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Coming Home And Cashing In


International Business

COMING HOME--AND CASHING IN

When Britain agreed eight years ago to turn Hong Kong over to mainland China, Roland and Vivian Lo got a bad case of the jitters. Two years later, during a firecracker show on Chinese New Year, the crowd got out of control - and pregnant Vivian was badly shaken. If it's this unruly now, thought Roland, then a senior sales executive at Television Broadcasts Ltd. (TVB), a major Hong Kong TV station, what will it be like in 1997, when Beijing takes over? So the Los left their homeland, along with tens of thousands of others who have struck out for havens in Canada, Australia, and the U.S.

But in a colony that once feared a massive brain drain, the talk these days is about the brain gain. After four years in Canada, the Los are back. And they're not alone. An estimated 30,000 young professionals have returned in the past 12 months, while the outflow has leveled off. Hong Kong, it turns out, looks like a land of opportunity, while the supposed safe havens are in prolonged economic slumps. Moreover, the returnees believe they can come home safely because they hold "insurance policies" - foreign passports - against threatening moves by Beijing.

For most, it's easier to make ends meet in the colony. "We are riding on the boom of Hong Kong," says 36 year-old Roland, who is now back at TVB and making $56,000 a year, vs. the $33,000 he earned at a Toronto tv station. As Canada's economy stagnates and Australia's unemployment hits 11%, the jobless rate in Hong Kong is below 2%, and its economy is growing a snappy 5% this year.

HELP WANTED. There's plenty of work around. Just open a South China Morning Post any Saturday and leaf through the employment ads - as many as 150 pages. Ironically, China, having scared off Hong Kong's best-educated, is now generating jobs for them: Many returnees are starting new businesses or getting jobs that produce goods for the fast-growing China market. And once Beijing and London iron out the last financing wrinkles for Hong Kong's $22 billion airport and railway project, as many as 40,000 new jobs could open up.

The best and brightest can always find work. Take Cambridge-educated Edwin Cheng. In 1986, he left for Canada and landed a tenured job at the University of Manitoba as a professor of operations management. But Cheng, 35, wasn't going anywhere. Too many qualified candidates were chasing too few jobs. Now, he's the head of Hong Kong Polytechnic's management department. He takes home more than twice the pay he earned in Canada, receives a subsidized housing, and will get a full year's bonus when he finishes his four-year contract.

Some emigrants couldn't find steady work abroad. Ada Mok, 35, went to Toronto in 1988 "to secure a passport." She studied and worked in Toronto but got laid off in January from publisher Prentice/Hall Inc. when the economy dipped. Returning to Hong Kong, she soon landed a job as a marketing services executive at the Hong Kong Tourist Assn.

WAIT AND SEE. The returnees face some shocks. The biggest is the sky-high cost of real estate. Since 1988, the price of a 1,200 square-foot apartment in the popular Taikoo Shing district has jumped from $250,000 to $720,000. Many returnees, such as Mok, have simply moved back in with their families. Derek Chan, a manager at ICI (China) Ltd., is luckier. London-based ICI sent him to Britain in 1987, helped him get a passport there, and then sent him back to Hong Kong with full expatriate benefits, including subsidized housing and schooling for his two kids.

The influx doesn't mean the fears about 1997 have disappeared. For educated Hong Kong residents who lack "insurance policies," the worries are deep, and many are still leaving. Even some of those with foreign passports are planning to leave within five years.

But most returnees are betting that China won't turn its back on economic reform. "I'm more optimistic now about the future of China," says Cheng. "It is moving toward a market economy and more liberalization." Roland Lo certainly agrees. He is thriving in his new job, and Vivian Lo hopes to cash in on the property boom in her new job as a real estate agent at Asia Pacific Properties. For the Los, there's no place like home - for now.By Joyce Barnathan in Hong Kong


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