Hong Kong has long been a plum post for expatriates looking to round their international experience.
It's a crowded, bustling city — with 7.3 million people crammed into 1,104 sq km, it is smaller than Los Angeles. Yet, it packs a cultural punch. Gleaming modern skyscrapers with luxury office suites, high-end European fashion boutiques and Michelin-star restaurants tower above shops selling traditional Chinese goods.
On those narrow streets below, pungent aromas drift through the outdoor markets, where both locals and visitors mingle about to pick up that day’s fresh ocean catch, deeply discounted T-shirts, shorts and shoes, and other trinkets for friends back home.
Expat packages are drying up and persistent air pollution, much of it coming from factories in mainland China, is prompting departures
Despite a thriving culture and its reputation as an internation centre of banking and financial services, it’s getting harder for expats to land a lucrative posting. In Hong Kong, “expat” packages are drying up and persistent air pollution, much of it coming from factories in mainland China, is prompting departures. A recent report showed that the number of foreign residents from Australia, Britain and the US, as well as Japan and Singapore, has declined.
The city has had a long relationship with Britain - it began its storied history as a British colony in 1841 and was returned to China in 1997. Officially known as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the city operates under a separate political and legal structure from the mainland, commonly referred to as “one country, two systems.”
And, as one of the world’s safest cities, executives – especially those with families – from all over the world are drawn here for career progression and lifestyle.
“It is very, very safe here,” says Marcy LaRont, a long-time expat and president of the American Women’s Association of Hong Kong, “and with the way the world is today, that is not something to be taken lightly.”
If you're one of the fortunate few that has secured a dream job, here's what you need to know.
Landing a job
One of the world’s leading financial hubs, Hong Kong is home to regional offices of such large international companies as JP Morgan Chase, Disney, IBM and Estée Lauder. But the global finance sector is now facing many challenges, and opportunities in Hong Kong aren’t what they once were.
“If you’re looking at financial services, I think the days of expat packages — covering housing, schooling, annual flights home — are largely a thing of the past,” says Matthew Bennett, managing director for Greater China at recruitment firm Robert Walters.
But there is demand for expats from professional service firms, such as law and consulting, as well as senior positions in the commerce and industry sectors, including C-suite roles, managing directors, and directors of finance and human resources.
The Hong Kong government is investing heavily in financial technology, or fintech, and businesses are looking to attract foreign expertise in telecommunications and information technology, Bennett says.
“There is a real lack of such individuals in the Hong Kong market, and Western financial-services cities tend to have a greater amount of such candidates,” he says.
Hong Kong has its own currency — the Hong Kong dollar — and the exchange rate has enjoyed a stable peg at HK$7.8 to one US$1 for more than 30 years, which also means interest rates are influenced by those set by the US Federal Reserve.
Hong Kong is a shoppers’ paradise and doesn’t impose a sales tax. Most restaurants add a 10% service charge and hotel porters should receive the equivalent of about US$1 per suitcase. Tipping isn’t expected for taxi drivers, however, there is an added charge of HK$5 (about 60 US cents) per suitcase on top of the meter fare.
The whole idea of having a helper in your house is foreign to an Australian - Danielle Buckley
While the average monthly salaries are about HK$15,000 (US$1,935), foreigners can expect to earn more since they ostensibly are in positions that can’t be filled by the local labour force.
Many middle-class Hong Kong families hire full-time domestic helpers, something that for most expats is an unaffordable luxury back home. Live-in helpers earn a government-mandated monthly wage of HK$4,310 (US$556).
“The whole idea of having a helper in your house is foreign to an Australian,” says Danielle Buckley, a psychologist who lectures at a local university and who has lived in Hong Kong since January with her husband and two young children.
It has been “a huge cultural change,” but one that allows her much more family time.
Where to live
Hong Kong consists of three distinct areas: Hong Kong Island, which includes the central business district; the Kowloon peninsula across Victoria Harbour; and the New Territories, which includes more than 200 islands.
Most expats — especially those working in professional services — live on Hong Kong Island, where many of the multinational companies are based, but foreigners are spread out all over the city. Expat families prefer Happy Valley, Jardine’s Lookout and Stanley, whereas singles often opt to live in Sheung Wan, Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town.
But it's not cheap. Hong Kong topped Mercer’s Cost of Living Survey for expatriates this year. But, many professionals with incomes far less than what top executives earn can still live comfortably in this densely populated city, although notoriously high rents often means living in smaller apartments than what they might be used to back home.
Lesson 101: If you’re going to be here less than five years, you really ought not to be investing in the real-estate market
Hong Kong real estate is among the world’s priciest. The average monthly rent for a three-bedroom apartment in the city is about HK$37,000 (US$4,750), according to website Numbeo, while rents in the upscale Mid-Levels area that is popular with affluent expats are usually much higher.
Prefer to buy? Beware, the market is notoriously volatile.
“Lesson 101: If you’re going to be here less than five years, you really ought not to be investing in the real-estate market,” says Jeff Blount, a long-time American expat and property owner in Hong Kong. He says if you buy at the wrong time and need to sell quickly, you could take a hit of 15% to 20% or more.
Competition for admission of expat children into international schools is fierce. Ruth Benny, founder of Top Schools, a consultancy that helps parents find schools for their children, recommends that expat families apply as soon as they know they are relocating to Hong Kong — or even before the job deal is signed. “The earlier, the better,” she says.
And you may not get your first choice. “We recommend that people apply to four or five schools,” she says, but that can become expensive. Application fees range from HK$1,000 to HK$3,000 (US$130 to $385), but can run as high as HK$8,000 ($1,030), and are non-refundable.
Annual tuition ranges from HK$100,000 to HK$250,000 ($12,900 to $32,225) for upper secondary school, plus other fees
Getting a visa
Working in Hong Kong requires a visa, which is normally granted to expats with specialised skills and higher education degrees. Companies generally will assist relocating employees with the streamlined process.
All Hong Kong residents aged 11 and over, including expats, are also required to obtain a smart ID card, which has distinct advantages: At airport immigration, residents breeze through at kiosk stations that scan the card and the person’s thumbprint.
Expat life in Hong Kong often means being very socially active, and many foreigners expand their circles with memberships to both professional and recreational clubs.
Clubs are an important part of life here - James Thompson
“Clubs are an important part of life here,” notes James Thompson, chairman of Crown Worldwide, a global relocation agency. Private sports clubs include golf, cricket, yachting and the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which was founded in 1884. The city also has many chambers of commerce and professional organisations, which are great for networking.
As well, Hong Kong is a major regional art hub, and its status is expanding — most notably with a new world-class art museum, called M+, that is scheduled to open in 2019. And each March, Art Basel Hong Kong, Asia’s largest art fair, draws galleries and visitors from around the world.
Hiking along Hong Kong’s many mountain trails is a popular weekend activity, as are “junk” trips — boat excursions that sail through Victoria Harbour, around the outlying islands and into the South China Sea.
English is widely spoken in the business world and service industries that engage with large numbers of foreign customers. Cantonese is spoken by most of the city’s residents, although there has been a notable increase in Mandarin, also known as Putonghua, the language of mainland China, since the handover.
“There have been huge cultural differences for me as an Australian,” says Buckley. But the differences are something she has embraced. “As a psychologist and a mum, it’s also our responsibility to be curious. We are foreigners here.”
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