My colleague from the Remuneration department at work, another Mark, was on secondment recently in our Asia office. Here he shares his impressions of living in Hong Kong. Regards, Mark.
I recently had the opportunity to go and work for a month in our Hong Kong office to train the team there, meet some of our clients and learn more about how the Asian market operates. The trip also gave me a small taste of what life is like living and working away from home.
Hong Kong has long been among the top ten most common destinations for companies to send staff on assignment to – particularly within the financial industry. Of the 7 million people living there, some 300 000 are expatriates. Add in the thousands of tourists and other temporary visitors to the city and in some areas it can feel like expats are in the majority. I was surprised, though, that French expatriates outnumber their British counterparts but I’ve since come across a number of articles highlighting the rising French population in Hong Kong.
China gave Hong Kong Island to Britain in the 1840s after the First Opium War. In 1898 it leased out the New Territories, north of the Island, to Britain for 99 years. When this came to an end, in 1997, Hong Kong became a special administrative region (SAR) of China. However, when it comes to food, clothing and culture in Hong Kong I found that Japan and Korea are referenced as much as China. This, together with the large numbers of Filipino and Indonesian workers, makes Hong Kong feel very ‘Asian’ rather than ‘Chinese’.
Working away from home in another part of the world made me really aware of the time difference and how much harder it becomes to communicate with colleagues you’re used to just turning around to. I can see how employees can feel a little out of the loop with headquarters when they go on assignment. I also had to get used to working in a different office and business environment. For example, in Asia the work culture is more hierarchical than I’m used to in Europe and they work notoriously long hours.
Some aspects it didn’t take me long to get used to at all, though! For example, as is common in Hong Kong we ate lunch out every day, something no-one back home in London can afford to do. Thanks to the low cost of eating and huge variety available we also managed to go to a different restaurant each time. My colleagues from the Hong Kong office were very helpful in ‘recommending’ local specialities. On one occasion chicken’s feet were ordered only for all but one of the team to admit that they don’t actually like them! I took on the challenge, although it’s not something I’m in a rush to repeat. The availability of so many sorts of Asian food – although Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese seemed especially popular – was great. It meant that my craving for pizza and roast chicken could be satisfied in the evenings without feeling guilty that I hadn’t tried anything more local.
There isn’t much you can’t get in Hong Kong but the thing I missed most was coffee. Although there are plenty of places to buy pretty decent coffee, the prices are higher than I’m used to in London. Tea still dominates and the office didn’t have a coffee machine which meant regular trips outside. Despite the excellent availability of internationally recognised goods and brands in Hong Kong there were a few occasions of coming across something that wasn’t quite what I was used to. Indonesian Ribena, for instance, although I can’t quite put my finger on what makes it taste different – maybe it was purely psychological!
A Hong Kong highlight for me was the very cheap and incredibly reliable public transport, from the old trolley buses and world famous Star Ferry, to modern buses and a relatively new underground network. In fact, Sheung Wan station opened just three days before I left and I was one of the first people inside with everyone taking selfies.
Hong Kong is a very busy city but not as crazy as I remembered from my last visit as a backpacker nine years ago. Back then it was the busiest city I had visited but having since lived in London for a number of years, and visited Delhi, Nairobi, and Shanghai, I think I may well have changed my perception of ‘busy’. Although there is a high population density in Hong Kong and it is often described as a city-state, the country actually consists of lots of extremely densely populated districts with a lot of mountains and green space in between. This seems to help reduce the feeling of claustrophobia and allows for a more convenient way of life since people live in distinct, self contained neighbourhoods with the central district acting as the ‘capital’.
Shops are everywhere. It seemed that every MTR (rail) station has a shopping mall on top of it, while the ground floor of most office blocks also seems to be some kind of retail outlet. For me, ‘Sneaker Street’ was definitely the highlight. It was only my limited luggage allowance for the return flight to the UK that prevented me from spending all my money on trainers!
The most negative aspect I experienced was the pollution. This was not helped by my being there in March, the month of the year with the lowest number of sunny hours per day, and this year it was worse than normal, I was told. Throughout the whole of March, Hong Kong received about the same amount of sun as a typical December in London. This did slightly dampen the spectacular skyline of huge sky scrapers and even bigger mountains looming in the background – something I once heard described as Manhattan built on the side of a mountain.
Since the SARS virus Hong Kongers are more health conscious than ever, with hygiene masks prevalent and escalator hand rails coated in anti-bacterial spray several times a day. What I found unusual was that a cleaner comes into our office in Hong Kong just to clean the phones, spraying the receivers with some sort of lemon fragranced cleaner that you can smell whenever you’re on the phone.
The tensions with mainland China have been in the news regularly over the last 18 months. Although they were not an everyday issue while I was there it was noticeable in the background: from the queues of mainlanders at the Apple store to the news reports and continued presence of Occupy protesters outside the British high commission among other places campaigning against China’s ruling that the election of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong in 2017 will be from a list of prechosen candidates.
I enjoyed my time in Hong Kong and I can understand why it is such a popular destination. It was easy for me to get around and to communicate and the lifestyle was one I found relatively easy to adapt to. I was also pleasantly surprised by the choice of outdoor activities and lifestyle – it’s not only for hard-core shoppers.
Mark is the Manager of ECA’s Remuneration Team, responsible for researching and analysing expatriate salaries around the world and working on ECA’s MyExpatriate Market Pay reports. He recently spent four weeks on secondment in Hong Kong.