It’s Visa Time for Hong Kong’s Offbeat Britons
Before the hand-over to China, there was always a place here for someone like Hunter Wallof. A British wanderer, Hunter bought an old junk in China with pterodactyl-wing sails and drifted one night into Lamma Bay. He lived there on his boat for seven years with his dog, Rufus, never holding a steady job and eating a lot of mangoes. So many mangoes in fact, that fellow islanders swear that he--and his dog--actually turned orange.
But when the British claim to Hong Kong ended in July, so did the perks of Empire, including the right for Britons to stay in the territory without a visa. So Hunter sailed away one night for the Philippines, where he reportedly still lives on his boat, now favors papayas--and is still orange.
For the rest of his compatriots, a grace period for visa-free residence here ended Wednesday. From now on, British citizens, like every other foreigner living here, will have to prove that they are worthy of staying on. The criteria: that they benefit Hong Kong’s society or economy or hold a post that cannot be filled by a local.
For more than 150 years, Hong Kong has been the exotic outpost of opportunity for the British, the land of the second chance. Some of the adventurers, merchants and scoundrels who arrived on the territory’s shores over the decades have transformed themselves into self-made tycoons and pillars of society. But for the second-raters who came without a purpose or a job and have carried on without distinction, Hong Kongers coined a special term: FILTH--failed in London, tried Hong Kong.
Now Britons lament that they have to try a lot harder. Some say the government’s demand that they hold a steady job with a minimum salary of at least $2,000 a month penalizes Hong Kong’s most creative and international element: foreign artists, freelancers and entrepreneurs.
“Hong Kong is a convenience for anyone who wanted to settle down outside of England and try something they haven’t tried before,” says Dave Parker, a 38-year-old artist from London who came out with a lavish book of watercolor illustrations of the Hong Kong hand-over. “But with the focus on business here, there’s not much respect for creativity. The visa thing puts pressure on what is already a very fragile society of artists.”
Much of Hong Kong’s experimental element dwells on Lamma Island, a short ferry ride and a world away from Hong Kong Island’s pile drivers and pinstripes. Once the home of rice farmers and fishermen, it has become the place for drifters like Hunter, musicians, artists, dissidents and backpackers seeking a cheap piece of paradise. Lately, it has hosted British laborers who have abandoned their dying industrial hometowns to take the jobs that locals do not want on one of Hong Kong’s many construction sites.
The transient, easy-living community has provided a good source of English-speaking teachers, waiters and workers who help make Hong Kong run and add a bit of color to the territory’s bottom-line society.
“I can do a lot of things that a Hong Kong person can’t,” says John Hutton, a tousled blond musician in an Irish bagpipe band called Squinty Backbone. Not to mention the things Hong Kong people won’t do: By day he walks dogs and doubles as Scotty the Clown’s assistant, Snotty, at birthday parties.
He’s trying to get one of the pubs he plays for to sponsor a work visa for him. If that fails, “well, it’s a big world out there.”
Not everyone is as philosophical as Hutton. Among the United Kingdom’s 31,400 residents here, 8,700 have applied for work visas, and more than half have been approved. That leaves 4,001 cases under consideration and perhaps half of Lamma’s British population up in the air.