The Western trek to Asia started centuries ago. Of course back then it was a national endeavour, centred largely around the economic benefits of international trade, and the patriotic pride obtained from exploring and taming “new” countries.
These days it’s more of a personal (or corporate) decision. The reasons are varied, but money and experience typically feature heavily. However, unlike in the bad old days of colonialism, you need to integrate with the local population.
Hong Kong has a lot to offer for us expats, but don’t expect a walk in the park. I first moved here six years ago and it was quite difficult for the first six months. Here are a few things I’ve learnt that hopefully will give you food for thought if you’re considering a stint in the city.
If you’re accustomed to a backyard, adjust your expectations. The cost of accommodation in Hong Kong is one of the highest in the world. Hong Kong is very, very small – it probably would not appear on a world map if it were not labelled. There are several factors contributing to the high cost of living, including hot money from China and ineffective government housing policies. You might consider these costs as a tax, which to some extent offsets the deceptively low income tax rates.
Given its proximity to the mainland’s economic trade zones (the pollution blows south frequently), this is a battle that the city is not winning. It often swings the decisions for expats towards Singapore.
Hong Kong touts itself as an international centre and it has a well-educated professional workforce. But for everyday living, you deal with the mass population. Cantonese and even Mandarin are far more valuable than English (unless you’re in the front office and serve a niche). Those who have been here long enough understand the waning benefits and influence of British colonialism. The language difficulty is felt not only in the street but in the office, too.
Working here is very different from most Western countries. Naturally your own experience will depend on the industry, the organisation, the department, the boss and so on. But let’s generalise: the hours are longer, there is less social interaction in the office, and morale is low or neutral. (This is from a foreigner’s perspective. For those who grew up in Hong Kong, it is just the norm).
Hong Kong has a harsh school system by Western standards. It is common for parents to sign up their unborn babies for a wide array of classes. A child wishing to enter a primary school should have a portfolio showcasing the various courses and classes he or she has attended, including achievements. It is also common for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten-aged children to be coached by a professional for a school interview. If you want your son or daughter to have a less stressful childhood, be prepared to pay several thousands of dollars per month for an international school.
This exists in a subtle way. If you’re not Chinese or Caucasian, expect potential challenges in your career.
I’ve focused only the negatives in this blog. Depending on your personality, you can adapt and adjust like the rest of us have. Once you’ve done this, you’re probably going to really enjoy your time in Hong Kong.
The writer is a Hong Kong-based financial professional. The views expressed are his and not those of eFinancialCareers.