Nirvana Nightmares


How to turn a Heaven into a living Hell:


This missive is essentially a factual piece written to support and advise any Expat’s who need reliable information concerning the new Family Visit Visa. However, I will take this opportunity to relate the full story of my Chinese visa’s, and how their issuance has altered over the last 7 years.


Note: If you are simply here for details of applying for the new family visa, then go to the bottom of the page.


My first Chinese visa was a three month tourist or ‘L’ visa with multi-entry, continuous stay, and was issued at Manchester in UK. By continuous stay I mean there is no limit on how long you can stay during each entry, other than the visa final expiry date. Later this becomes very important.


When I was young the one place in the whole world I always wanted to visit was Hong Kong. I got my wish in late October of 2004, making the first of what would become numerous visa runs. I had been informed by Peter, one of our excellent teachers from Manila, about a Hong Kong visa agency that could help me for a reasonable fee. Their name was ‘Grand Profit Travel Company’, which isn’t a name any Western business would use. However, they proved to be excellent and one of the staff even spoke a little English. They had my number in case there was a problem, but seeing the ease with which they completed my application I was not unduly worried. I applied for a 6-month tourist visa this time, multi-entry, continuous stay, and the cost was $HK 900. Deal!


I had travelled in company with Jane our office manageress, and we had become firm friends over the preceding 3 months. It was also her first time to Hong Kong, and we really enjoyed ourselves. We stayed at the Majestic hotel near Austin (Separate rooms in case you wondered), and I was able to introduce her to a real English breakfast the next morning. We did the usual touristy things: went to the Peak, used the First Ferry, visited the Jade Market, and spent a lot of time discovering the local streets around Mong Kok and Jordan. I remember checking my phone on a couple of occasions, but no calls was a good sign. At 6pm the following evening I returned to the offices and collected my new visa. That was very easy! We stayed an extra night and returned to China via train the next evening. There were only trains to Guangzhou East railway station, but this was ok. However, this railway station is not a nice place, and the place that I for several years always ended up at when visiting Guangzhou. We caught a cab back to Shunde Long Jiang, getting home really late.


By April of 2005 I had moved to Foshan, and this time was interested in gaining an ‘F’ or business visa. I had a letter of invitation from a company I had helped, so headed off again for Hong Kong. Again I used the excellent Sea Cat ferry service, and arrived fresh and ready for a few days R&R. Jesse, the main girl at the agency was expecting me, and the new visa was processed very quickly. This time the fee was for $HK 1, 300, but it was worth the extra to have a business visa – which would be ready tomorrow at 6pm. However, I was more fortunate than my American friends, who could get the same visas as myself, but had to wait 3-days in Hong Kong before issue. Not sure why, but that’s as was.


Before this adventure I had been chatting for several months to a lovely Filipino girl called Julie who worked as a housemaid in Hong Kong, and so we arranged to meet for dinner that evening on Hong Kong Island. We did the Peak and then found a Spaghetti House in Central. We had a great evening, but more as friends rather than potential lovers. We agreed to meet the next day and ‘do something’. I found digs easy to come by in Mong Kok and returned to the hotel sometime around midnight - stopping for a nightcap and a street vendor version of pot noodle before going up to my room.


The next day I met my new ‘date’ late morning and we headed off to Aberdeen, a small town on the opposite side of the island from main Hong Kong. It was great, full of interesting street markets, fishing boats and fish mongers. We watched some dragon boat races, and got to know each other quite well. This part of Hong Kong is full of Brits, some the worse for wear already, so we took a sampan to nearby Lammas Island and I gawked at the numerous and incredibly large lobsters and shellfish available. We stopped for a while and watched a cat being strangled … sorry, it turned out to be ‘Opera’, and then headed back to downtown via another nearby ferry. We parted as good and trusting friends, and I looked forward to seeing her again come a future visit. I made it back in time to collect my new visa, and unintentionally made my way around the streets until I arrived back at Café Fountain. Oh well, may as well have a beer then! This restaurant is actually about 400 yards from where I collected my visa, and with ‘Happy Hour’ from 3 to 9 pm, + buy 1 get 1 free, it seemed like a good place to stay for a while. Across the pedestrianised plaza I could see a Park and Shop, which is a good Hong Kong supermarket. I later paid a visit collecting many tins of corned beef, Hellman’s mayonnaise, and a few other things I had not found locally in Foshan.


Whilst I could have returned to China that night, the visa issue time coincided with the departure of the last ferry; meaning all other forms of transportation would get increasingly more infrequent and fraught with difficulty. The beers had been nice, and a couple more plus some western food would really hit all my spots. So I stayed over, returning to the hotel somewhere in the early hours. I obviously had a late start the next morning, and after a coffee headed for the ferry. My timing by happenstance was perfect, and so a few minutes later I was on board the mighty Sea Cat as it flew across the water to Nanhai port.


My next visa was due in October 2005, and I was assured that this time I could get a 1-year business visa. With this in mind, I checked my passport to discover a problem. The authorities required 6-months valid passport over and above the new visa, and 9-months over and above for a 1 year version. My current passport expired in May 2007, meaning it would have to be replaced if I went for the 1-year visa. China visa’s tended to work on the principle that if you had had a certain visa type and duration before, then you would be able to get the same again. At that time they also did a 2-year multi-entry, continuous stay business visa, which was my aim. However, first I needed to get a 1-year visa. So I set plans in motion to renew my passport before getting a new visa for China – both of which could be accomplished fairly easily in Hong Kong.


Before setting off this time I contacted Julie and asked her advice about short term rental digs in Hong Kong. By my calculations I would need to be in Hong Kong for at least 12 nights, and at $HK 1, 000 per night for a western hotel, this seemed to be a lot of extra money. She came back to me saying her friend Gloria was staying at a place in Wan Chai, and they could put me up for the duration, however the fee would be $HK 60 per night! Oh My Life! I would have my own room in a shared house, and all of them Filipino’s. I just had to do this, if only for the cultural exchange opportunities.


Therefore a few weeks later I arrive in Hong Kong during the early afternoon, and proceed to Wan Chai via Underground Railway. You may know this term as Metro, and the Chinese call it ‘Subway’, which means a pedestrian underpass in British English. However, in HK it is called MTR, so no confusion at all. Well, I was due to meet Gloria for the first time at 2pm, and arriving 20 minutes early I gave her mobile a call to let her know I was there already. She said she was also, and why wasn’t she seeing me? Oppps! Checking and I was due to exit the most southerly gate from Wan Chai MTR, which is exactly where I was. It turned out Gloria was waiting the other side of a large staircase, at the most southerly exit which had an escalator; and not the very most southerly exit from which the street is reached by climbing some stairs. I actually resolved this impasse by stating that I was on a street with trams on it – to which she went “oh!” and hung up. A few seconds later I see a quite stunning and vivacious lady swinging her hips my way. I know this has to be Gloria, and so she is.


After this initial hiccup we actually get on great, and she leads me to my new home for the next couple of weeks, which is down an ally just opposite. Climbing the stairs she apologises for there being no lift, whilst my boy brain is trying to work out how she managed to squeeze her hypnotic curves into such a short, tight, and clinging mini dress?


Reaching the apartment, I discover that it is basically one big room with small separate kitchen and toilet nearest the door. The room has been semi-partitioned to provide two bedrooms that you couldn’t swing a cat in. Gloria has one and I the other. Later I meet 4 of the other 5 residents, who sleep on the floor outside in the main room. My mind is fully open, and I accept everything like water off a duck’s back. Gloria offers me use of her computer any time I want, and suddenly my world is in place. I head out to explore the nearby warren of streets and find a beer + some food.


Wan Chai is a most interesting place, and I recommend any visitor to linger here a while. It is a hubbub of activity at all hours of the day and night, and as international a place as any on this planet. However, my area is for locals and not one many foreigners venture into. I love it! The streets outside throng with market traders in all directions, and it must be many years since a vehicle of any sort has ventured into these remote parts. Amongst the clothes stalls and tat are some rare finds and artisan jewellery. I discover a shop that sells clothes that are actually too big for me! They are having a sale, with one tee-shirt for $HK10, or 3 for $20. I buy 1 dozen and get a further reduction. Making my way around I see what appears to be a very large Park and Shop, which I will investigate later. Meantime I pass by the small parks which dot this area, and see kids playing Basketball and other sports in the recreational areas provided. This place is a real community!


I pass by one of the many typical Hong Kong eateries, and for some reason find myself attracted to it – it is as Siu Mei restaurant that specialises in Char Siu, or crispy roast duck to you. I enter and am greeted in English, although that’s about as far as the owner’s linguistic skills extend. He understands my Foshan Cantonese, and so I order a large bottle of local beer at $HK8. For Hong Kong that is excellent value, so I indulge in a second… ‘ah-hem’


Meanwhile I watch the tables to see what other patrons are eating, and decide upon spare ribs in batter and a bowl of rice noodles with crispy fried duck. Totally excellent cuisine, so that’s my local sorted then!


Next day I submit my new passport application before midday cut-off, and am told it will be ready in 12 days time. It was quite easy, and a short walk from my digs. The days then blur and meld together, as I become acquainted with the local area and my new companions. I am invited to share their food, some of which is quite superb. My weird body-clock means that it is not often I take a meal with them, but their version of corned beef risotto Filipino with extra chilli was a very rare and excellent treat.


I do check out the big Park and Shop, and am delighted to find several types of corned beef in tins from Brazil. However, the highlight of my visit is to discover Walls sausages in a frozen pack. In UK I would probably pass these by in preference to butchers own, but in China where sausages either contain a lot of sugar, even more sugar, or are made entirely from molasses! I’m a gannet. I guess this is because I was brought up on a rural farm where refrigeration was something new. Sweet smelling pork meant it had gone off, and was not fit to eat. I fill my boots!


In-between-times I actually explore Wan Chai greatly, sample a diverse selection of foods, and treat the apartment inhabitants to a meal out of their choosing. I discover they are partial to an odd glass of wine, so take to bringing back a bottle when it occurs to me. This is my way of saying these poor souls are the salt of the earth, and I will always remember their natural humanity, humility and kindness.


Yet all things come to pass; and so it seemed that only a few days later when my new passport was issued, that it was my time for leaving this microcosm and return to my real life. I look back and remember their kindness and open-hearted warmth. God Bless!


Arriving back in Foshan with a 1-year business visa (Multi-entry, continuous stay; cost: $HK 1, 730), I reflect that I experienced something few foreigners or residents of Hong Kong will ever have … a sub-community that drives their homes and economy.


We now move on to September 2006, and I am surprised to find that instead of a new 1-year visa, I have to settle for a 6-month business visa. This is because of the Olympics next year, as China is tightening visa policy. However, I am assured that after the Olympics everything will return to normal and I will once again obtain a 1-year business visa, and later the 2-year version. When the Olympics happen in Beijing all visa issuance gradually reduces to a fortnightly nightmare!


My first insight was a very cryptic statement by my sort-of brother-in-law, Rich; who informed my good friend Dave that I would have to leave China. This didn’t actually make any sense at the time, so we both ignored it and carried on as usual. Dave needed my help in UK, and so it was I caught a flight out in late March 2008 = my first visit back to Blighty in 4-years. I was there for a couple of weeks and sort of git my UK stuff together also. This was a business visit, so I didn’t see many friends, nor spend much quality time with my parents and sister – but it was ok. It reminded me how small British thinking now is upon the world stage, and made it me wonder what I could do to open many people’s eyes – beginning at the top with our politicians. We have dared to shake the Dragon’s tail, and she will arise again from many years of peaceful slumber … have no doubt about that – it is a fact!


What I note most about UK is that everybody lies nowadays – I mean the Politicians and Corporate Bosses, everybody it seems that has a ‘professional’ capacity. It appears to be accepted as part of their job. I think these cheats and bonus defrauders need to be reminded that they are simply human beamishes … but that train is already in motion … and still awaiting the biggest crash of all; due Christmas 2010 if I am not mistaken?


I wonder what my Filipino friends in Hong Kong would make of all this? Their minimum wage was reduced in 2004, and was increased once since then (2008 if I remember correctly); but is still below levels set before 2004. Meanwhile their Hongkongnese employers have wage increases undiluted, and now far in excess of 2004 levels. There is no justice here for the ordinary people – something I also found prevalent during my last visit to UK, where Union Barons have largely taken over the oppressive roles normally regarded by historians as being the sole preserves of 19th Century Mill Owners. However, this borders upon politics – and I will write about that one another time, or rather; finish writing it.


Leaving UK I get a very decent flight back to Hong Kong with both journeys under Cathay Pacific, a most excellent airline. I wonder why ‘air france’ are still in business, as this is so very excellent as compared to their abysmal service and dastardly international airport. Must be something to do with europe or being european I guess? However, the simple facts speak for themselves: I look forward to flying again with Cathay Pacific. I would rather walk half way around the globe than venture near another French airline = Truly atrocious!


Hong Kong is a very nice place to arrive at, given the airport connections still go to all the wrong places for through travellers to China Mainland, but at least this isn’t france and charles degaul. Customs is very pleasant and I soon exit and head for the outside ramp, to repair my habit. The nicotine is a real Wow! Finally my blood carbon monoxide levels increase to a tolerable level, and I think to get some funds from any of the plethora of cash machines and associated banks nearby.


First up is Bank of China (HK) = no funds, refer to issuing bank as card no good. Second is Standard Chartered = no funds, cannot contact bank. And so it progresses. My card is an international visa card, but they are changing the systems so as to include a time cut-off delay, which only HSBC banks do not suffer from. About a mile down the foyer I actually find the HSBC bank = my card works first time, and so does my other card. Hurrah!


The time is now 3.40pm, and I need to be in Tsim Shar Tsui before 6pm to apply for a new Chinese visa. Today is Thursday, so if I miss this window, then the 1-working day for process will mean it is ready on Monday evening, and not Friday evening (my version of tomorrow). The ‘Airport Express’ is a train that takes 1 hour all told to dump me at the wrong end of Austin – miles away from where I need to be. I have to use a Hong Kong taxi, which will undoubtedly rip me off and take the longest possible route to transfer me to my destination. Surprise! He actually only makes one short detour over the entire trip, and so I am there already at the visa office with an hour to spare.


I present Jesse with all my papers expecting to receive a new business visa tomorrow. She informs me that business visas are no longer available (Except from home Country), and the best she can do is either a 3-month permanent stay, multi-entry, ‘L’ Tourist visa; or a 1-year Tourist visa with 30 day maximum stay. I choose the 3-month version because of the continuous stay, but may live to regret this decision later.


I had no other reason for being in Hong Kong – apart from new visa and China transfer, so this visit was not as enjoyable; as hanging around overnight waiting for the new visa to be ready is not my idea of fun. I had rung a Hong Kong hotel from UK, so had digs for my arrival already sorted. I even did the booking entirely in Cantonese, which I was pretty damned proud about! I check-in and like the people that run the place + it is in Jordan, or much nearer to where I need to be – for similar money than my previous digs.


However, still pondering imponderables I wander outside before finding myself bidden by those excellent staff at Café Fontaine – well, mine’s a pint then … and a great evening ensues.


The next day was a drag, as I really didn’t have anything I wanted to do within the time available. I picked up a coffee from some American style joint – it was a Star Buck’s and smoking is allowed in the outside seating area. It appears their boss is another one who is putting personal profit before his clearly stated convictions. If you don’t know, then he operates a total ‘non-smoking’ policy, and staff can be sacked for smoking outside of working hours and in the privacy of their own homes. I consider this as I drink my coffee and smoke a cigarette outside; and consider using the competition in future, as I don’t like 2-faced people, especially draconian bosses.


I later stock up with tinned Bully Beef and Helmans mayonnaise, and wander the streets looking for inspiration. In a nearby side road I discover the hidden delights of Kimberly Terrace, a raised street near the Observatory which is pedestrianised, and full of bars and entertainment venues. ‘Happy Hour’ is the standard 3 to 9 pm and offers buy 1 get 1 free, only it is now 2pm. Oh Well! I amble around and find myself back at Café Fontaine by 2.40. I ask the waitress if it is 3 o’clock yet? … and 5-minutes later she brings me a beer with one free to come when I am ready. Excellent!


I pass the time by chatting to staff and locals, order a Panini with side salad and fries before heading off for my visa just before 6pm.  It is waiting for me when I arrive, and so I am quickly out of there. Jesse tells me to check before I come next time, as the visa rules may alter again.


I am staying an extra night simply because I have a large and very heavy suitcase, and my rucksack is even heavier due to containing several heavy parts for Dave that need replacing. I head for China Ferry and buy my ticket for tomorrow, before wondering what to do this evening. My hotel is very near Kimberly Terrace, and the time is right, so I drop by and sample a couple of the bars with their Happy Hour. By 9 I am done, so pick up a KFC en route back to the hotel, where I soon crash into blissful sleep.


Next morning I head out in good time to walk to China Ferry, but it is really hot and the luggage heavy. I hail a cab – who is not ecstatic about my short journey, but he lifted my cases into the boot (trunk) so understands my predicament. I note he allows me to retrieve them from his boot upon arrival at our destination, adding the luggage charge to my fare = fair enough. The Sea Cat is the only way to travel, and once under way I head for the galley to see what is on offer. I order in Cantonese and settle for their home-made pot noodle, which has an egg, meat, and cabbage leaf in it + hot chilli sauce – and enjoy immensely actually. I wash it down with Nescafe instant coffee and Carnation tinned milk (Must be a British thing) and enjoy the short trip.


The 2-hour trip really is so stressless that I arrive fresh and ready to go. I quickly find the free charabanc outside that goes to Foshan, and ask the driver if he can drop me off near my gaff. Having travelled this route before I know it passes just outside my apartment, and I don’t need the hassle of going all the way to the Foshan hotel, only to catch a taxi back again. As we are trying to decide where to drop me off, another (Cantonese) couple ask if they can be dropped at ‘Gui hua fo chong’. He says ‘No Problem’ in English! That’s the one I need also, so it’s a done deal.


The plan works perfectly, and all but one of us get of at the Chinese supermarket and local landmark opposite my home. I am home within 5-minutes, but my girlfriend is out. I fire up the PC and get back to my usual routines…


Over the coming months the visa situation gets seriously worse. Nobody knows in advance what is happening, and I learn to ring the day before I am due to collect my next visa. The rules change twice a month, on the 1st and 15th, with no warning of what is to come. My next visa in July 2008 is a 3-month tourist visa with 30 day maximum stay. This in turn means I have to leave China every month, if only for 1-minute. Hong Kong can’t really do 1-minute in any practicable way, so I end up using the Lo Wu border crossing and being forced to catch the MTR for 1 stop, before crossing the platform and returning. Theoretically I could make this trip in about 8-hours from door to door, but it invariably takes about 10 hours. That is a whole day wasted.


My next visa is actually due at the end of October, but I have reason to be in Hong Kong late September so decide to loose a couple of weeks and get a new visa while I am there. This is because I am getting married on 27th September and my sister and her partner will be in Hong Kong on 24th. We have a great time, even if my sister is hit by a flying lid during the night of one storm and it hurts her a lot. Jesse now tells me I can only have a 3-month Tourist visa, double entry, 30-day stay – which is a 2-month visa by my reckoning. The charge for this is now Y2, 000 RMB. Talk about inflation of devalued goods! Prices in Hong Kong are also very close to western ones, so this amounts to a great expense.


With making so many frequent trips back and forth between Foshan and Hong Kong, I have also got my head around the inter-city bus timetable (Not the direct hotel express ones), and have taken to using the Lo Wu crossing in Shenzhen as my normal route. The last bus back to Foshan from Shenzhen leaves at 9.30 each evening, and is usually not crowded. I usually make the 8.30 pm one. Whilst I much prefer the route by ferry, the last boat sets sail at 6pm, which really isn’t usually on my radar.


My next visa is due late November, and again I go to the same agency, only to find a new girl at the helm who thinks she speaks perfect English. I don’t like her, nor her attitude, which is bourn out when she tries to charge me Y3, 500 for a 2-month visa, or Y7, 800 for a 6-month visa with 30-day maximum stay. That’s almost twice as much as last time, and 10 times more than a couple of years ago. She says it is Beijing policy that all foreigners should renew in home country = Thanks for the ‘Heads-up’ British Consulate – who have made sure to keep a great distance between themselves and current visa issues their Nationals have during this Olympic period. I begin to highlight current visa issues on my website, as the British government is incapable of offering any sensible advice.


Meanwhile I have no intention of paying this much money, so decline her offer. She returns by saying something aside in derogatory Cantonese that I understand, and I return her the compliment likewise. Having caught my hare in the headlights, I leave and begin to look for other options.


Over the weeks previous I had been looking for alternatives, so decided to give CITS (China International Travel Service) a try. They run a lot of the coaches and tours into Hong Kong, and throughout China for that matter. My thinking was that they would at least offer me the going rate – whatever that is? I knew they had an office at the beginning of Nathan Road, so went on spec and couldn’t find it. I actually got directions from one of the less salubrious characters trying to flog imitation watches nearby.


The place I wanted was actually on the other side of the street, and just down a sideroad. They were actually very good and staff spoke excellent English. I had 2 choices: A 6-month business visa, 30 day maximum stay, cost $HK 5, 200. Otherwise it was a 3-month tourist visa, double entry, 30-day stay for $HK 1. 750. That is two thousand dollars less than the agency I had been using, and my instincts had proved correct. However, I would need to produce a new and current Letter of Invitation for the business visa, which I did not have. I began to walk away with my form before deciding to ask if there were any other options – seeing as I was living in China with my wife. Fortunately her supervisor overheard my query and instructed her to offer me a 3-month single entry, 90 day stay visa instead. The cost for this was a mere $HK 1, 350. Wow! That’s what I want – and so it came to pass. This would only cost $HK 400 if I waited 3-working-days, but Hong Kong is so expensive I could spend the difference easily in one night.


Happenstance I retired to Café Fontaine a little later and got chatting to an Indian guy there. He was also in exports and we chewed the cud for a while. He (Like many others) had been on the point of completely pulling out of China simply because of the crazy visa situation, before a friend of his offered him a 3-year business visa. He took this offer, but later regretted it as it came from a source that he now owed continuous favours too. He simply stated it was not worth it, and he wishes he were free of the situation. You can draw your own conclusions from that statement; just know he spoke the truth.


I personally made a point of distancing myself from such ‘offers’, and quite rightly so it proved. A 90-day stay visa is fine for me until such time I can find any suitable alternative. With the Paralympics now passed, my chances should surely improve (Hong Kong hosted the equestrian events btw). Therefore over the next two years this 3-month visa became all I could obtain that suited me. My ‘guanxi’ or network of friends could help, but I did not like the implied costs.


This all changed for me personally in June 2010, when I chanced by an online article from China Daily. Apparently Beijing had become aware of the problems being encountered by foreigners with family in China, and how their visa policy needed to be updated. Basically it went like this: if you had a wife, child, or immediate family (Father or Mother) living in China as a Chinese National, then you could get a special visa to visit them. Woah! I have a Chinese wife and a Chinese child! The visa is initially a 6-month Tourist visa, multi-entry, permanent stay [up to 6-months]. Later it can be a 1-year Residency or ‘D’ visa; or a 2-year visa if you are over 60. I applied for one and it was issued a few days ago.


This new type of visa is especially useful to ABC’s BBC’s and TBC’s (* Born Chinese, with the first letter indicating country: American, British, Taiwanese, etc). It is the latter that is most significantly important, but I will let you work that one out for yourselves, and remain thankful that by some fluke of chance and sensibility, I and my family in China also benefit from this special dispensation.


This visa has significantly changed my life for the better. Previously I had to plan on visiting Hong Kong every 3-months for a new visa, staying overnight + all the travel hassles, etc. This cost me around Y5, 000 RMB each trip; or about 20Kpa by the time I factor in all things excepting my personal time. Whilst I did enjoy my times in Hong Kong, I was only ever there for a new visa, and not from free will. Hanging around in Honk Kong and waiting is not one of my favourite ways to use-up the times of my life. Thankfully this period now appears to be over.


And so as a child I always wanted to visit Hong Kong. My wish came true with bounty, and I really enjoyed my times there with Jane, Mike and Marisol (Not a visa run, so not mentioned in this missive), the new passport and those fantastic Filipinos, plus Roo and Steve (My sister and her partner).


However, this ‘bounty’ extended to me having to be there every 30 or 90 days for no other reason than to get a new visa – and that sort of took the shine off things. I do love Hong Kong, and will visit again for sure. My being able to do this because ‘I want to’ matters to me. Perhaps you consider me to be selfish? I consider myself to be an individual person who tries to retain as much free-choice concerning his life and the things in it; as possible – something Blighty can no longer offer me either = Freedom of Choice.


I will wrap up now and hope I have given you all a little to think about, as we all go about our small and relative lives. It all just leaves me with one small thing to say:


Thank you Beijing!