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Hiding Out in Hong Kong

Photos 090907 194Ten years ago: This comes to you from the top of Victoria’s Peak, Hong Kong, where my wife and I have been living illegally for the past six months, hiding out from the Hong Kong immigration authorities. Our residency visas expired around the same time that I left my old job, and while waiting for a new company to sponsor us, the visas could not be renewed.  We were aware of all this, of course, but a friend of ours from work assured us that we could live here on a “tourist” visa without any problems. We loved hearing that, and, neglecting to investigate the matter further, put the whole issue behind us without another thought, acting as if our friend were some kind of expert on Hong Kong immigration law. We lived in this idyllic state of ignorant bliss for a couple of months until we tried boarding a plane for Beijing on Christmas Day.

The day started out full of promise and hope. We arrived at the airport early, eager to start our trip, and were subsequently given free business-class upgrades for no apparent reason. When we inquired as to why, the girl at the check-in counter simply told us, “Today is your lucky day.” We were thrilled and hurried quickly to clear customs so we could enjoy free drinks in the business-class lounge, so as to start our trip off right.  Giddy as two children on Christmas Day, we rushed up to the Customs & Immigration counter and handed over our passports. Noticing that our Hong Kong residency visas had expired, the customs officer was curious as to why we had not renewed them.

We explained that, Yes, while it was true that my work visa had expired and we were no longer “residents,” in the classic sense of the term, we were now simply living here as tourists. So no big deal. But the officer then explained that unfortunately it was “somewhat of a big deal” since we didn’t have a valid “tourist” visa either, since we hadn’t done anything to get one after our “residency” visa expired. (Um… Damn, our friend from work—the supposed expert on local immigration law—had failed to mention that minor detail.)  It was the beginning of the end.

Neck-deep in shit, we began shoveling it over the counter as fast as we could. “Well, you see… we’re in the process of moving back to the US. And, the thing is… we can’t quite do that yet because the movers are all fully booked during the holidays. So we have to stay here in Hong Kong a while longer. Plus… our house in California is still rented right now, and so we can’t move back in until the current tenant leaves. So what we really need to do is…blah, blah, blah.”

The guy just shook his head, thinking to himself, “Do I really look that stupid to you?”

No, he didn’t, and that was the problem. He sat there patiently while we dug our hole deeper. At times there were moments when my wife was inclined to jump in and help, but decided against it. She told me later that it looked like I was “shoveling” just fine for both of us.

After the officer had finally heard enough, he raised a hand and snapped his fingers, signaling a colleague of his to come over and escort us away. The matter for him was over—these two morons were someone else’s problem now.  Besides, we were holding up his line.

We followed the second officer into the immigration office, wondering: What will they do to us? Would we still get to go to Beijing? Could we get a refund on our airline ticket if we didn’t get to go to Beijing? Would we still get to keep our free business-class upgrade for our next trip?– probably not! Is deportation imminent?–probably not either! But, if so, will they at least let us go back to our apartment and collect our cat? Etc…

The second officer ushered us into a back room, asked us to wait there, and then disappeared. We nervously teased each other that he was off to fetch a rubber hose and phone book so he could conduct the interrogation more effectively. We glanced around looking for one-way mirrors and bright spot lights, but saw no such thing. All we saw was a poster on the wall reminding us to keep Hong Kong clean, and a hotline telephone number to call in case we felt we had been mistreated by immigration officers. We jotted the number down in case we needed it later.

And, unlike the US, where expectations of government are so pathetically low, here, people took pride in their government jobs, and we were certainly impressed by the thoroughness and efficiency of the civil servants. Even on the off-chance that they did beat the shit out of you for breaking the law, they actually give you a toll-free hotline to call to give them some feedback on how the beating went: From a 1 to 5, with 1 being Completely Dissatisfied and 5 being Completely Satisfied, how would you rate your beating at the hands of a Hong Kong Customs & Immigration official? Would you recommend such a beating to your family or friends? If so, could you please let us know how we might contact them? And so on…

When he returned a few minutes later and politely gave us two simple forms for us to fill out, we were actually a bit surprised. We filled out the forms, and for only $30 received two new visas and a short lecture on our responsibilities as tourists in Hong Kong. Basically, with a tourist visa we could stay in Hong Kong for up to 90 days at a time, before which we had to leave and then re-enter the country to start the 90-day period over again. Hell, if we’d known it was that easy, we’d have abided by the law much earlier—probably.

Anyway, after processing the paperwork, he let us go and even wished us luck on our move back to the U.S. Since moving back was never our real intention, despite our claim to the contrary, we felt a bit sheepish for him being so kind and wishing us luck. We thanked him, promised never to do it again, and quickly left to board the plane for Beijing.

While en route to Beijing we drank a bunch of red wine and had a good laugh at the whole experience, vowing to abide by the system and determined never to be caught again. Five days later, on our way back into Hong Kong from Beijing—because we were now just tourists—we had to fill out an immigration form asking general information about us, such as date of birth, passport number, permanent and local address, etc.  Of course, we were unique from all the other tourists visiting Hong Kong in that we lived there, and so our local address and our permanent address were the same: both in Hong Kong! Essentially, we were the only “tourists” in the world who were visiting the town where they lived. Not an easy thing to explain. The other red flag was the expired residency visa pasted into our passports. As soon as they saw that they became confused and a whole new series of questions followed.

So we had two choices: Lie about our true immigration status and make up a foreign address; or be forthcoming, and explain the situation using our real Hong Kong address. We decided to be forthcoming. The problem was that the truth was much more complicated than the lie, and so we were constantly scrutinized upon re-entering the country. For my wife it was not quite as bad, since she only left and re-entered every few months, but for me it was a weekly ordeal because of my constant travel for work, while still waiting for the new residency paperwork to be processed. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.

Invariably, the first question asked upon our entry into the country was, “How long are you staying in Hong Kong?”

We would then randomly pick a period of time that was less than 90 days. “Um… about 65 days.”

“Where will you be staying while you are here?”

“Uh… See, here’s the thing… Actually, we live here.” Confusion then ensued.

“You live here? How can you live here when you don’t have a residency visa?”

“Well, that’s the funny thing. We used to have a residency visa, which is why we are living here, but now we’re just living here as tourists.”

“Living here as tourists?”

“Yeah, we’re tourists living here for the next 90 days?

“What are talking about?” (You could practically see the word “Huh?” flash across their face.) “How can you be living somewhere as a tourist. The definition of a ‘tourist’ is someone visiting somewhere they DON’T live.” You could see their point.

Anyway, after going back and forth a few times we would inevitably wear them down. With an exhausted sigh (and, we suspected, a silent prayer that letting us into the country would not come back to bite them in the ass) they would grudgingly stamp our passport, allowing us back in. We always pitied the poor souls who had the misfortune of having us choose their line.

To be continued…


About Gregory James

After 20 years working and living overseas, I returned to the US and was disgusted by how partisan and polarized the country had become. Civility and compromise are now quaint things of the past, replaced by intolerance and the rule of extremes. So I gave up a lucrative career for staring at blank pages and searching for words, in the hope that words might help enact change. Stupid. . . . I know! But after 9 months of labor I birthed forth a book, entitled ONE PERCENT SOLUTION. Reminiscent of Vonnegut, with a dash of Saramago and Fforde, this humorous, satirical, often irreverent romp mocks the absurd we accept to be normal, ridicules the ridiculously low bar we set, and challenges all of us to demand more of ourselves by making light of what is sacred that shackles us.


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