Sits. vac Pounds 98,000m (no popes please)

August 27, 1999

If you want to earn big money as an academic - go east. Dino Mahoney moved to Hong Kong, which, despite the Asian crash, still pays the highest academic salaries in the world.

The one question everybody asks when I am back in the UK is "What's it like over there now?" I have been working at the City University of Hong Kong since 1989 and so have lived through the pre-1997 "Patten years" as well as the first two years of post-handover Hong Kong.

Universities are very sensitive places in China and joining City UHK two months after the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre brought this home to me. If anywhere was to register the momentous changes taking place in Hong Kong it would surely be the universities. But, so far, any perceived threat to academic freedom has not materialised. True, Beijing has banned the Pope, but I can still teach George Orwell's anti-Communist novel 1984 and the students still hold commemorative rallies every June 4.

I have also lived through the transition of the City University of Hong Kong from a polytechnic to a university. Hong Kong, with a population of six million people, now has six universities, soon to be seven. When I arrived there were only two. This rapid expansion is a legacy of the Wilson-Patten colonial administrations that diverted billions of dollars from Hong Kong's economic miracle into higher education.

Money has been no object for a long time in Hong Kong universities. When fellow academics from the UK visit City UHK they usually comment appreciatively on the state-of-the-art equipment they see bulging from every corner of the campus, on the Olympic-size swimming pool and Olympic-size salaries and research grants doled out to Hong Kong academics.

Even in these uncertain days of the Asian economic crisis, academics are still able to access substantial research grants. Just over a year ago, in the months following the Hang Seng's nosedive, I was awarded a medium-sized grant of HK$1.1 million (Pounds 88,000) by the University Grants Committee of Hong Kong. My proposal was an unusual one, a series of soap operas in English to be broadcast on Radio Television Hong Kong. These soap operas would be about students' lives and concerns and the actors were all to be local students.

I work in the department of English, which has a high profile in communication studies and training second-language teachers through its Teaching English as a Second Language degrees. I conceived of my soap opera as being an innovative model for teaching English. The fact that the HKUGC gave me almost all the money I applied for shows that not only is generous research money still available in Hong Kong, it is also available for projects of a less academically conventional nature. (The soap opera is called Songbirds and I present it twice a week on RTHK Radio 4.) The students here are a joy to teach, fun-loving as well as hard-working, belying the nerdy image they often get tagged with abroad. And I enjoy the multicultural aspect of my department where I mingle with colleagues from Hong Kong, China, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Canada, Spain, the UK, the US and the West Indies. There is strong pressure from above to publish or be damned and the agonising debate goes on here as elsewhere about whether to concentrate on teaching or research.

The adjective every visitor to Hong Kong invariably comes up with is "exciting". Everywhere in the UK, bar Piccadilly Circus, seems like a ghost town after living here. Hong Kong with its jack hammers, jostling crowds, soaring skyscrapers and manic pace of life is no place for the faint-hearted. There is a pungent "can-do" whiff in the air (not to be confused with the noxious fumes drifting over from mainland factories or gas rising from fomenting sewage in the harbour), a feeling that with hard work things will get done.

Certainly I have been more productive here than anywhere else I have worked. As well as teaching and researching, I am also a drama critic for the South China Morning Post. My plays have been produced here in English, Cantonese and Putonghua, including a major bilingual production commissioned for the handover celebrations. Academics who return from Hong Kong to work in the UK report feeling a drop in the energy barometer.

And, believe it or not, Hong Kong is an OK city for gay couples. My partner and I have rarely encountered homophobia and with a certain amount of discretion gay people can live and work here quite happily.

Being a Brit vaguely burdened with post-colonial guilt, it is a relief not to be living in a colony any more. Now I can be just one of the milling crowd in this restless city of immigrants, working my socks off like everybody else and feeling as anonymously at home here as I would in any other of the world's great cities.

Dino Mahoney is associate professor in English at the City University of Hong Kong.

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