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Have Job, Will Travel : They're called 'astronauts'--professional men who live in Hong Kong while their families live in countries that some believe have better lifestyles and educational opportunities. But for many, transcontinental life is taking its toll.

March 31, 1993|DANIELA DEANE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HONG KONG — David Wong is having a typical night.

He's in southern China on business. It's well past midnight. And he just got back to his hotel room after working all day and entertaining clients all evening.

He's exhausted and has an early start in the morning but needs to phone his wife, Candy, in Los Angeles before he goes to sleep. With the 16-hour time difference, he has only a few minutes to connect before she leaves the house for the day.

Candy left him several call-back messages in the morning, but he just didn't have time to respond. She must be having some problem with the kids, he thinks.

The phone in his room keeps ringing, but it's never the operator with his L.A. call. Just another prostitute phoning from the hotel lobby, asking him if he wants company for the night. He's getting tired of all the calls, weary of his routine.

And it's no easier on his wife.

"The worst thing about this life," says Candy Wong, 37, "is that if I have a problem, like with the kids, I have to solve it immediately on my own. I can never get him on the phone in a hurry. He's got meetings all the time; he goes on business trips every week. So, I have to decide things on the spot, on my own. It's just like being a single parent.'

Says David, 39, director of a large Hong Kong toy manufacturer: "The worst thing about this life for me is that I'm worried about my marriage. We're living different lives. I have confidence in her to stay faithful. But I don't have confidence in myself. There's just too much temptation."

David Wong is an "astronaut," a tai hung yan, the Chinese nickname for a frustrated and expanding class of mostly professional men in their late 30s, 40s and early 50s who work in Hong Kong but whose wives and children live elsewhere. Wong asked that his first name and the first name of his wife be changed for this story to help preserve their anonymity.

"It's quite common now for Hong Kong people to live this kind of life," says Candy Wong about the growing trend among the colony's "Chuppies," the nickname for Hong Kong's own yuppie brand. "None of my Western friends can believe it."

Candy hopes David will be able to visit her in Los Angeles--a grueling, 14-hour flight from Hong Kong--about 12 times in 1993. Before moving to Los Angeles in late 1992, Candy and the kids were living in Australia, with David commuting from Hong Kong to Melbourne. He decided to move the family to California after his company opened an L.A. office. Now, he combines business trips with trips home, allowing him more visits to the United States.

Precise figures are unavailable, but experts agree that these intercontinental commuters number in the thousands. Astronauting is the new way of life in the British colony and many prominent people are doing it--including, ironically, the colonial government's director of immigration, Laurence Leung Ying-min, whose family lives in Vancouver.

"There are definitely some familiar faces on the Vancouver flight, especially in first class," says one Cathay Pacific Airways pilot who has flown the astronaut run. "There was a joke going around that one guy wrote on his landing card under 'address,' Seat 1A, First Class, Cathay Pacific."

The flight paths of Hong Kong astronauts run mostly to Canada (where Vancouver and Toronto are the main destinations), Australia and, to a lesser extent, the West Coast of the United States. Fewer astronauts settle in the States because of more stringent immigration regulations and an eight-year backlog of immigration petitions. Canada has accepted the vast majority of Hong Kong emigrants--26,647 last year alone.

Most tai hung yans moved their families abroad within the last few years when the television images of tanks crushing pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing were fresh in the minds of Hong Kong residents. The colony's future under Chinese rule after 1997 looked bleak.

But most astronauts stayed in their new homes just long enough to secure a foreign passport from their adopted countries, then came running back to Hong Kong and its resurgent, post-Tian An Men economy. Some just splashed down for a couple of weeks to settle the family, returning to jobs they never left. Others are evading immigration regulations by applying for permanent residency elsewhere, particularly Canada, while still living full-time in Hong Kong.

Indeed, economic recession in the West has been the major stimulus bringing the astronauts back home. They also cite lack of respect in Western workplaces, little advancement or excitement, lower salaries, higher taxes and a less-stringent work ethic than in the freewheeling, hard-working British colony.

"Hong Kong is an economic oasis in the world, let's face it," says John Wilson, a headhunter in Hong Kong. "And the news has gotten out pretty quickly. We're getting stacks of applications from Chinese wanting to return all the time.

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