This short essay was drafted by Margot Errante and Angelo Paratico in 2012 with the intention of having it included in the book “500 Years of Italians in Hong Kong and Macau” published by the Society Dante Alighieri and the Consulate General of Italy in Hong Kong and Macau but the then Consul general decided to scrap it.
This is the first attempt to sketch a sociological portrait devoted specifically on the Italian expatriate community in Macau and Hong Kong. This phenomenological(1) analysis (i.e. based on investigation of phenomena) is solely based on the direct narrative data collected from interviews, written self-reports, study of social networking, of about two hundred Italians who had settled in Macau and Hong Kong during different periods.
During the past five centuries the contribution of Italians citizens to Macau and then, much later, to Hong Kong had been mainly on the education and religious side, through priests within the Catholic education system, and hospital care, offered by Italian nuns.
The Italian contribution to trade and commerce had been negligible before WWII, while a relatively high concentration of traders was to be found in Shanghai. Things changed radically starting from the ‘60s, with hotel managers, musicians, artists moving here along with banks, which were following the establishment of Italian trading offices. The greatest increase in the number of Italians residents is recorded starting from the beginning of the ‘80s, once China open up to free trade. It was then that Macau and Hong Kong became the ideal stepping stones for Italian industries looking for new markets.
The data collected during our survey show a portrait of a young (average age 35-45 years) highly educated and well-off community of Italian traders and businessmen. In Macau and Hong Kong we can indeed find the brightest type of modern expatriates, generally speaking all enterprising, open minded Italian men and women. Because of the hectic lifestyle of the individuals which are part of this group, they are living in a very loose social network: widely scattered and weakly interconnected. For this reason in Macau and Hong Kong there is no Italian neighborhood or Little Italy.
Italian families tend to live within a small circle of friends of a similar age, often sharing similar interests, with a limited amount of social exchanges but a high degree of social value sharing. This was not the case in Hong Kong society before the last war, where a very strong caste-like society was in existence among Caucasian expatriates. On one side we found the old residents, the old China hands with their heavy baggage of experience: people who had been through the 1997 handover (a kind of parting line in the perception of many, like a boundary stone); then those arrived after the Sars, who tend to possess a more positive attitude toward the future; another category is that of the expatriate spouses, with several of them performing charitable duties within The Italian Women Association; another interesting sociological category, which is rapidly growing, is that of Italian men marrying Asiatic girls (few examples are known of Italian girls marrying Asian men, even if also this category is slightly on the increase) conscious of the fact that their children will be fortunate for being able to switch in and out of the two worlds: the Asiatic and the European.
Great annual gatherings of Italians in Macau and Hong Kong are few and not all residents are participating. One is the Italian National Day on June 2nd.
Then, at the end of October there is Sandy Bay, at the Duchess of Kent Hospital, and the Grape Festival. Since 5 years there is also a branch of the Fogolar Furlan, for people coming from Friuli Venetia Giulia region and their supporters as well as Club of Veronesi, coming from Verona.
According to one of the fathers of Sociology, Max Weber, individuals act, not collectivities; and individuals are not the product of social forces, but they are the creators of such currents. This could be easily detected among Italians living in Macau and Hong Kong. Unlike other countries, where family relationships play a critical role in immigration and resettlement, for Macau and Hong Kong the two main reasons that prompted Italian people to resettle are: better economic prospects and the allure of an exotic Country.
For what concerns the first reason let us mention the director general of an elite University in Rome, Pier Luigi Celli, who in November 2009 wrote an open letter to his son, published by Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, that articulated a growing sense of frustration within the Country’s young generation. He was telling his own son that he and his friends should place their best hopes for success and self-fulfillment abroad, like their forefathers, not within the Motherland. Economic stagnation in Italy, a stiff labor market, in fact is spurring new generations of Italians to abandon their Country and resettle abroad, even if the reasons for their leaving nowadays are not the same as the waves of economic migrants that left Italy to make their fortunes a century ago, a Diaspora that reached its peak during the beginning of the XX century. In Italy the number of people aged between 25 to 39 years with college degrees registering with the national government as living abroad is on the rise. The research-institute Censis estimates that 11,700 college graduates found work abroad in 2006 — that’s one out of every 25 Italians who graduated that year. According to a poll by Bachelor, a Milanese recruitment agency, 33.6% of new graduates feel they need to leave the country to take advantage of their education. A year later, 61.5% feel that they should have done so (Arrivederci, Italia: Why Young Italians Are Leaving, Time magazine, October 18th, 2010).
Today, in the XXI century, instead of peasant farmers and manual laborers, the new wave of migrants is mainly made up by highly educated and talented young people with a college degree.
“I also discovered, with great pleasure, that the Italian community in Hong Kong, although not numerous, was made up of valuable professionals” says Stefano Bassanese working at the Domani Restaurant.
The pull of the exotic is still a strong motive to move out, but less than in the past twenty or thirty years, with the perception of the Orient as a fabulous and enchanted place.
“Just a dream” tells us another long time resident, then wittily quoting Elvis Presley who sung in one of his song, titled Go East, Young Man: “Go East, young man, go east young man//You will feel like a sheik, so rich and grand//With dancing girls at your command//Go east and drink and feast, go east young man.” But he soberly adds that people leaving with such high expectations in mind should of course expect quite a different reality.
With the European economic crisis and the progress of the Asian market, in the past years the number of Italian immigrants is considerably increased. According to AIRE (Italian Register of Italians living abroad) the largest group is made up of relatively young people, ages 33 to 43, followed by children ages 0 to 10, which indicates that a high percentage of migrants is made up by families. Unlike United States, Canada and Australia, where the majority of migrants are settlers who intend to live permanently in their new country, in Hong Kong most of them are professionals, employees of national or transnational corporations who shifted around the globe from one country to another, and who are referred to as “expatriates” or colloquially “expats.”
Considering China’s economic growth over the recent decades, Macau and Hong Kong have become world centre in terms of trade and commerce, taking third spot on ECA’s list of most expensive home rentals. The high cost of living is creating a first selection of the migrant type.
“I noticed at once that in Hong Kong there is no place for average things or people: either you create and practice excellence, or if you are a foreigner you are forced to leave.” says Giovanni Angelini, a top hotelier, with an impressive professional careen.
And again, this concept is clearly expressed by Novella Burioli, an executive working for an Italian bank: “In Hong Kong the cost of living is proportional to the quality, and there is no space for idleness.”
Donatella Oliboni, the president of an international financial institution admits: “This is a place which either you love or you loathe. But I was bewitched by its dynamism from the first day.”
Except for missionaries, mixed couples and old families with a long Asian tradition, like the Acconci and the De Bedin, the fact that many of them have become permanent Hong Kong and Macau residents is due to economic reasons more than to the real desire to resettle in this region.
“I am happy to be here, today and now. Asia represents the shift in the industrial production worldwide” says Silvia Marlia, married to an American trained architect and running a teaching program for children.
The greatest part of Italians living in Macau and Hong Kong this is just a place of transition, the usual and well known borrowed place on borrowed time story, just to quote an old expression. They tend to see this as a place where to work hard for a few years and then return back to their native Country: “Hong Kong is a like a sea port and for many it is a just a passage point” says Diego Busiol, a young architect landed here a few months ago who almost immediately found a good job.
Since the ‘80s, there has been a significant shift in migration patterns determined by globalization: the heightened interconnectivity between people resulted into a receding significance of boundaries among States, and except for the owners of small private businesses, such as restaurants for instance, most of the migrants have developed strong transnational ties to more than one home country, blurring the congruence of social space and geographic space. As a result, they shift frequently, and they are psychologically ready to move around more easily. After few years in Hong Kong, many families are relocated by their companies in mainland China or in Singapore, following the economic market trends.
“During my life I have been living in several cities. Eleven, before Hong Kong. The average number of years I spend in a new city is three years” says Fabio Delfino, a resident since 2002.
Most of expatriates are scattered on Hong Kong islands and Kowloon, but families with children tend to live in Sai Kung or Discovery Bay areas. In general, contemporary Italian immigrants don’t seek the same lives in a new location, like their predecessors, but they rather seek different lives, and they use their new opportunities to resist preexisting social conceptions. Unlike other communities, which are more compact and manifest social tendency, Italians in Hong Kong are mostly assimilated into the international community.
“The colonial period has left the heritage of a language, English, which has allowed to different ethnic groups to easily mix and integrate” says Dario Calvaruso, who seems to have felt strongly the pull of the exotic Orient.
Nevertheless, they regroup during social events or when is needed.
“Occasions when Italians have joined hands to help a fellow Italian in need of help are many” tells us Federico Cavalli, an old China hand.
Despite the lack of an ethnic enclave, there is an effort for cultural and social preservation: children of any age every Saturday attend the Alessandro Manzoni school, where they are taught in Italian. There is also a school teaching the Italian language and culture to local people, the Dante Alighieri Society Society, originally founded in the ‘20s. More recently, within the Italian Consulate, a specific and independent cultural office has been created, directed by Matteo Fazzi.
Among the many different forms of integration, most of the Italians seem to choose active participation to society, which is often beneficial to the local community. Ugo Conta, a musician belonging to the earlier wave of migrants arrived during the ‘60s says: “I have opened and directed three Italian restaurants and founded the Mary Chau Academy for Contemporary Arts & Languages that is teaching to more than 600 students.”
Some of them have cooperated with the local institutions; others have founded and are still actively involved into fundraising events, such as Sandy Bay, making a genuine and lasting impact on charitable causes; many of them offer their contribution in their spare time: “I have joined hands with a group of friends who, during our scarce free time was visiting a rural area near the border with China to help with restructuring of a local elementary school” says Andrea Croci, an executive with an Italian Bank.
The general perception shared by most of the people we have spoken to is that Macau and Hong Kong are places where things move fast, where there is minimal bureaucracy, no corruption and a high degree of integrity. They all remain in contact with their friends and relatives in Italy, thanks to the internet and the social media. Few learn to speak Cantonese because all their working and social connections are made in English.
Most of them are also conscious to be living a life full of privileges (with some of them taking it for granted) and are unaware of the growing inequality within this society, where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
Margot Errante & Angelo Paratico
1)Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object. An experience is directed toward an object by virtue of its content or meaning (which represents the object) together with appropriate enabling conditions.Phenomenology as a discipline is distinct from but related to other key disciplines in philosophy, such as ontology, epistemology, logic, and ethics. Phenomenology has been practiced in various guises for centuries, but it came into its own in the early 20th century in the works of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and others. Phenomenological issues of intentionality, consciousness, qualia, and first-person perspective have been prominent in recent philosophy of mind.