Like anyone else brave or stupid enough to move to Hong Kong at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, I spent three long weeks in a hotel room in the city before once standing in its streets.
When I was freed, the day after Boxing Day 2020, following three PCR tests that each threatened to detain me for far longer, I wandered in a daze to the Peak Tram, which would take me to the highest point of Hong Kong island, the funicular’s hard wooden seats reclining on the steep climb.
At the top of the Peak, the wind whipped my hair, the closeness of the air at sea level had evaporated, and I relished every cool, fragrant gust, looking down for the first time at the forest of skyscrapers and the hazy blue harbour I had seen only a sliver of through a locked window for the past 21 days.
Barely two years and two more long hotel stays later, I am leaving — just as Hong Kong has finally scrapped its quarantine policy for people entering the region, which, apart from mainland China’s, has been the most draconian pandemic response in the world.
My situation is far from unusual. Despite last week’s about-turn on quarantine, the city has seen its biggest exodus of people in the past three years. In the year to July 2022, the population dropped by 1.6 per cent, around 121,500 people. The bulk of this was the result of residents leaving at a net average of 260 people every day.
The continuing threat of isolation in a government-run centre for anyone who tests positive with the virus means it is not yet clear if visitors will return.
In Hong Kong, there is still a gulf of sentiment between those who have held on to the belief that Hong Kong’s isolation from the world would improve, and those, like me, who have been cynical that things will ever return to normal. Many of my friends, colleagues and contacts have relocated to Singapore or the UK or to home countries such as Australia, Canada or the US, with no intention of coming back.
There were so many leaving parties earlier this year that bookshops on Hong Kong island now have whole sections of greetings cards to give friends saying “bye bye HKG”.
Yet, despite the unfortunate timing, I have been enamoured with life in Hong Kong since that first surreal morning on the Peak. I have, with deep conviction, recommended living here to friends. If it wasn’t for the unexpected opportunity to move to the FT’s San Francisco bureau, I would have stayed.
It is a blessing and a curse that I never experienced Hong Kong before the pandemic or the 2019 protests, and so I am not nostalgic for a city that has undoubtedly changed. Also, that I do not have children and so have been spared the long school closures and the worry for anyone other than myself being whisked away to quarantine.
Life for an expat in Hong Kong during Covid has been one of dizzying contradictions: where closed borders and the threat of state quarantine centres loom over daily life, but where each weekend is a blur of boat parties (“junks”), breathtakingly scenic hikes, secluded beaches and champagne on rooftops at sunset.
One where political headwinds seem to be growing slowly in a different part of town until they slap you in the face. Where one case of Covid in your gym could mean you and everyone you know are dragged to quarantine for weeks. Where horror stories about friends of friends separated from their children or trapped in the infamous Penny’s Bay Covid facility are traded over dinner or cocktails four nights a week with the friends you see more than your family.
If this sounds tone deaf in a city going through a transformational period, where Chinese anti-protest laws have stifled citizens’ human rights and the authors of “seditious” children’s books and peaceful protesters are sent to jail, then that’s because it is. Life as a western expat in Hong Kong has so far been entirely cocooned from the political turmoil.
Being an expat — or gweilo — in Hong Kong is an identity complicated by the city’s twinned Chinese and western cultures and separate from immigrant status because even after decades of living here lots of people feel it is temporary. Quarantine experiences pepper every conversation, but political oppression never does. The privilege of being able to leave is worn casually.
Some expats who work in the city’s financial district were caught up in tear-gas attacks by police or protesters during the 2019 uprising, but many of them are glad the Chinese national security law ended the riots and meant they could get back to work as normal. Few of those who have left did so to take a stand against the changes happening in Hong Kong, and were instead weary with the inconvenience.
As a journalist, I sit closer to the edge of this divide. The closure of Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily and the arrest of some of its journalists raised serious questions about the future of independent journalism in Hong Kong.
But for Hong Kong expats, who were safe while as many as 2mn people marched through the streets three years ago, the overwhelming experience of the Hong Kong police is merely that they are arbitrary enforcers of wearing a mask outdoors (but not, confusingly, indoors).
Bars and restaurants closed at 6pm when I first arrived from London, but the expat party was (almost) still in full swing. My lasting impression has been of living on a British university campus — but with a healthier bank balance than when I was a student.
Like many who arrive in Hong Kong for the first time, I settled in Mid-Levels, in a whitewashed, compact apartment on the 42nd floor of a newish tower on Caine Road. It was weeks before I could step on to the small balcony without feeling dizzy. A seven-minute walk down the hill to work, and friends living in the towers next door, enhanced the campus vibe.
What did not was the cost. My rented apartment is the smallest and most expensive I will ever inhabit. It is a universal truth that one of the only times a visitor to Hong Kong will be shocked at the price of something because it is low, is when paying for a taxi. Thus, the city’s fleet of red taxis easily become the favoured way of getting from A to B. My shameful record is six in one day.
After spending one night in Hong Kong over a century ago, Rudyard Kipling wrote that “Vice must be pretty much the same all the round world over, but if a man wishes to get out of pleasure with it, let him go to Hong Kong.” In the city’s dark drinking spots, sweet with the smell of syrupy liquor and raucous with the shrieks of high-spirited young foreigners, Kipling described, albeit somewhat sardonically, “seeing Life”.
That was in 1889, when Hong Kong had spent nearly half a century under British rule. In the succeeding decades, Hong Kong’s popularity as a playground for intrepid, ambitious, sometimes wayward western foreigners only grew.
Some were lured by the massive wealth to be made, first in the tea trade, then opium and, eventually, finance. Others were attracted by a vibrant Asian culture where the way of life was distinct from the full shock of living in China. Around 8 per cent of Hong Kong’s 7mn population are expats.
Now, 25 years after Hong Kong was returned to China, the revelrous energy that Kipling described still runs through Hong Kong’s venous streets. It is teeming with Life. An unfathomable number of things and people populate the high-rises that tower over every street. Unsettling FOMO creeps in.
At ground level, there is a perpetual sense of motion. In Sheung Wan, where the FT occupies the sixth floor of one indistinguishable tower, cardboard clutters the roads because the unloading of goods never stops. Every inch of space is used. The density of towers, each with thousands of homes and businesses, is startling. The best way to escape the sensory overload is to descend through a camouflaged door to a cool, windowless speakeasy or gin parlour.
Far from lamenting the slow erosion of Hong Kong as an expat playground, the American chairman of a bank who has been here for more than 30 years once remarked to me that one day we’ll look back and wonder how it lasted as long as it did.
As Hong Kong is brought into closer alignment with Beijing policies, it is likely to more closely resemble life in Shenzhen than London or New York. That it is becoming “just another Chinese city” is a common complaint.
As expats leave the city, mainland Chinese workers arrive. International businesses are replacing their depleted expat ranks with more local talent. Hong Kong has always been caught in a cultural custody battle between China and the west but, with Xi Jinping’s brand of nationalism and disregard for the “one country, two systems” arrangement created by Deng Xiaoping, it’s unsurprising that it is becoming more Chinese.
The end of the summer is now approaching in Hong Kong and the months of heavy, wet heat are starting to dissolve. Sitting outdoors is possible once again; the hiking trails are getting busier. The city is abuzz with gossip about what the effects will be of the decision to scrap quarantine before a banking conference and the rugby sevens in November.
But there is cause for gloom. China has launched a new round of punishing lockdowns across the border before the Communist party congress in October. Dozens of pro-democracy politicians and activists are awaiting non-jury trials in Hong Kong for alleged national security offences, possibly by the end of the year. The 74-year-old Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai faces prison over accusations of publishing “seditious” content, in a trial that will be a landmark moment for independent journalism in a Chinese territory.
But for most people, daily life is edging gradually towards a semblance of normality. For now, it is autumn in Hong Kong.
Tabby Kinder is the FT’s West Coast finance editor based in San Francisco, previously Asia financial correspondent in Hong Kong
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