HONG KONG — Throughout the early 1980s, Steven R. Hendryx toiled as an American businessman in China, learning firsthand the frustrations of dealing with the nation's legendary red tape, high costs and weak infrastructure.
A few months ago, he launched his own office in Hong Kong, offering his services as a consultant to companies brave enough to try entering the China market.
Sitting in his one-room office on the 10th floor of an office building in Hong Kong's affluent central district, Hendryx admitted that his new firm, Hendryx & Associates, is so far "a one-man show. . . . The '& Associates' involves a certain amount of optimism about the future."
So Hendryx has become yet one more of the legions of Americans who have come to work in Hong Kong, a city now in the midst of a startling series of demographic, economic and political transformations.
Under an agreement signed in 1984, the British crown colony will revert to China 10 years from now. Despite China's assurances that it will not tinker with Hong Kong's freewheeling capitalism, the prospect of Communist rule has sparked a wave of fear and predictions of doom here. One popular guessing game is to try to pinpoint when in the early 1990s the economy might sour, and people and capital will flow out. Could it be in 1994? Or 1992?
For now, however, despite these jitters, the Hong Kong of the late 1980s is a thriving place. Its proximity to China and its reputation as the most unfettered economy in East Asia are still attracting new people and companies from abroad.
Last year, for the first time within anyone's memory--probably for the first time since China ceded Hong Kong to Britain after the Opium War in 1842--the number of Americans living in Hong Kong surpassed the number of British residents of the colony.
New figures show that the British temporarily caught up again in January, but time and demographic trends are on the side of the Americans. During the past eight years, the British population has been falling while the American community has grown by more than 30%.
Companies from the United States are streaming into Hong Kong--aiming to use the city as a base from which to do business with China, as a headquarters for East Asian operations, or both.
Hong Kong is becoming not only more American, but more Japanese, more European and more Australian. And these changes are being felt in the colony's power structure.
In one symbolic shift, a few days ago an Australian lawyer representing media tycoon Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. took over as chairman of the South China Morning Post, the colony's leading English-language daily, from a British representative of the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank. The newspaper has served throughout this century as the voice of Hong Kong's Establishment.
China in Third Place
At the same time, Hong Kong is being influenced more and more by emissaries from Beijing, representatives of the People's Republic of China.
The world's two leading economic powers, the United States and Japan, long ago passed Britain as the leading sources of foreign investment in Hong Kong. In the industrial investment sector, Britain even lost its third-place position to China this year. China was not even in the top ranks a few years ago but has been pouring money into the colony during the past two years.
In January, the Chinese government's investment arm, China International Trust & Investment Corp., stunned the local business community by acquiring a 12.5% share in Cathay Pacific Airways, an old-line British institution and a leading airline in the Far East.
In short, while Hong Kong will remain a British colony for the next 10 years, Britain's once-dominant role here is fast fading. At the rate things are going, by the time 1997 rolls around, Britain may not have much left here but the Union Jack.
The British influence has not vanished, though. Hong Kong harbor is still spelled harbour here, and the cars are still driven on the left side of the road, if they can get through the seemingly perpetual traffic jams.
"The British still run the place, after all, and the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank is doing just fine, thank you," an American diplomat here observed recently.
In some sections of the colony, British life goes on much as it did before. "Who are all these Americans that show up in the statistics?" asked the British owner of a small bookstore in the still relatively rural area called the New Territories. "We don't really see them around here. I think they must be Hong Kong Chinese with American passports."
U.S. officials believe that about 30% of the U.S. passport holders in Hong Kong are indeed ethnic Chinese. But this figure remains constant while the overall number of Americans keeps climbing.
The British presence in Hong Kong peaked in 1979, when there were nearly 23,000 British residents, more than twice the number of Americans. Now, while the numbers fluctuate from month to month, there are roughly 15,000 expatriates from each of the two countries here.