FOR decades, Hong Kong's hospitality industry has been nicknamed ''the German-speaking Mafia'', a phenomenon that evolved in the early 60s. A Swiss hotel newspaper advertised openings in Hong Kong for cooks, chefs and at various levels of hotel management. The young and adventurous from Switzerland, Germany and Austria answered the advertisements and flocked en masse to the exotic Far East. For the next two decades, relatives and colleagues joined the young bucks. Many of those pioneers have never left. The tradition stuck, and the German-speaking professionals still dominate many dining rooms, kitchens, bakeries and executive offices of mega-star hotels and restaurants. Because the Swiss have always enjoyed a reputation as the world's best hoteliers, the tradition of service and attention remains strong in Hong Kong. If that is the case, then why are so many Hong Kong Chinese and other Asians filling the desks and dormitories of hotel schools in Switzerland? ''Those who want to learn this business don't have to go to Europe when they can learn all stations - from the front of the house and the back - in a number of good hotels here,'' insists Thomas Axmacher, general manager of the Regent Hotel. But many affluent Hong Kong and Asian families look for other educational opportunities. Ninety-five per cent of the 105 students at the two-year-old Domino Carlton Tivoli International Hotel Management and Career Centre in Luzern, come from Asia, and half of the 500 students at the 40-year old Les Roches, the Swiss Hotel Association Hotel Management School, at Bluche-Sierre near Lausanne, are from Asia. During a recent trip to Switzerland, I posed the question ''why''to several Hong Kong students enrolled in hotel schools in the Alps. Wendy Chan, 22, went for a culture change. After two years of secretarial school, the resident of Discovery Bay enrolled in Les Roches. Her goal: to work in hotels in Beijing. ''I could have stayed home and worked up the ranks in a very good hotel. But I wanted to experience life outside of Hong Kong.'' After earning a university degree in communications in California, Herve Yen worked for two years at Hong Kong hotels. The people-oriented nature of the business and the pressures suited him. With an eye to someday opening a restaurant in Hong Kong, the 25-year old enrolled in Les Roches. ''A diploma from a Swiss hotel school is good insurance. It opens doors and it's prestigious.'' Understanding the academic side of the hospitality business is important, says Kelvin Ho, who worked briefly at the Hilton and Portico restaurant before he moved to Switzerland. After an intensive three-month course in English in Geneva, he passed the language fluency examination for Les Roches. The fact that English is the language of instruction at Les Roches is a big drawing card for Hong Kong resident John Kim. After four years of medical school in Seoul, Kim decided on a career in the hotel business. His parents, traders in Hong Kong, gave him their blessing and he enrolled in Les Roches. Les Roches is only one of dozens of privately-run schools that are witnessing and taking advantage of the booming business of Swiss hotel school education. One recent admission to the two-year-old Domino Carlton Tivoli International Hotel Management and Career Centre in Luzern was Miranda Tam. The 18-year-old from Tsuen Wan was recruited locally by the school's Hong Kong representative. She, like Wendy Chan at Les Roches, decided to go to Europe to broaden her education and knowledge of other cultures. ''I have no intention of staying in Europe. There aren't many opportunities for us [Chinese].'' Business has been so good for the school, a former top-rate hotel in Luzern, that the management is expanding its facilities to add rooms for 50 more students. It will also expand the recruitment programme in Asia, especially in Japan, says Adrian McDermott, director of student activities. Because Europe and the United States are experiencing economic woes, Asia's booming economy enables families who can afford it to send their children to Switzerland. Hong Kong-based Martine Charpenet has directed many Hong Kong students to the 500-student school in the tiny village of Bluche-Sierre. Schooling in the Alps is hardly cheap. One semester at Les Roches costs $100,000. Add six semesters, air travel, supplies and spending money, and the total is a sizeable investment. ''That doesn't include spending money or side-trips or going to too many movies,'' says Herve Yen. ''Somebody who is pretty frugal can get by on the suggested amount of spending money, $3,500 per semester.'' The cost of living in Switzerland shocks the students. Wendy Chan claims that the only things that are not expensive, from Hong Kong person's point of view, are Swatch watches. The only Chinese restaurant near the school, run by a Hong Kong man, charges about $250 for sweet and sour pork. A round-trip on the funicular (the local version of the Peak Tram that takes students up to the alpine resort of Crans-Montana or down to the town of Sierre, costs $60. A Big Mac and a milk-shake? That costs around $30.50. Les Roches' programme is similar to those of other hotel schools. Students rotate one semester of theory and academics with one semester of on-site training in a restaurant or hotel, usually in Switzerland. Before he went to hotel school in Leysin, Switzerland, John Nielsen worked in the hospitality industry in Denmark and Portugal. ''When I look at applicants today, I look for consistency in their work records,'' says the assistant director of food and beverage for the Grand Hyatt Hotel. ''A diploma tells me that the person is consistent. But hotel schools, by and large, glamorise the industry. They build it up as making big money. You never see anyone who works 12 to 15 hours a day pulling in millions of dollars.'' He says the semesters students spend outside the classroom working in restaurants and hotels counts in terms of learning practical things. ''But you're not really treated as a full-time professional. You basically help out. You've not given 100 per-cent responsibility, you're never totally in charge. The management still regards you as a student.'' The value of his Swiss hotel school education, studying at Hosta in Leysin, was ''learning to live in harmony people from 29 nationalities. That's critical in our business. ''If you want to go beyond a banquet manager, you have to study marketing and progressive management techniques. You've got to go to school. But you don't have to go to Europe, or the States.'' Ferdinand Zehnder remembers his practical experience at the Royal Pacific Hotel in Kowloon and the Regent. But the Swiss-born graduate of L'Ecole Hoteliere in Lausanne, and now the director of Hotel de la Paix in Luzern, agrees with Nielsen: a diploma doesn't matter. ''I have several Asians on my staff and I would hire more in a minute. They are more hard-working and serious than the Europeans or Americans.'' But having that piece of paper from Lausanne, earned with four years of work, hasn't hurt the 27-year-old either. ''Maybe I can say a diploma doesn't count because I have one.''