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Real Moves: Brits Moving to Hong Kong

After being under British Sovereignty for 156 years (1841-1997), you would think Hong Kong might be something of a mini-London. However, the city is a completely different animal today from two decades ago, before Hong Kong’s Handover to China in 1997. Hong Kong, which means ‘fragrant harbour’ in Cantonese, has become both more Chinese yet more international at the same time over the past decades. Populations of Latin Americans, Asians, and Europeans are becoming more represented as opposed to the British-dominated arena of the past.

Source: Flickr Nicolas Vollmer

Many who were in Hong Kong during the days of the crown colony are hardly able believe their eyes when they return. The neo-classical buildings are gone, replaced with an iconic skyline (Hong Kong has the most skyscrapers in the world, followed by New York); the tram is no longer running on the harbourfront (it has been pushed inland thanks to land reclamation), Asians are – gasp – now allowed to live on Victoria Peak[1] (Hong Kong’s poshest neighbourhood), and new districts have sprung up.

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Certainly there are pockets of Hong Kong where the British will feel very at home (Marks & Spencer, fish & chips, pubs everywhere), but Hong Kong has grown very much into its own since its establishment as a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China[2] (PRC) under the "One Country, Two Systems" principle.

The British in Hong Kong

Despite the decrease of British immigration into Hong Kong since the 1997 handover (due to introduced immigration and visa restrictions), the city continues to act as a magnet for career-driven expats due to its robust economy and status as a world financial hub. Wages for expats in Hong Kong are more than double world averages with 55% of expats in the city earning more than US$150,000 per annum[3].

During the 1940s, there were 1,600,000 million British people living in Hong Kong. The number slowly dwindled until the transfer of sovereignty, when thousands of Britons fled Hong Kong, fearing a brutal takeover by China. The Sino-British Joint Declaration (1984) had already been received with apprehension, and matters were made worse by the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, which triggered a mass migration out of Hong Kong.

As of 1997, there were only around 22,000 British citizens left in the city, many of them of Chinese ethnicity; in 2001, there were 19,000. Today, the government has stopped accounting for its expats according to nationality, but instead has grouped together an estimated 55,000 “White” residents during the last population census.

Beyond the six month visa-free tourist status of UK passport holders, the latter need to apply for visas should they desire to extend their stay or seek employment in Hong Kong. However, the younger set may be pleased to hear that in January 2014, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom have established a Working Holiday Scheme. UK nationals aged 18 to 30 can now apply for a visa allowing them to stay in Hong Kong for up to 12 months, during which they may work to finance their stay or study self-financed courses.[4]

Expat diaries

We interview two British expats who made the move to Hong Kong over the last few years and find out how it life is from an insider’s perspective.

James Collins, 33, Engineering Geologist from London

Living in Hong Kong since 2009

“The main instigator in me leaving the UK was the financial crisis. I’d just completed an MSc in London, and I was having trouble finding a job in the UK. I knew that most of Asia hadn’t really been affected by the economic downturn that had struck the USA and Europe, so Asia seemed like an obvious place to look for a job. I’d always been interested in the idea of living abroad and experiencing different cultures, interesting food, and new people.”
Amanda Page, 31, teacher

From Wiltshire; lived in London for 9 years

“I have always wanted to travel the world and live in another country. My boyfriend was offered a job in Hong Kong so I took the opportunity to travel.”

What’s the weather like?

Amanda:

Opposite to the UK – I don’t really know what I like best. UK is so cold and rainy most of the time, whereas HK is roasting hot and sweaty humid.

(Author’s note: Hong Kong “winter” is from November to March/April – five months in a year it can be cool to cold in the city. It can get as cold as 5°C to a more comfortable range of 15-25°C. The hot season from April/May to October averages 30°C… even at night. The dehumidifier is a household essential, otherwise things will get mouldy before you know it)

How long do you plan to stay in HK?

James:

That’s a difficult question to answer. I came to Hong Kong with the mind-set of “If I don’t like Hong Kong, I’ll stay for at least a year”. That was almost five years ago, and I have no intention of leaving any time soon.

Amanda:

Indefinitely.

How is Hong Kong different from the UK?

James:

The most immediate and obvious difference between Hong Kong and the UK is the density of the buildings and the population. Sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming, but thankfully there are plenty of places to escape to – hiking through the nature parks, bike rides in the New Territories, a day on the beach. Hong Kong is a city of huge contrast.

Amanda:

Hong Kong is much safer than the UK and the crime rate is almost zero. The tax rate is much lower and the pay is much higher, meaning you get a far better standard of living over here. The transportation is far better and cheaper than the UK.

What are the things you miss about the UK?

James:

I miss the space - the vast green open parks, with their huge trees – and the chilled out atmosphere. I miss the size of my old house, because apartments in Hong Kong are generally small. I also miss London’s café culture.

(Author’s Note: Hong Kong is one of the world’s most expensive places to rent or buy a home due to a supply shortage, and limited space affects the size of available accommodation. Consider yourself lucky if you’re able to get 250 square metres to yourself.)

Amanda:

I miss my friends and family back in the UK and I miss the UK summertime but that’s about all.

Do you eventually want to go back?

James:

At the moment, I’m undecided. I’m comfortable in Hong Kong. I’ve made a great group of friends here, work is going well, there’s plenty to explore in Hong Kong, and it’s a great base to travel around Asia.

Amanda:

No I don’t think I will ever want to live back in the UK, there is just a far better standard of living in HK and I have so many lovely friends here.

What are your favourite things to do in Hong Kong?

Amanda:

I love the restaurants in HK, there are so many amazing places to eat out and the quality of the food is very high. The nightlife is fantastic; there are so many nice bars and clubs all with different themes and signature cocktails. I love the markets in HK, there is so much diversity and a myriad of different markets to go to, selling everything from antiques to fresh fish.

James:

One of my favourite things to do in Hong Kong is to go on a hike with a group of friends, take in some great scenery, finish the hike at one of Hong Kong’s many beaches, and enjoy some good food and a couple of beers overlooking the beach.

How’s the nightlife in Hong Kong? How is it different from the UK?

James:

There are a few places in Hong Kong that are great for a night out, and they really have different character to suit different people. Most notable are Lan Kwai Fong and Wan Chai. LKF generally draws a younger crowd made up largely of students and tourists. There’s a definite majority of westerners here. Wan Chai on the other hand draws a mixed crowd, again mostly westerners, but with a wider age range, and slightly different clientele (Author’s Note: Lockhart Road on Wan Chai is a red light district).

The other two notable areas for a night out are Soho and Tsim Sha Tsui (TST). Like LKF and Wan Chai, Soho draws in mostly a western crowd - except Soho is a little more sophisticated. You’re less likely to find people throwing up in a corner, and more likely to find groups of friends having a good chat and some drunken banter. Soho is also a staple choice for dinner and drinks. The last place on my list would be TST, the only one of the four located on Kowloon side, just across the harbour. The clientele in this area are predominantly locals, which makes a refreshing change. TST is also a bit edgier in some ways and has a different character that isn’t for everyone.

Amanda:

The nightlife is HK is amazing; so often while I was living in London I would witness fights breaking out in the middle of the club or in the street. Seeing broken glass and blood stains on the pavement the next morning was a regular occurrence, whereas in HK that is all very rare.

How are people in Hong Kong?

Amanda:

The people in HK are hardworking, possibly even too hardworking; they are very career orientated and have pride in their work.

What’s your social circle like?

James:

Making friends in Hong Kong is surprisingly easy – a little bit of effort goes a long way, and I’m always surprised how open and welcoming the majority of people are.

Amanda:

I have two main groups of friends in HK; friends I’ve made through my work, who are mainly from HK or China; and my expat friends, who I’ve met through friends of friends and on nights out.

What’s the expat community like?

James:

Most of the expats that I have met in Hong Kong have a ‘work hard – play hard’ attitude. Although after a couple of years here, the ‘play hard’ part of that ethos seems to fade a little, and activities like hiking, water sports, and more outdoor activities tend to get a little more priority. Having said that, there are the guys who have been here for twenty or so years and they’re still playing hard… usually in Wan Chai.

Amanda:

The expat community in HK is amazing; we are all on the same boat which means making friends is easy. It’s a very small country so everyone seems to know at least one of your friends. Big get-togethers are always a lot of fun.

Where do you go for food? Do you eat in or out more?

Amanda:

I tend to eat out or order takeaways more often than cooking. I will eat out at a restaurant maybe 2 or 3 times a week and I mainly go to Vietnamese, Thai, Indian or western places, but I love all food really.

James:

I eat most of my meals out. Eating out in Hong Kong doesn’t have to be expensive, so long as you’re ok with Asian food. The cost of going to a local restaurant compared with a western restaurant can be HK$30 and HK$300 respectively. But of course there’s some variation in that. I tend to eat in local Chinese restaurants during the week.

(Author’s Note: The hygiene and sanitation of some local places are not up to European standards and many newcomers have a difficult time adjusting to the food and water in Hong Kong.)

How is the education system in Hong Kong?

Amanda:

There are a lot of really good schools in HK and the quality of teaching is very high, but so is the price of the tuition fees. The students are under much more pressure and have to learn in a strict school environment from the age of 2. Children don’t have as much time for free play as they do in the schools in the UK. But having said that, there are always other options like Montessori or Steiner schools.

I have been a teacher in an English international school for the last 2 years and in a specialist Japanese style education centre the year before that and I have come across some seriously intelligent children. The Asian children I teach seem to have a higher IQ than the western children but that might just be because I teach more Asian children. I have 2 year olds in my class that can read, spell, and speak 3 languages. They totally blow me away.

(Author’s Note: According to the HSBC Expat Explorer Survey, 91% of expats in Hong Kong indicated that the safety of their children had improved since relocating. Expat parents in Hong Kong report that their children are able to spend more time outdoors (39%) since relocating and nearly half (48%) believe they are able to spend more time with their children since moving.)

The Wall Street Journal’s Guide to Hong Kong Schools and Education

Do you have any advice for those who want to move to Hong Kong?

Amanda:

I would say HK is one of those places that you either love or hate, so I would definitely recommend coming for a visit first before the move. If you have lived in London before and loved it, and if you don’t mind crowds of people; and most importantly, if you are willing to try new things and different foods, then Hong Kong is a good place to be.

(Author’s Note: An English lady once told me that Hong Kong is very much a man’s world, and from a woman’s perspective there are definitely experiential disparities depending on one’s gender, much more so than in Europe. There is also an underlying issue vis-à-vis racism in the city, where discrimination is almost institutionalized, especially against people who are not of Chinese/East Asian or Caucasian descent.)

James:

Do it! And aim to stick it out for at least a year. If you don’t like Hong Kong after a year, you can return home with some good experience on your CV, and hopefully some good memories.

The Author

Julienne Raboca, who currently works in the media and publishing industry, has been living in Hong Kong for 3 years now. Originally from Manila, “Yeni” as friends call her, relocated on her own at the age of 22, and has since discovered a love for Hong Kong’s great outdoors (contrary to popular belief, Hong Kong is not all concrete jungle, but ¾ green!). You can find her at http://hkfiles.wordpress.com

BBC’s Hong Kong profile

Living in Hong Kong from the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office



[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Hotung

[2] (the other SAR being Macau, returned to the mainland in 1999 from the Portuguese)

[3] http://www.expatexplorer.hsbc.com/files/pdfs/overall-reports/2012/report...

[4] http://www.immd.gov.hk/en/services/hk-visas/working-holiday/guidance-notes.html#eligibility