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Ben Zabulis, New Territories

It’s a bit of a standing joke in our circles that a few years of procrastination was brought to a timely end by that well-known film and TV actor Ian McShane. You see, whilst enduring a wintry spell in Nottingham, England, we had taken to watching repeats of the series Lovejoy on day-time TV. Not a big fan of watching television during the day we nevertheless acquiesced and settled in, we were glad we did as one such episode came up trumps.During a commercial break, an advert appeared for Fred Olsen Cruise Lines who in the New Year would be sailing one of their vessels to the Far East. It piqued our curiosity, more, initially, from the aspect of route taken than anything else. But it got us thinking, this could be useful; the ship departed at roughly a time we wanted, in the right direction and the fare was fair.

Consequently, after only minor deliberation, we took the plunge; and so our impending escape from UK was finally agreed, booked and paid for in the space of an afternoon and, what’s more, we had a set departure date – three months hence – to work to. Thus our procrastination ended instantly, it was time to get cracking!

The ship en route to Hong Kong

To cut a long story short I’m 59 years old and a native of Nottingham, born and bred in Sherwood, though with absolutely no association to its most famous son, Robin Hood, or indeed that dastardly Sheriff.

During the late 70s – early 80s, I graduated as a civil engineer and also started travelling, though mainly for work. This was up and down the country initially but later I was able to use my career as a vehicle to ‘See the World’, to quote the British Army’s famous recruitment strapline; it would lead me to Nigeria (1984), India (1990), Japan (1990) and Hong Kong (1992). In fact I often joke that in my younger days it was somebody else who conveniently coughed up for long-haul travel, much to my parents’ relief and delight! Evidently, the travel bug had well and truly bitten. Incidentally, whilst in Hong Kong I also met my life partner Hilary who was out there teaching English. Proving that it really is a small world, Hilary also hails from Nottingham!

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Due a rest, or career break as they call it nowadays, we returned to Nottingham in 2004. Needless to say, during several years of static time our feet never quite stopped itching and, realising that life in UK had stalled, for us at any rate, we decided it was time to be off again only this time on a more permanent adventure: an early retirement of sorts. There was little to keep us in England after all. Over the years we’d put some cash away and this, coupled with leading a fairly simple life, meant we didn’t have to worry too much about jobs in the future. We’d manage; we’d find a way of keeping those wolves from the door – though Hong Kong’s wolves at the door, it must be said, can manifest in some extremely pricey ways.

Many of you may have a friend or relative who has emigrated, possibly to Spain, maybe America or even Australia. We also considered Spain at one time but, in the end, we chose Hong Kong, a place where the idea of setting up home will mystify many; after all, we’re not Chinese and it’s no longer a crown colony. I suppose we appreciated, having travelled to many places, that nowhere’s perfect so perhaps this was simply a case of better-the-devil-you-know. From our previous Hong Kong life we at least understood the lie of the land, had a number of local friends and of course, the star prize, the emigrant’s Holy Grail if you like, held the right of abode gained previously by a minimum of 7 years’ residency. In simple terms this meant we didn’t have to jump through bureaucratic hoops getting visas or justifying ourselves on a points entry system. Perfect! We could walk straight in – and that’s exactly what we intended.

The new house

But that wasn’t before the expected selling up and ruthless discarding of as much stuff as possible, including our house; a frenetic and decidedly unglamorous period of batting about which they understandably fail to show on TV’s Relocation, Relocation! We packed what we did want, personal effects only, into boxes for transportation by others or to carry with us along the way. Although we had no valuable family heirlooms as such there were still items of sentimental value with which we’d have to part; the notion of placing things in storage for later was never in the script. Although shedding life’s accumulations felt quite liberating this period nonetheless proved somewhat bewildering, laced with moments of unease wondering if everything would work out well and was this really the right thing to do? Although I’d left England a few times before to work overseas, this would be different, in all likelihood there would be no going back; a major life-step indeed though I’m sure all émigrés will have experienced similar woes.

Anyway, having completed that stage while exploring new depths of anxiety, all generally regarded as for the common good, there remained but one obvious question: how to get there? We always said that such a bold move would demand an equally bold method, but a pleasurable one too. And that’s where Ian McShane and Lovejoy came in. With perfect timing and Fred’s Far East Explorer cruise, we’d wash up on the Kowloon seaboard some 11 weeks and 30 ports later; a wonderful way to emigrate and quite literally, just the ticket. So, in deference perhaps to the ten-bob-poms who went off, post-WW2, to Australia by sea, famous England cricketer Harold Larwood – his statue graced our local highstreet – was one, we followed suit, though it cost us considerably more!

And that’s how it went. On a cold but sunny January morning a large taxi carried us plus all remaining worldly possessions from Nottingham to the Port of Southampton (180 miles), then, wave bye-bye to Blighty as Fred’s ocean liner slipped her moorings on a journey quite literally to the-other-side-of-the-world.

Our Asian disembarkation caused a little consternation amongst immigration officials and supervising cruise staff as we, a motley assemblage of baggage plus person, veered towards the residents’ only channel, thus signalling our absence from the evening’s onward leg to Vietnam. The cruise staff seemed surprised and disappointed (we hadn’t told them) but immigration proved delightfully welcoming, possibly more to do with at last having someone to process than anything else! Theirs is a lonely posting, a service seldom required by passengers off a non-local cruise. So, after some good-humoured exchanges we did exactly as intended: walk straight in.

Ben and Hilary enjoying the roof garden

And then the home straight, under a warm and muggy Hong Kong spring, two taxis – yes we had that much stuff – conveyed us from the wharf to a pre-booked hotel. We’d opted for a one month, long-stay package at the Regal Riverside Hotel in Shatin, reasoning that a month should be ample time in which to obtain a flat. Incidentally, this felt a bit like history repeating itself as this hotel was one we’d both used in the 90s when first arriving in Hong Kong.

The one-month period worked well, only three weeks after disembarking we’d visited an estate agent near to the hotel, negotiated a flat rental and moved in. Even more amazingly, Shirley, the estate agent’s efficient representative, was the very self-same person who helped us obtain a flat way back in 1999, proving that even in such a fast-paced city some things can reassuringly stay the same. Shirley was indeed a revelation, having transacted business with us previously she knew exactly what we wanted and went straight for it. We wouldn’t be part of the high-rise metropolis which most people imagine of Hong Kong however, our preference was for a simple New Territories village house near Tai Po; a bit out in the sticks but very quiet, very rural. Yes, a nice house in which we occupy the first floor flat with a roof garden above. Good feng shui too we reckon with hills to the north and the sea nearby. The neighbours are mostly Chinese and extremely welcoming, there’s a mutual curiosity too!

So here we are and I’m sure you’re still wondering why Hong Kong, despite those plus-points mentioned earlier. After all it’s a fast-changing city, hardly the place for a quiet retirement and rents are fairly high too. For us however it’s exciting, it’s intriguing, it’s unpredictable, a cultural crossover, a unique blend of East and West. Sweet and sour pork alongside fish and chips, what’s not to like? The romance may have dimmed over the decades, the harbour no longer awash with red-sailed junks and sampans, Susie Wong and the rickshaw pullers having long since retired and the rice paddies now few and far between; but that spirit lives on in the rickety old trams, the Star Ferry and a host of ancient and colourful Chinese festivals, still going strong.

At street level the mentality is positively can-do, and Hong Kongers certainly do do. I always tell people they’ll experience at least one magic moment here each day. It might be seeing some flora or fauna you never knew existed, tasting some exotic food, learning another Chinese character or having a friendly quip, in Cantonese of course, with the lady who sweeps the village paths; little moments where the mundane transforms instantly into something quite splendid!

Lanterns glowing at night

Geckos in the house, monkeys on the roof and snakes by the door (not always thankfully!!), that’s how magical it can be. Exotic and clamorous; and that, in short, is why we love it.

Mentioning language brings us to another plus, where better to brush up one’s Cantonese and even Mandarin skills? Also, our fascination with the written form had never diminished, the ideal time then to continue from where we’d left off! Not easy but doable with some effort, at our age getting one’s mind around the characters is certainly a great form of brain gymnastics, who needs Sudoku? After all, what other activity exercises the old grey matter, draws you deeper into the local culture and constitutes a calligraphic art form to boot?

Incidentally, it wasn’t too long after arriving that people started to approach us enquiring if we might aid either themselves or their children with some extra English language lessons. This we are doing though quite selectively I must say, after all this is our retirement and work is secondary. Perhaps more amazingly Hilary, after a chance meeting – and impromptu negotiation – with an ex-employer at a bus stop of all places, is now working at the very tuition centre in which she worked back in 1998! I have also been pleasurably contributing some Hong Kong-themed travel articles to the Nottingham magazines LeftLion and Mansfield Echo as well as guest appearances on the odd travel blog here and there. So, on the whole, our early retirement is throwing up some interesting and decidedly serendipitous opportunities which are very much our cup of cha.

All in all, reaction to our return has been pleasing; a bit like falling between two stools, landing somewhere between pro-British and anti-colonial sentiment but with the pro-British opinion seemingly in the vanguard despite Hong Kong’s current rocky relationship with Beijing.

Well, to conclude, all that reasoning, clearing and moving recounted above occurred in 2015, and we’re still here! Before leaving UK some folk had expressed grave reservations on the idea of our living within shooting distance of a regime which displays scant regard for human rights. I replied then that we were more concerned with Hong Kong’s unscrupulous landlords (always quick on the draw when increasing rent) than the notion of Beijing’s military hardware crossing the border to keep us all in line; that opinion remains unchanged, though not having done it sooner could be our single regret. But at least the procrastination ended – thank you Mr McShane, Lovejoy and Fred of course!

In conclusion then, if you’re thinking of doing similar, our advice would be to quit dithering and go for it! Admittedly we are perhaps more fortunate than most in that we already had that all-important residency qualification for a place worthy of relocating to; a big plus! Oh, and by the way, that cruise choice was a masterstroke, surely one of the most relaxing ways to not only move house but country too!

So, that’s us nicely installed in Hong Kong, the Pearl of the Orient as it used to be known in colonial times. If you’re ever passing by here any time why not drop in for some dim sum? Until then, farewell, or joi gin as they say in these parts!

Ben Zabulis' book, Chartered Territory – An Engineer Abroad, is available to buy on Amazon. You can also keep up to date with Ben's adventures on his Facebook page.

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