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Real life survival tips for Western bankers in Hong Kong

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Although its sovereignty was returned to China in 1997, Hong Kong has largely managed to maintain its status as a diverse and international city. Its status as a regional financial centre has continued to attract bankers from the West. But Hong Kong is still an Asian city, and this can be a culture shock to some coming from the west.

So, how can Western bankers in Hong Kong build a strong career and achieve a happy life in the city? Here’s some advice from those who’ve done it.

1. Stay grounded

Hong Kong is a party city. Yes, you might need to take time out with clients, but make sure you catch up on sleep, don’t fall into the trap of working hard, partying hard, and driving yourself into the ground. Investment banking culture is particularly ‘deviant’ according to John Lefevre, the man behind the Goldman Sachs Elevator account. Admittedly, Lefevre has a book to sell and so it’s in his interest to sensationalize Western bankers’ exploits, but others tell similar stories. ‘Leaving Hong Kong saved my life,’ wrote one unnamed British banker on CNN, claiming that drug taking and partying is far more pervasive in the city than elsewhere.

This may, or may not, be the case. Either way, you have been warned. Hong Kong is a fun place, but don’t let fun turn into an addiction that will destroy your career in future.

2. Make the most of your cultural difference

Benno Jaeggi is Swiss. He currently works for ANZ bank in HK as its head of business management for North East Asia. He suggests Westerners are well equipped to take on Hong Kong roles which work across cultures. “As a European, if you are a bit attuned to different cultures, there are roles that really play in your favour,” says Jaeggi.

Gary Lo, head of marketing and admissions for MBA programs at the School of Business and Management of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), said companies specifically recruit international students for regionally-focused roles. “We used to have a student from Chile, and Citibank HK hired him specifically because they were looking at investing in the Latin America market,” he recalls

3. Play into HK’s regional links

Hong Kong is a gateway to China. At the same time, it’s also one of the two hubs (the other is Singapore) in the entire Southeast of Asia and East Asia. Once in a hub like this, Benno points out that the ability “not to be wedded to one particular country or culture is actually quite an important skill in HK”.

Adam Antal is a current MBA student at HKUST’s business school. Originally from Hungary, he quickly realized that HK on the one hand “gives me access to Mainland China”, and on the other hand it still has “more international jobs”. “So this is really a great hub for me, an ideal place.” he says.

4. Work as hard as the locals

One way of staying grounded is to ensure you have some local friends. Asian bankers work very hard.  What impressed Benno in his first few years in HK was that, “the drive people have in HK is a lot more than almost anywhere else”. “It’s not just working harder,” he explains, “it’s the willingness to work hard or push something to make it happen”.

He gives an example: “If I call Australia Friday 5pm, I need to be lucky to reach someone. Whereas in HK, if you call someone Friday 5pm, you can be 99% sure you will still reach them.”

5. Be willing to up the pace

The pace in HK is generally quicker than in the West. Benno thinks it reflects HK people’s willingness to change. “It’s good, because it drives the economy”. He also jokes that “In HK and Greater China, regulatory changes come every three weeks, where in Australia it comes every three months”.

So what to do about it? “Adapt,” he says, “If you don’t, you are out,”

6. Come young

It’s easier to adapt when you’re young. Benno recalls that he was only 22 when he arrived in Hong Kong, and he thinks that helped.

7. Make the most of the food!

Fortunately, it’s not all about hardship. HK has kept a lot of Western elements, which should be good news to Western expats. Adam says the range of food is phenomenal. “Just look at food,” he exclaims, “there are so many more options compared to what I can find back in Europe!”

 

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