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This diversity is perhaps most apparent at Chungking Mansions, a warrenlike, low-rent residential complex in the Tsimshatsui district that houses thousands of Hong Kong's foreigners. Gordon Mathews, a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has been studying the subculture of the area, says he has identified people from 120 different countries staying there by examining guesthouse logs. Contrary to the image of the Hong Kong expat as fat cat banker or multinational exec, those who call Chungking Mansions home hail from Asia's poorer countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh. They have come to Hong Kong hoping to make money by washing dishes, working in construction or hawking fake Rolexes to tourists. Mathews calls the district a "center for low-end globalization."
Across the harbor in the commercial high-rises of Hong Kong island, demographics have undergone a similar diversification. Not long ago, Abdullah Mohamed Hashim might have felt out of place in the city's cubicle culture because he's Malaysian and a Muslim. But the 28-year-old management trainee at the Dutch bank ABN Amro says he's had no problem fitting in. "At work, no one pays attention to where you're from, only how hard you're working," Hashim says. Like many local professionals, he works until 10 p.m. nearly every day. "Growing up in Malaysia, most of what I knew about Hong Kong came from soap operas," Hashim says. "That I'd come to live here? It seemed impossible. No one even considered it an option."
It's not impossible nowadays. Major corporations are increasingly seeking out talented, well-educated Asians to fill the ranks that were once occupied by Western businessmen. "Asians are simply cheaper than traditional Western expats," explains Vincent Gauthier, general manager of the human-resources consultancy Hewitt Associates. Westerners tend to expect companies to pay some or all of their housing costs, educational expenses for their children and other perks to compensate them for the hardship of living overseas. But many Asians see life in Hong Kong as a step up rather than a hardship, so they are less likely to insist on lavish benefits. Many multinational companies are phasing out special pay packages for foreigners altogether. "There's little incentive for companies to pay for [Americans] anymore," says Joe Logudic, head of the human-resources committee for the Hong Kong branch of the American Chamber of Commerce. "At this point, it's actually the Americans who are being discriminated against."
Some might say that the habits of long-privileged Caucasians were due for a change. And indeed, the clubby attitudes that prevailed under British rule are no longer as widespread, a change that reflects the global economic ascendance of developing countries such as China and India. "Indians are held in higher regard now," says Nisha Israni, a flight attendant who moved to Hong Kong from Mumbai (formerly Bombay) 10 years ago. Israni's husband, Jaideep Malhotra, an executive at a U.S. technology-services company, explains that despite Hong Kong's long-established and vibrant Indian community, his compatriots only recently began seeking out white-collar jobs. "Twenty or 30 years ago, Indians only came to Hong Kong to be low-skilled workers," Malhotra says. "Now we're accepted as professional peers."
Malhotra and Israni met in Hong Kong and married seven years ago. They have made numerous friends in their Kowloon neighborhood and through their membership at the Kowloon Cricket Club. They say they intend to stayand that attitude, too, is something that's different about Hong Kong's new breed of foreigner. Prior to the handover, those who worked in Hong Kong tended to view the city as a stepping-stone along a career path that ultimately led back home. In 1996, nearly half of all expats left within three years; today, less than a third do. "Now, foreigners come to Hong Kong to build a life," says Paul Yip, a demographer at the University of Hong Kong. "They've seen all of Hong Kong's flaws, they know the risks, and they're prepared to stay."
Not all of them, of course. For some foreigners, Hong Kong's choking air pollution is a deal breaker. A survey of 140 foreign executives conducted last year by the American Chamber of Commerce found that 39% struggled to recruit talent due to the poor air quality. Another 55% of those who responded said they had heard of professionals unwilling to move to Hong Kong for that reason, and 78% said they knew of foreign workers who were considering leaving the city to escape the smog. Israni says it's the one thing that could drive them away. The persistent haze that envelops Hong Kong harbor aggravates her 4-year-old daughter's allergies. "We're at the doctor several times a month," Israni, 33, says. "It's very distressing."
But for the fastest-growing group of folks from outside Hong Kong moving into the territory, air quality may not matter so much. Cathy Guo and Jeff Hong, a couple from the Chinese mainland, guess that the air is actually cleaner in the Hong Kong suburb of Hang Hau than it is in their hometown in Anhui province. Guo, 29, and Hong, 31, moved to Hong Kong in July 2004 from Chicago, where Hong earned his doctorate in industrial engineering, which he now teaches at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. It's a tenure-track position that matches any opportunity he would have had in the U.S., he says. "Here we can be near our families," Hong says, "but the pay and lifestyle are still much nicer than Shanghai or Beijing."
Hong reckons some 40% of his colleagues are also originally from China's mainlandwhich is not surprising since at any given time, tens of thousands of mainlanders are waiting for their applications to reside in the SAR to be approved, a process that can take up to three years. The Hong Kong government restricts immigration by mainland Chinese to about 55,000 new residents a year to prevent them from flooding the city. That cap is easily reached most years; since 1996, nearly 580,000 have been issued Hong Kong residence permits, which makes the mainland overwhelmingly the largest source of Hong Kong immigration since the handover. Last year, there were 217,000 mainlanders (3% of the population) living in Hong Kong, making them the largest foreign group. Indeed, due to a low birthrate among citizens, Hong Kong's population would hardly grow at all if it wasn't for the steady, strong stream of migrants from the motherland. After all, Hong Kong has always been a Chinese city, and that it will remain. But 10 years after the handover, its rich and richly muddled heritage continues to attract people from all over the world. "Just another Chinese city?" Not even close.