Life As a Hong Kong Ex-Pat

Hong Kong - Dieter Vander Velpen

In this, the Chinese year of the Tiger, London continues to take a mauling.

And so it has been since 2007 when Northern Rock realized that giving people 1,000% mortgages was a bad idea, repackaging these into goody bags for consumption by the global financial community was an even worse idea, and the curtain was pulled back on complex financial structured products, revealing armies of monkeys in rainbow hats, pockets stuffed with cash, pedaling slowly on unicycles, where we had expected to find a competent and responsible banking elite.

No doubt the green shoots of recovery, so long curtailed by a three-year financial winter, are beginning to show, but it is no secret that life in the City has seen better days. Thousands made redundant now clutch tightly to savings and explore ever more creative ways for re-entry into the jobs market, brown trousers have never been more popular amongst those still receiving a monthly pay cheque, and fresh graduates are quickly realizing that there may be no pot of gold at the end of the university rainbow.

It would be easy to assume that the City, as an important global financial centre, epitomizes the world at large. In truth however, it does not, and there are places beyond the ash clouds of Europe for which green shoots are unheard of and business is ripening quite nicely. 

It is within this context that I find myself transplanted from the City to Hong Kong, working as in-house legal counsel for a global investment bank. Life is very different here.

The UK enjoyed a 100-year lease of Hong Kong, expiring in 1997 and with no option for renewal. In that time, Hong Kong took advantage of it’s natural position as regional trading hub to rise to prominence as a leading global financial centre. Now loosely part of China, within it’s one-country, two-systems ideology, Hong Kong continues to enjoy freedoms embryonic or non-existent in mainland China, and is growing from strength to strength.

Where City professionals run scared of ever crippling tax hikes, accepted grudgingly by those forced to stay and happy just to have a job, their Hong Kong counterparts enjoy a maximum annual tax rate of around 15%. Even for those receiving a pay freeze upon moving to Hong Kong, as so many City professionals have for the past two years, an effortless net increase of 20-30% of one's annual salary is quite feasible. And while it is entirely plausible that this could be simply fettered away on a fresh set of rainbow hats and unicycles, an intangible energy here suggests that it is not, and that Hong Kong will maintain its rise for some time. Certainly Michael Geoghegan, CEO of HSBC Holdings Plc, knows on which side his bread is buttered, and made the move along with other notable HSBC heads from the City to Hong Kong earlier this year.

What does this mean for your average City worker-type, keen to escape to Hong Kong? On the downside, family and friends left behind are more than a Tube ride away. But then how much time do we make for them in a typical working week anyhow? Furnished apartments close to the central business district are smaller than London-sized expectations, and much more costly. You might not be able to source your favourite Western snack at your local supermarket. You are likely part of only 5% of non-ethnic Chinese, meaning for many it will be their first experience of life as an ethnic minority.

These factors are more than balanced by Hong Kong’s many positive points, a number of which I have only recently discovered. As an island, which is part of a number of surrounding islands, you are never too far away from a beach, and the forgiving climate ensures that you can actually enjoy them. If Hong Kong’s beaches are not for you, however, you can always apply some of your increased disposable income towards a cheeky weekend break, where stag-saturated European hotspots such as Prague, Berlin, Barcelona and Budapest are adequately replaced with Bali, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and more, none of which is more than a few hours flight away.

For those happy to embrace an ex-pat lifestyle, ex-pat nightlife is not difficult to find, being centered around Soho and Lan Kwai Fong, vibrant and bustling, their enticing mix of traditional Chinese with modern, stylish bars, restaurants and rooftop hangouts, genuinely seem to offer something for everyone. Seemingly happy to have escaped a crumbling City, those from London and elsewhere also seem genuinely friendly, and it is not difficult to meet like-minded people very quickly, as opposed to the drudgery of the Tube, where every man, woman and child is for themselves, constantly at the mercy of a broken Tube system and carriers of a very tangible paranoia.

In addition, Hong Kong offers unparalleled convenience, and it is not uncommon in some areas to see life continuing as usual throughout the night. Add to that a basic sense of underlying British colonial solidity, and Hong Kong quickly becomes a very attractive relocation prospect for those for whom mobility is not an issue, and career aspirations rank high on their list of priorities.

The tiger may not be everyone’s favourite animal at the world’s financial zoo, but it just might be possible that the bulldog has had its day.