HK banker murder shows dark side of expat life


  • World
  • Friday, 02 Sep 2005

By Brian Kelleher, Asia financial services correspondent

HONG KONG (Reuters) - To the outsider, it looks too good to be true: $1 million paychecks, luxury cars and upscale apartments staffed with maids and cooks. 

But this high-flying expatriate lifestyle -- enjoyed by select foreign bankers and executives from Seoul to Bangkok -- often requires serious sacrifice for the men and women who flock to Asia's financial centres. 

A chilling manifestation of the cracks that form during life abroad was the 2003 murder of top Merrill Lynch banker Robert Kissel, who had accumulated an estate worth $18 million and lived with his family in a Hong Kong luxury flat. 

On Thursday, a Hong Kong jury sentenced his wife Nancy Kissel to life in prison for the American banker's murder, following a trial that riveted the territory with tales of rough sex, marital violence and adultery. 

His murder is an extreme example of how the high-living lifestyles of some foreign professionals may mask deep problems underneath the surface. 

Although many expat marriages remain happy, the stress of an 80-hour work week for some executives punctuated by spur-of-the-moment business trips to Tokyo, Shanghai or New York can place an enormous strain on family life. "The single most important issue is that many expat families don't have family or friends in Hong Kong," said Dominic Lee, a professor of psychiatry at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "This is particularly depressing for the wife." 

Having children can also lead to some hardships such that many expat couples choose to go back home for the birth to have closer support from grandparents and siblings. 

"The post-natal depression story also highlights the difficulties families face," said Lee, noting that a busy executive may be called back to work soon after the birth. 

TAKING A RISK 

During her testimony, Nancy Kissel claimed that her husband changed following their move to Hong Kong in 1998, becoming abusive and increasing his alcohol consumption. 

William Kissel, Robert's 77-year-old father, said of expat wives like his daughter-in-law: "They feel like just an appendage." 

While the jury disagreed with her argument that Robert's increasingly violent behaviour led her to kill him in self-defence, there is no doubt that a move overseas is a shock to the system. 

"What person in their right mind would leave their Connecticut suburb with their country club membership for Japan?" said one executive in Tokyo. "They're looking to advance in their careers, they're risk takers. 

"The long hours, the travel, it definitely takes a toll on the family," he said. 

In Hong Kong, wives often develop a social circle by going to things like "Starbucks parties", which is what Lee calls daily meetings with parents and babies at coffee shops in the territory's flashy shopping malls. 

New communications technology can also strengthen home ties. 

"One thing I've found that is very important is that they now have broadband -- they can talk to their family over the Internet," said Lee, referring to high-speed Internet connections that can also enable cheap telephony and video conferencing. 

Many overseas assignments last only a few years, but experts and expats alike warn against falling into a trap of not making an effort to acclimate to the local community. 

"There are few outlets for expat families to relax ... if you're not creative about it, you just find yourself stuck," the Tokyo executive said. 

(Additional reporting by John Ruwitch in Hong Kong and Chawadee Nualkhair in Bangkok) 

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