Friday, September 19, 2014

Fading overseas staff in Hong Kong

People often ask what has changed in Hong Kong since 1997, and I have always said that the first and biggest change was the change in immigration rules that made it difficult for Commonwealth residents to work in Hong Kong. Until April of 1997, anyone from Canada, Australia, the UK or other Commonwealth countries could work in Hong Kong without having to get a visa. That changed overnight, and the waiters at bars and restaurants suddenly changed from knowledgeable foreigners ("guailo") to Chinese. I remember that at the British pub "The Bull and Bear," we had to ask for ketchup for an order of fries and the waiter (and older Chinese man with poor English skills) could not understand why we wanted ketchup. Not a big deal, but it marked a difference.
Many of these travelers stayed on in Hong Kong and contributed a lot to the city's arts and cosmopolitan feel. Many worked in government, of course. And many were no doubt taking the places that qualified Chinese could have filled. It was colonial. But it also is part of what made Hong Kong different. These people are now increasingly retired or retiring. The SCMP reports that there are only 150 overseas officers in the force, compared to almost 800 at its peak. The manditory retirement of 55 will see most of these officers retire in the near future. I'm sure Chinese officers will be just as good, but many say that having two ethnic groups in the force made for a sort of "checks and balance" that gave people more confidence in the police.
The government has a mandatory retirement age of 60. The latest to be forced to retire was Bryan Curtis, who turned 60 on Sept. 18th. September 17th was his last day. Bryan Curtis had worked for ICRT in Taiwan, and I had heard him on the radio when I lived there in the 1980s. If I remember correctly, Curtis came to Hong Kong around 1992 and first worked for Commercial Radio, where I was happy to hear a familiar voice. It was like meeting an old friend. Later, as Commercial Radio dropped the English (it originally was bilingual, which was great for learning Cantonese, but that did not last), Curtis was on RTHK Radio 3. He is a natural on radio; he has great articulation, and is funny in a self-deprecatory way. He pronounces words like "what" as "hwat", which I think is the officially correct pronunciation.
Curtis has hosted a great program of financial news, "Money for Nothing," from 8:03 to 8:30. Each morning, he speaks with several guests. Some are regular, like Barry Wood, the US correspondent who was interviewed every Monday, while others are occasional guests, like Frances Cheung of Credit Agricole CIB (who is crazily articulate and concise). He had fun musical interludes like the start of "Pick up the Pieces" by the Average White Band, or the first line from "You Never Give Me Your Money" by the Beatles, and of course, "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits.. It was live radio, so not perfect, but very well done, interesting and informative.
Whenever Bryan Curtis was away reporting or on vacation, the program was difficult to listen to. They tried various alternative hosts, but none really worked. They were tentative, stumbled on names and facts, asked poor questions, and generally seemed to lack the knowledge and confidence to pull it off. Most of all, they were stiff and made the listener cringe.  On the 18th, the first day sans Bryan, they brought back a former replacement  host and a guest, trying to use two people to replace one Bryan. All I can say is that I could not listen. I turned on my BBC and NPR podcasts instead.
I once complained that one of the replacements was really dreadful and not up to the job, and was told that it is hard to get talent with the restrictions on visas. Only people with permanent HK IDs can now be hired at RTHK. As the more experienced old hands retire, the radio station is thus declining. It is clear that, from one point of view, an English language radio station is a remnant colonial institution. But it is also what makes Hong Kong a cosmopolitan city.
Change is always difficult, so retirements are not fun. Bryan got choked up as his colleagues thanked him for his many years of work at RTHK at the end of his last show.  For me, radio voices are like friends, even if they don't know me. Bryan Curtis will be missed.

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