Caricatured images of European ‘colonists’ abound in histories of colonial rule. Through a case study of the foreign staff of the Chinese Customs Service, this article offers a reassessment of the type of person who sought work overseas and their motivations for doing so. In outlining the recruitment experiences and socio-economic profile of the foreign staff of the Customs, it argues that the vast majority of European recruits were not motivated by a steadfast commitment to furthering their home countries' interests in China. Their concerns were rather more complex, opportunistic and prosaic; of particular importance was the promise of a reliable career. In exploring the very different experiences and socio-economic circumstances of recruits to the ‘indoor’ and ‘outdoor’ branches, this case study also sheds more light on the sheer range of people for whom China and the empire world spoke of opportunity.