. Charmed by a Hong Kong Chinese he met in India, Mr Bhutia left two years ago, married, and moved to Hong Kong. The worst aspect of life here, he says, is that 'friendliness is artificial'. He seems to be neither bothered by the dull high-rises that cut into the smog-filled sky nor the dark suits that are the norm, because he will likely settle in Nepal one day, he says. An estimated 130,000 Tibetans now live in Nepal and India, according to Robbie Barnett, former director of the Tibet Information Network, a resource centre based in London. Tibet's government-in-exile is based in Dharamsala, north India. Many Tibetans also live in Switzerland, where they were given amnesty after the annexation. A few others are scattered around the United States, Britain and Canada. A small number of Tibetan Muslims reside in Saudi Arabia. Director of the Free Tibet Campaign in London, Alison Reynolds, who visited Hong Kong before the handover, says she was advised not to contact any Tibetans directly to participate in a protest, for fear of jeopardising their safety or that of their families. This includes the brother of the Dalai Lama, Gyalo Thondup, who has played a role in negotiations with Beijing and Taiwan on behalf of the Tibetan government-in-exile, which opened its first office in Taipei last week. Although he lived in Hong Kong during the 1980s, there is confusion about his current whereabouts. And no one is trying to find out, according to Ms Reynolds. The handover protest was one of very few that took place in Hong Kong on behalf of Tibetans. Several human-rights groups say the SAR's proximity to the mainland has always been a deterrent to gathering information about them. One Tibetan woman who holds a Nepalese passport says concerns over the preservation of human rights after the handover did not worry her when she first took up work as a domestic helper in Hong Kong three years ago. 'My parents did not worry either,' the 24-year-old antique gallery assistant says. 'They did not even know where Hong Kong was. For us, there is no reason to be concerned because we are working and living here legally. We have nothing to do with politics, we're just trying to make a living.' She decided to work in Hong Kong because, like most expatriates, she could make a better salary to support her parents and younger brother in college in India. She has not yet visited Tibet, although she would one day like to. Her views are echoed by a 27-year-old Tibetan man who agreed to meet, then apologised for not being able to say much, for fear of what would happen if he was identified. He would reveal, however, that he moved to Hong Kong because it was his wife's home, opportunities to make money were good and there was a Nepalese community that welcomed him. So what would happen to those who spoke in less measured tones and who gathered to fight for Tibetan independence? Law Yuk-kai, director of Human Rights Monitor, says: 'They would run the risk of having their rights affected by several ordinances.' The revised Public Order Ordinance tightened control of public rallies and associations to prevent any threat to national security, while flag ordinances prohibit the display of damaged, defiled, faded or substandard national or regional flags. If convicted, violators face a maximum fine of $50,000 and three years in jail. 'The right to voice political opposition, the right to call for independence peacefully and the right to associate for independence should be tolerated, as in Quebec in Canada and Sinn Fein in the United Kingdom,' says Mr Law. The Tibetan man, who requested anonymity, says this would not happen. But he does not blame the SAR Government or mainland officials. 'Hong Kong is a place where no one talks about politics. No one is interested.' Newspaper reports of Tibetans being beaten, tortured or executed in their homeland are ensuring that Tibetans in Hong Kong keep mum on all political issues. One Tibetan is more daring than the others, although he does not advocate self-rule outright. 'I feel it's a shame that we can't express our true feelings,' he says. 'We don't have a choice.'