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Office exodus: Hong Kong bankers take 90-minute lunch breaks

Street food stall in Hong Kong

Even in an era of ongoing cost cutting, there’s one thing that Hong Kong finance professionals can’t live without: their long lunch breaks.

A sandwich in the office is standard for many in London and New York, but Hongkongers still like to eat out. And while Singapore traders have only just been granted lunch breaks, their counterparts in Hong Kong have been taking them for years. In 2012, traders in the territory protested unsuccessfully about plans to trim their 90-minute breaks, but they are still allowed a full hour.

Traders are not the only ones in the city for whom lunchtime is sacrosanct. “It’s not unheard to take up to 1.5 hours without it being frowned upon,” says Henry Chamberlain, a former head of selection at Standard Chartered, now a Hong Kong-based careers coach. “Banking employees here work later than official office hours anyway, so I’ve never seen or heard of anyone being reprimanded for a long lunch.”

Expat finance professional Brett Anderson (not his real name) says an hour-long lunch is normal in Hong Kong, and not just on Fridays. “Sometimes I take less, but I tend to take closer to two hours twice a week when I go to the gym as well as eat, and it’s totally fine.”

You won’t find many people eating at their desks in Hong Kong – there’s typically an exodus from the office at lunchtime. “Bankers are always stressed, so they take hour-long breaks and they don’t like staying in the office,” says Nigel Chen (a pseudonym), who works for Bank of East Asia.

Hong Kong banking professionals also like eating together. “It’s more social here than I was used to in Europe,” says Anderson.

“Lunch is a very important event in HK, which reflects the value of meals as social events in Chinese culture,” adds Chamberlain. “People don’t enjoy eating alone, and at Standard Chartered staff mostly ate out. The wealth of the average bank employee in HK is another factor – even juniors can afford it.”

Hong Kong’s dining-out culture is being challenged, however, by the growth of in-house canteens as banks build and renovate their offices.

Citi’s local headquarters, which opened last year, is based in East Kowloon. Staff there typically eat lunch at the building’s large in-house cafe overlooking Hong Kong harbour, because they lack the restaurant options that their counterparts at banks in Central enjoy.

Bank of East Asia’s Central headquarters also boasts a staff canteen, but many employees still prefer outside options. “The office is located above a shopping mall with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, American and lots of other choices,” says Chen. “My favourite place is the dim sum one.”

“Variety of food is a big thing at lunchtime in Hong Kong. Not many people go to the same places day after day,” says Chamberlain. “At Stan Chart, I ate everywhere from dai pai dong food stalls to five-star restaurants.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hong Kong banking professionals see few disadvantages in taking long lunches. “Overall, I’ve found that it’s good for team morale to eat together regularly,” says Anderson. “It gives me more time to chat with colleagues, so it’s good for relationship building,” adds Chen.

“It’s an opportunity to socialise, do a bit of team building, and even do some business development,” says Chamberlain. “It’s also good to take a mental and physical break from work. Unless the food is too heavy, people are often more productive after a long Hong Kong lunch. The generally high productivity of people in HK more than compensates for time lost on lunches.”

“The only real downside is that it can eat into my own free time, and to some extent my family time, because I live outside the city and have a longer commute,” adds Anderson.


Image credit: aluxum, Getty

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