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Have Job, Will Travel : They’re called ‘astronauts'--professional men who live in Hong Kong while their families live in countries that some believe have better lifestyles and educational opportunities. But for many, transcontinental life is taking its toll.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

David Wong is having a typical night.

He’s in southern China on business. It’s well past midnight. And he just got back to his hotel room after working all day and entertaining clients all evening.

He’s exhausted and has an early start in the morning but needs to phone his wife, Candy, in Los Angeles before he goes to sleep. With the 16-hour time difference, he has only a few minutes to connect before she leaves the house for the day.

Candy left him several call-back messages in the morning, but he just didn’t have time to respond. She must be having some problem with the kids, he thinks.

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The phone in his room keeps ringing, but it’s never the operator with his L.A. call. Just another prostitute phoning from the hotel lobby, asking him if he wants company for the night. He’s getting tired of all the calls, weary of his routine.

And it’s no easier on his wife.

“The worst thing about this life,” says Candy Wong, 37, “is that if I have a problem, like with the kids, I have to solve it immediately on my own. I can never get him on the phone in a hurry. He’s got meetings all the time; he goes on business trips every week. So, I have to decide things on the spot, on my own. It’s just like being a single parent.’

Says David, 39, director of a large Hong Kong toy manufacturer: “The worst thing about this life for me is that I’m worried about my marriage. We’re living different lives. I have confidence in her to stay faithful. But I don’t have confidence in myself. There’s just too much temptation.”

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David Wong is an “astronaut,” a tai hung yan, the Chinese nickname for a frustrated and expanding class of mostly professional men in their late 30s, 40s and early 50s who work in Hong Kong but whose wives and children live elsewhere. Wong asked that his first name and the first name of his wife be changed for this story to help preserve their anonymity.

“It’s quite common now for Hong Kong people to live this kind of life,” says Candy Wong about the growing trend among the colony’s “Chuppies,” the nickname for Hong Kong’s own yuppie brand. “None of my Western friends can believe it.”

Candy hopes David will be able to visit her in Los Angeles--a grueling, 14-hour flight from Hong Kong--about 12 times in 1993. Before moving to Los Angeles in late 1992, Candy and the kids were living in Australia, with David commuting from Hong Kong to Melbourne. He decided to move the family to California after his company opened an L.A. office. Now, he combines business trips with trips home, allowing him more visits to the United States.

Precise figures are unavailable, but experts agree that these intercontinental commuters number in the thousands. Astronauting is the new way of life in the British colony and many prominent people are doing it--including, ironically, the colonial government’s director of immigration, Laurence Leung Ying-min, whose family lives in Vancouver.

“There are definitely some familiar faces on the Vancouver flight, especially in first class,” says one Cathay Pacific Airways pilot who has flown the astronaut run. “There was a joke going around that one guy wrote on his landing card under ‘address,’ Seat 1A, First Class, Cathay Pacific.”

The flight paths of Hong Kong astronauts run mostly to Canada (where Vancouver and Toronto are the main destinations), Australia and, to a lesser extent, the West Coast of the United States. Fewer astronauts settle in the States because of more stringent immigration regulations and an eight-year backlog of immigration petitions. Canada has accepted the vast majority of Hong Kong emigrants--26,647 last year alone.

Most tai hung yans moved their families abroad within the last few years when the television images of tanks crushing pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing were fresh in the minds of Hong Kong residents. The colony’s future under Chinese rule after 1997 looked bleak.

But most astronauts stayed in their new homes just long enough to secure a foreign passport from their adopted countries, then came running back to Hong Kong and its resurgent, post-Tian An Men economy. Some just splashed down for a couple of weeks to settle the family, returning to jobs they never left. Others are evading immigration regulations by applying for permanent residency elsewhere, particularly Canada, while still living full-time in Hong Kong.

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Indeed, economic recession in the West has been the major stimulus bringing the astronauts back home. They also cite lack of respect in Western workplaces, little advancement or excitement, lower salaries, higher taxes and a less-stringent work ethic than in the freewheeling, hard-working British colony.

“Hong Kong is an economic oasis in the world, let’s face it,” says John Wilson, a headhunter in Hong Kong. “And the news has gotten out pretty quickly. We’re getting stacks of applications from Chinese wanting to return all the time.

“A couple of years ago, it was very fashionable among the Chinese to be leaving,” Wilson recalls. “Now, it’s completely the opposite. The fashionable thing is to come back. Everyone knows the score out there now. There’s not much magic left.”

One of the great ironies of Hong Kong is that despite the looming handover to China and the acrimonious state of Sino-British relations, the tiny place is still booming. Stock prices and property values have risen steadily, and unemployment is less than 2%. The blossoming of trade with southern China and the re-export of more and more Chinese-made goods also has created many profitable, exciting business opportunities.

“There’s no more brain drain,” says Adrienne Leung, another Hong Kong headhunter who, herself, recently returned from San Francisco. “It’s the brain gain now.”

Although some families do return after getting their Canadian, Australian or U. S. passports, most are staying in their adopted homes, finding the lifestyle and the educational opportunities better.

But families are paying a dear price for the new transpacific trend: The children of astronauts, and to a lesser degree the wives, are becoming rapidly Westernized, while Dad never left home. Kids are growing up fatherless. Marriages are falling apart in a culture that still views breakup as shameful. Extramarital affairs are commonplace. And the families that stay together, especially those with small children, are finding they can be desperately unhappy.

There’s a crush of people at the Canadian Pacific Airlines check-in counter at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport. Canadian Pacific attendants are loading a flight to Vancouver and Toronto. It’s the first day of the Chinese New Year holiday, and Canadian Pacific and Cathay Pacific, both with daily nonstop service to the West Coast, have scheduled extra flights.

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The vast majority of the passengers checking in are middle-aged Chinese men, many of whom present Canadian passports at the counter.

Among the crowd this day was Vincent Chan, 38, an ambitious, energetic telecommunications executive. Chan and his family migrated to Toronto in early 1992. He simply took some vacation time to settle them in, never intending to make a permanent move himself. He knew he couldn’t find a job in Canada as good as the one he had in Hong Kong.

“Frankly, I only stayed two weeks,” Chan says before leaving the colony for the holidays. He lowers his voice and asks that a pseudonym be used.

“I’m taking a risk, I know,” he whispers, looking around nervously. “I have applied for permanent residency there, even though I still live here. If the immigration department accepts me in two years, I’ll get citizenship. They could catch me if they wanted--all the flight information is computerized.

“But,” he adds, giggling anxiously, “they probably won’t. In any case, my wife and son will get citizenship, so I can always get it later if this doesn’t work now.”

Chan’s subterfuge is made possible by the fact that Canada issues no exit stamp for departing passengers and Hong Kong residents can enter the British colony by simply showing their identity cards.

So on the passport side, Chan has it pretty well worked out. But on the personal side, things aren’t so good.

“The main problem is that I miss my wife and son very much,” Chan begins. “I try to call them every day. I’m spending so much of my salary on the phone bill.

“My son loves me a lot now. I’m his idol, you could say,” Chan says, taking a photograph of a smiling 4-year-old out of his wallet. “But I’m scared he will think that I have let him down.”

Chan also desperately misses his wife of 10 years, Cindy, 36. “I am a young man. My wife is young. I need her. We need each other. We are still young, you understand what I mean?”

While in Hong Kong, most astronauts live in tiny apartments in sterile housing estates, while the wife and kids get comfy in a big house in a leafy suburb of some of the nicest cities in North America.

David Wong lives in a boxlike two-bedroom apartment in a high-rise block in the bustling Mongkok area of Hong Kong--one of the most densely populated neighborhoods on Earth.

Wong eats all of his meals out, including breakfast. His kitchen stove, which he admits he’s only used a couple of times to heat some instant noodles, is covered with a thin layer of dust. Some of his furniture is still wrapped in plastic.

“One of the main problems with the astronaut’s life is that the men deprive themselves so much here,” says Cathy Tsang-Feign, a Hong Kong psychologist with several astronaut clients. “They work like dogs to make more money. They never spend any money. They live in tiny apartments, or with their mothers or their mothers-in-law to save money. Their whole justification is to make more money, so that’s all they think about.

“They usually come see me after a trip home to their families,” she says. “They’re disappointed to be back.”

Astronaut wives, meanwhile, are left to carve out a new life by themselves, raising their children alone in a strange country. Most of the women left good jobs; many were career professionals. The majority had live-in domestic help, which is easy to get in Hong Kong.

“It’s also a hard transition for these women,” says Tsang-Feign. “Most of them were professionals. Now they’re full-time housewives, taking care of the kids all day on top of getting used to a new place. They’re lonely.”

“I gave up everything to move here,” says Chan’s wife, Cindy, in Toronto. “I gave up my house, my job, my friends, my life. I gave up everything to get our passports, for our son’s future. I had to do it. So I can’t look back now.”

Astronaut children seem to fare the best, although they grow up in what is essentially a one-parent family. But there is more space for them, and they usually attend the best schools in their areas. University places are easier to get than in Hong Kong, with many more education options for kids coming out of high school.

Within weeks of arriving in California, the Wongs bought a $320,000 townhouse in a guarded compound in Rolling Hills on the Palos Verdes peninsula. The Wongs’ two daughters attend public school nearby, go swimming at the compound pool on the weekends and play with neighborhood friends.

“The raison d’etre of the astronaut lifestyle is the kids,” says one Western diplomat in Hong Kong. “It’s better for the kids in North America. It’s better for the adults here.”

The kids usually end up having problems with Dad, however, as they quickly become little Canadians, Australians or Americans. “I force my children to go to Chinese school on Saturdays in Toronto,” says one astronaut. “I don’t want them to just be Canadian. They have to remember they are Chinese.”

But children often desperately want to assimilate quickly, trying to play down, rather than highlight, any difference between them and their peers, psychologists say.

Some desperate Hong Kong dads have been known to have their children fax their homework to them on a daily basis, in what after time becomes a vain effort to remain part of their child’s everyday life. Others give up trying after awhile.

“Astronaut families have lots of problems,” acknowledges Tsang-Feign, whose two brothers have chosen that lifestyle. “I see it with my brothers and with my clients. The Chinese mentality is to endure. They think they can endure anything if it is for the future of their families. But they can’t. It’s too hard. Nobody can.”


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