Lent by Kevin Tranbarger
When Kevin Tranbarger first moved to Hong Kong as a teenager, he was amazed.
He was a child from Connecticut, suddenly immersed in the bustle of the city’s financial district, with its towering buildings set against the surrounding hillsides. And he was impressed with the number of people from different countries at his new school.
“One of the things I loved about living there was that it was a truly international place,” Tranbarger says. “It was just, you know, big city, bright lights,”
So after college, Tranbarger decided to go back to Hong Kong. As an architect, Tranbarger worked on real estate projects throughout the Asia-Pacific region, and he forged friendships and business relationships with people from all over the world.
But in recent years, Tranbarger, like a number of other foreigners in Hong Kong, became agitated as political freedoms disappeared after China regained control of the territory, which had been under British rule until 1997.
The drop came when COVID-19 hit.
Hong Kong, like mainland China, has imposed strict restrictions in an effort to eradicate infections through the pandemic. But despite these actions, the city is experiencing an increase in COVID-19 infections.
Currently, there are no direct flights from the United States, and Hong Kong residents traveling abroad must, at their own expense, be quarantined at designated hotels for two weeks when they return.
Hong Kong has also introduced a number of ever-changing restrictions on social gatherings.
Right now, for example. personal dining in restaurants prohibited from kl. 18:00, and bars, gyms and other places where people gather have been closed down.
Tranbarger decided he had had enough.
So last summer, at the end of a two-month trip to the United States, he decided not to return to Hong Kong.
“I sent for my stuff and it’s on a ship,” he says. “After 27 years of living in Hong Kong, I traveled without even knowing I was going to travel, and I did not say goodbye to anyone.”
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Hong Kong ’emptied out’
Today, Tranbarger is preparing to start a new chapter in California.
He is not the only one looking for new opportunities elsewhere. Although difficult numbers are hard to come by, expats say that a frequent topic of conversation is who will be the next to leave.
A report released last month by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, an organization representing more than 600 U.S. companies, found that 44% of more than 250 respondents are considering leaving the city because of its COVID policies.
According to Tara Joseph, the outgoing president of the Chamber, “Hong Kong is slowly being emptied.”
“A lot of people have gone,” she says. “A lot of people are considering leaving. Other people are just trying to endure it.”
“As Hong Kong goes through this difficult period, it may well return to being a great international city for business,” she notes. “But right now, it’s going through a lot of aches and pains because of COVID.”
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‘It really was a special place’
The decision to leave is often emotionally difficult for people.
Private equity investor Scott Hancock and his family had been living in Hong Kong since 2012 after moving there from Australia. Like Tranbarger, Hancock loved Hong Kong, including the diversity of its international inhabitants and its hiking trails.
“The business energy was pretty vibrant,” he says. “It really was a special place.”
But Hancock was alarmed by the changes that were taking place around him.
In 2019 and 2020, Hong Kong was shaken by demonstrations that drew hundreds of thousands of people and paralyzed the city’s financial district.
The protests were originally intended against plans to allow extradition to mainland China, but they became demands for democracy. They were some of the largest demonstrations in the history of the area.
Police interventions led to extensive arrests and a handful of deaths.
The intervention is continued. It is now illegal to criticize the Chinese government or to talk about secession. Beijing has also cracked down on Hong Kong’s once freewheeling media, arrested the founder of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily and frozen its banking assets, leading to possible shutdown.
Hancock saw all these developments with growing concern.
“One could begin to feel that the whole landscape was moving and changing,” he says.
And Hancock began to doubt the rule of law when he saw personal freedoms disappear along with some of the city’s spirit.
“There is much less openness in the conversation,” he says. “People are more vigilant about what they do from a business perspective.”
So a few months ago, Hancock and his family decided to move again. They now live in London and although they have fond memories of Hong Kong, they have no plans to return right now.
“I think that changed dramatically,” he says. “I never think it’s going to be the same place it was before.”