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Sunday, March 16, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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British Civil Servants Say Goodbye To Hong Kong

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

HONG KONG - As the sun disappeared behind a veil of haze over Lantau Island, the cruise liner Oriana sailed out of Hong Kong Harbor recently on a bittersweet journey home for more than a hundred of Her Majesty's subjects. A police band played "Auld Lang Syne" on the quay of Kowloon Wharf in a forlorn salute to British civil servants who were sailing home to England.

The British Crown is losing another jewel, and many British in Hong Kong are deciding - some willingly, some grudgingly - that it is time to move on.

The retired civil servants sailing on the Oriana came to Hong Kong decades ago to run the colony. Now they are making way for a Chinese generation of administrators.

When Britain returns Hong Kong to China on June 30, it will close one of the most brilliant chapters in the history of the British empire. A mere 30 years ago, Hong Kong was a struggling colony so desperate for skilled help that the government still had to recruit lawyers, police officers, engineers, architects and administrators from Britain.

Today, it's one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and a new class of educated Chinese is eager to take the reins of power, from the governor's job on down.

"I never believed . . . that it would happen," said Brian Bresnihan, who was taking early retirement from a position as head of the colonial government's refugee office.

Taxpayers paid for departure

British expatriates who work in their government's civil service get to go home in style. For years, those working in Hong Kong have been guaranteed sea passage to Britain when they retire.

The Oriana and the Queen Elizabeth 2 are bringing home the last group of retirees before the handover. Together, the ships are carrying 158 ex-civil servants and their families at a cost to taxpayers of more than $8,000 a person.

As they prepared to depart on their 33-day journey to England, the passengers listened to a farewell concert by Chinese bagpipers with the Royal Hong Kong Police. Later, the brass section performed the theme from "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing," which was set in Hong Kong.

Women waved white handkerchiefs, bidding goodbye to well-wishers on land who cried and waved back. Someone on board held a flag of Hong Kong over the railing.

Despite the festivities, the sailing of the Oriana was a melancholy event.

"Obviously after 16 or 17 years here you have mixed emotions," said Bresnihan, who arrived in the colony in 1980. "But it's impossible to string it out forever."

He said he will be left watching the handover events from Britain. "There's a sadness, but also I have a feeling that Hong Kong is a resilient place," Bresnihan said. "Hong Kong will come through all of this."

$15,000 a month

The deluxe trip home is not the only perk British subjects have enjoyed in the colony. Civil servants recruited from Britain were among the highest-paid in the world. Bresnihan said he was earning more than $15,000 a month.

British civil servants who were hired as long-term employees got housing, schooling for their children back in Britain and long vacations. In comparison, local Chinese bureaucrats got less time off and qualified for housing only if they were senior officers.

Already there are clear signs that things will be different for the British after 1997: At the immigration checkpoint in the Hong Kong International Airport, large posters alert British citizens that they no longer will get hassle-free entry to live and work in the city. They will have to apply for visas like everyone else.

For all its prominence as a British colony, however, Hong Kong actually has few British residents. There are 25,500 residents from Britain, forming an expatriate community that ranks below the number of people from the Philippines, United States, Indonesia and Canada.

And with the handover approaching, the number of British civil servants has been rapidly shrinking.

Today, the number of overseas officers in the government, including the police, is about 1,600 - or less than 1 percent of the work force.

Royston Griffey, a former president of the Association of Expatriate Civil Servants, was among the many expatriates taking an early-retirement buyout.

Griffey, 53, a government lawyer, said he was sad to leave the city he adopted as his home nearly 20 years ago. And he was angry about what he saw as the Hong Kong government's haste to replace employees like him with Chinese workers.

Charges of racism

Griffey said he saw many compatriots on short-term contracts get booted in favor of locals who were Chinese. Accusing the government of racism, the association sued the government and succeeded in getting the Court of Appeal to overturn 14 provisions.

"I may have a white face and round eyes, but I'm a local," Griffey said in an interview two weeks before his departure. "Why should I be replaced by another local?"

Griffey was under no threat of losing his job and could have stayed on if he wanted to. But he said the battle, which didn't play well with the Chinese public, wore him out.

His anger, however, didn't show last week. Griffey was all smiles and excitement as he boarded the ship with his wife, Hazel, and their 8-year-old son, Henry.

Tired from a night of packing, he said, he forgot to turn off the lights in his apartment when the family left. He returned to his silent home, and it finally hit him: This was it.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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