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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Emigres Follow Hearts Back to Hong Kong

HONG KONG -- There have been times when Norman Quan has wondered whether he made the right decision:


To leave his parents and a well-paid job as a financial controller. To leave his condominium in Los Angeles and those lonesome stretches of four-lane freeway where he could speed to his heart's content. To leave a place where he could hold up a protest sign and not worry about landing in jail.


But Quan has always known why he decided to come back to this longtime British colony just three years before its return to mainland China.


"My mom and dad said I was nuts to return to Hong Kong,'' says the 43-year-old, who now manages an import-export company. He was born in a small village in southern China, raised in Hong Kong and educated in California. "I told them ... 'I love the States, but my heart is still in Hong Kong and China.'"


While other Hong Kong residents sought a refuge abroad for themselves and their money, Quan was one of thousands who chose this time of historic uncertainty to come home. This reverse flow has been particularly noticeable in the past few years, attributable in part to the dramatic rebound in the Hong Kong economy that has property and stock prices soaring.


According to the Hong Kong government, at least 12 percent of those who left the British colony in the past decade have returned.


This vibrant financial capital seems to hold a particular allure for those with ambitions of making a mark on the world.


"I tell my friends if they want to accumulate as much experience as they can in the shortest period of time, they should go to Hong Kong,'' says Lusan Hung, 30, an accountant who recently returned to Hong Kong after two years in Los Angeles.


But many of these Hong Kong emigres, some of whom were active in the protests that followed the June 1989 Tiananmen Square violence, also feel deep conflict as the July 1 handover draws near -- and most have an escape hatch in the form of a foreign residency permit or passport.


"We do have mixed feelings," says Quan, who helped organize demonstrations outside the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles after the Tiananmen incident. "In a way, we're very happy about it -- Hong Kong becoming part of the Chinese territory. On the other hand, there are a lot of worries ahead about how much control China will impose on Hong Kong."


That roller-coaster of emotions was shared by other Hong Kong emigres from Southern California who have come back, whether they were seeking a remedy for homesickness, a road to quick profits or an avenue for contributing to China's future prosperity on both sides of the border.


"If you ask people in the streets, I don't think they know whether they should be happy or sad,'' says Dr. Y.K. Lau, a Hong Kong-born cardiologist who returned three years ago after pursuing advanced training in Chicago and Los Angeles.


Chi-ying Tsui, a computer engineer, believed he could accomplish more with his U.S. degree in technology-strapped Hong Kong than in Silicon Valley.


After getting his doctorate from the University of Southern California in 1994, he accepted a position at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, a new institution designed to jump-start the region's technology base.


"I wanted to come back here and help the high-tech industry grow," explains the 37-year-old assistant professor.


Tsui and his wife, who works for a Hong Kong trading company, consider themselves lucky. Though housing costs may eat up as much as 60 percent of the income of average Hong Kong residents, Tsui, his wife and his father live in a small apartment provided by the university.


Professionals in Hong Kong generally make more money than their U.S. counterparts, and academics are particularly well rewarded.


A new assistant professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology makes $65,000 to $75,000 a year, plus a $30,000 housing allowance and medical benefits, according to Tsui.


"Once your living quarters are taken care of, the salary is good enough for you to have a very comfortable life," he says. Tsui is far more worried that China will not live up to its promise to grant Hong Kong 50 years of political independence after July 1, which could pose a threat to academic freedom.


"You see self-censorship not only in the mass media but also in other places," he says. "I hope that won't go deep in academia. Otherwise it would be disastrous."


Plunking millions of dollars into real estate and starting a family is a powerful vote of support for life in Hong Kong after 1997. But Quan, the trading company manager, is already wondering whether next week's fireworks will mark the end of his dream to be a player in the new Chinese economy.


"Back in the United States, I always wondered when I should go back to Hong Kong,'' he says. "Now, I wonder when it will be time to go back to Los Angeles. I will probably give myself another six months and see how it goes after the handover."