Hong Kong

Is Hong Kong a world city?

To some people, this question is obvious. Hong Kong is one of the world’s greatest cities, almost on par with New York and London, basically “Asia’s World City,” according to them. But they are wrong. While this may have been true a long time ago, maybe even up to 15 years ago, despite what some people profess, Hong Kong is not and is actually moving further and further away from being a world city every single day. There are experts who have made this claim and they look at macro-political, economic and governance factors, but I think just looking at society tells its story.

Now Hong Kong is a top financial hub. It is also unique as a city-state that has its own flag, currency, administration, police, educational system, and legal system. But it is not a city that can call London and New York its peers.
First, a great city is strong in more than one area. If you look at New York, it is the US center of gravity for arts, media, advertising, business, finance, tourism and so on. London can claim a similar status for business, arts, media, education, and political power. In Hong Kong- finance, yes, but nothing else. Going through key areas, the situation is bleak. In sports, there is the Hong Kong rugby sevens annual tournament which is certainly well-known, but no other major events. Its entertainment industry used to be well-known regionally, back in the 80s and 90s, but its singers and movie stars are no longer famous outside of Hong Kong. It may be a financial hub and boast some incredibly rich tycoons, such as Li Ka-shing, one of Asia’s richest men, yet none of its companies dominate banking or finance. HSBC is not a Hong Kong company despite its name, while AIA may be one of the world’s biggest insurance companies, but it is headed by a Westerner and was spun off from AIG. Customer service is alright at best, often dismal and sometimes downright rude. You can easily find better service in Taipei, Tokyo, and Seoul. And Hong Kong doesn’t produce or develop much of anything, so there isn’t anything here that you can’t buy elsewhere.
Also, a great city should be the most important city in its own country, for example, London in the UK, Paris in France, Toronto in Canada etc. Hong Kong, however, isn’t even the most important city in China, or even the second.

Second, a great city should be multicultural. One might say Hong Kong has loads of expats, as well as Westerners and Indians who’ve lived in Hong Kong for generations, as well as a multitude of Southeast Asian helpers. But Hong Kong is still overwhelmingly ethnic Chinese (almost 95%) and its government and institutions are all run by ethnic Chinese with a thin layer of Westerners holding senior positions. Meanwhile, all those Southeast Asian helpers are temporary workers who fulfill an important role but who are not exactly part of regular society (they are not eligible to apply for permanent residency and are bound to live in their employers’ homes). Longtime Westerners may be doing alright as do some Indian business families, but a lot of South Asians who grew up here still struggle to get proper education, jobs and representation. Unlike Singapore, no non-white minority holds or has held a top governing or administrative post and there are hardly any minority faces in entertainment. On the contrary, it is common to see white expats hold positions of power in administration as well as business and education. Not that they are all unqualified, but this is both a reflection of colonial heritage and a lack of local leadership talent. Of course, by this same rationale of multiculturalism, regional metropolises like Tokyo, Seoul, and even Shanghai fall short and for the same reason, they are not really great world cities.

Third, some folks try to label Hong Kong as the perfect example of East meets West. However, the result is not so much a dynamic, unique blend, but a watered down mixture. That doesn’t mean there aren’t talented and quality people, because there are, but it’s that the society and culture does not create anything spectacular. The reason is probably due to a mix of factors like cramped buildings and streets, sky-high living expenses, animosity towards China’s growing control, and so on. There is a lot of negativity in Hong Kong between people, and I don’t mean my little rant here. The strong notorious anti-mainland Chinese sentiment still exists but I’m not just talking about that. A lot of Hong Kongers are trying to emigrate, even young people, which says something about how they perceive their future here. And to be honest, a lot of people, especially locals, some expats, and even the SE Asian helpers, don’t like it here and don’t like each other.

By being unable to be great at anything except as a business/finance hub and by failing to become truly liveable and truly integrate non-Chinese minorities, Hong Kong is not able to break out from its box. In a sense, it is already special, but more as a fading star still living on past glories.

This issue has perplexed a lot of people, including those who are more intelligent and informed than me. But in short, a city cannot be great if its only purpose is as a finance hub and that is pretty much all Hong Kong has got going for it.

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Hong Kong

Hong Kong not always so modern

Hong Kong might look really sleek and modern, especially with all those tall skyscrapers in the Central business district, and fun, but underneath the facade, it is not easy. It’s a fast-paced, business-oriented city and it’s crowded with people and packed with buildings. Yes, Asia has a ton of people, but Hong Kong is much more cramped than Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul and a lot of other cities in the region.

But there are less obvious reasons why Hong Kong can be tough, and that is because in some ways it is backwards in terms of daily living.

But wait, surely that can’t be because as an international financial center and wealthy city state, Hong Kong is part of the first world right? Not exactly, judging by housing. A huge number of people, especially in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, live in tiny spaces. Some of the poorest people even live in “cages,” which is atrocious. In addition, there are subdivided homes where an apartment is divided into compartments, each one for a tenant, which in some cases are families or couples. It’s not only limited to poor or working-class areas. There are apartments in middle-class areas where bedrooms are so small only a bed can fit into them or say, toilets are located right next to kitchens. I know from first-hand experience when I was apartment-hunting last year. And these are the poor ethnic Chinese Hong Kongers. If one looks at minorities like South Asians, there are problems with unemployment, poverty and street gangs.

Moving on, banking also comes to mind, which is surprising because Hong Kong is a financial center. Regular banking service is relatively efficient, but the problem is with certain tasks. For example, to change my address a while ago, I had to download a form from the website and mail it in. I waited a long time and eventually I found out they mailed a letter to my old address (by my relatives) saying the address change form had a problem and I had to come in to a bank branch to do it. Imagine if I hadn’t had been able to go back to my old address. To do a lot of things actually, you have to do that. Another example is that transferring money from the ATM to an account in another bank is not possible. That means you either have to withdraw cash and personally go to the ATM of another bank, or you can fill out a check but still go to another bank. In Taiwan, I could transfer money at the ATM from my account to dozens of other banks just like that.
But it’s a good thing I’m not an entrepreneur trying to start up a business because even opening a corporate banking account is almost an impossibility for some. It’s such a big problem that my workplace even had to organize an entire seminar strictly on the problem of opening bank accounts.

Another example is supermarkets, specifically checkout counters. Hong Kong is the only place in the world where supermarkets have small horizontal counters (think of a bank counter and imagine placing your basket of groceries on it). I mean, convenience stores have small counters because people usually buy one or a few items. However, when you’re in a supermarket and you’ve got a basketfull of items, your basket occupies the whole counter and the cashier is grabbing items from it, scanning them and then putting them back. I may be the only person in Hong Kong who thinks this is weird, but I’ve been to supermarkets from Trinidad to Sri Lanka to China and they all have proper counters, as in vertical and with conveyor belts and space at the back that let you pack things after they’ve been scanned by the cashier. Yes, space is limited, even in supermarkets, but it’s no reason somebody can’t modify checkout designs so that it is somewhat in the 21st century.

While these are issues at the ground level, Hong Kong also has major issues at higher levels that prevent it from being “Asia’s World City,” according to its self-proclaimed slogan. That will be another post for another day.

Books · Hong Kong

The Expatriates- book review

The title alone should provide a strong clue that The Expatriates may be set in Hong Kong but isn’t exactly about Hong Kong. But in keeping with Hong Kong, the expats in question aren’t your regular entrepreneur, copy editor or English teacher as in many other Asian countries but the ones on fancy expat packages, living a charmed life in mansions with Filipino maids/nannies/cooks, and high-end dining and yacht/junk jaunts. On the one hand, it is about privileged Western (mostly white), American expats living it up in Hong Kong, but on the other, it is a story with more substance than you’d expect.

When it begins, we are introduced to the three protagonists, two of whom mask a tragic secret which surprisingly is soon revealed. Consequently, the plot drags a little in the middle, but it does pick up towards the end and builds towards what could have been a predictable ending, but instead turns into a surprising finale.

The three main characters are American women at different stages of their lives whose fate is tied together by very unfortunate circumstances. One is a young, Korean-American, Columbia grad, another is a mom of young kids, and the third is a childless wife whose marriage seems to lack more than just children. At times, the details of the pampered lives of these well-to-do expats seem obscene, being something that is miles away from our lives, not to mention the poor and working class in Hong Kong. But rather than glorify the lives of those expats, it actually almost makes us feel a little sorry, but just a little. There is a very self-aware tone throughout the narrative about feeling as if one is putting your real life on hold and not being in reality, which is true when one has a 24-hour maid who caters for your every whim. But of course, this also reflects a major disparity between the lives of the characters in this book and  the more common expat life, which is that of putting up with greater challenges and hardships than you would face at home.

The funny thing about Hong Kong is that, as tiny as it is, it can sometimes seem like it comprises two very distinct worlds. This book is only about one of them, and even then, only a small segment of this world, specifically the highest-paid expats, the ones who could live in houses and actually not even have to pay for them. Add in the fact that pretty much most of the main characters are American expats, with nary an Englishman or Australian in sight, and one could wonder how much of this actually bears any relevance to most people living in Hong Kong. But yet, somehow the story is interesting enough, the details dramatic and the plot intriguing for the most part. It is a credit to the author, a Korean-American who was born and grew up in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong · Taiwan

Taiwan number one for expats?

A couple of weeks ago, a major expat website released a survey of the best countries for expats to live in. You know which country topped it? Taiwan. On the InterNations Expat Insider Survey, Taiwan placed first due to quality of life and personal finances (affordability), both areas of life that it is very strong in.
In contrast, Hong Kong and mainland China dropped down the rankings, with HK falling 18 places to 44th. That certainly looks dire, but it is not that surprising given all the issues that HK has been coping with.

So did I make the wrong choice to move to Hong Kong to work? Well, no.
Because while it’s great to see Taiwan holding down the top spot on that survey, that doesn’t mean Taiwan is ideal to live and work in. To live in, yes, but to work in, not quite. Of course, one can’t discount the possibility that most of the respondents to this survey may be well-to-do professionals who get nice expat packages such as housing subsidies and so on. In that case, Taiwan would be great to work in. However, as an expat in a more regular job with slightly higher-than-average salaries and the same benefit packages as locals, working in Taiwan isn’t that good.

First though, why is living in Taiwan so good? The reasons are many – an affordable and accessible health system that covers everything from doctors to dentists to surgery, public safety, low cost of living especially in transportation, food and the aforementioned health system, and very polite and helpful people. Expats, even those who can’t speak Mandarin, can live relatively comfortable lives, save money, and enjoy good food and so on. The local health insurance system is extremely affordable (monthly premiums being roughly US$40) and provides coverage for both private (not all) and public hospitals and clinics and even Chinese medicine clinics. There is no need for foreigners to get expensive private medical insurance because as long as they are working in Taiwan, they are covered by the health insurance.
All of this is why I’ve said several times to people who asked, Taiwan is a comfortable and convenient place to live, especially compared to China and even Hong Kong.

However, when it comes to work, there are several factors that mitigate how great Taiwan is. Salaries are extremely low, the job market is limited, and so are opportunities to rise in companies. In addition, Taiwan is not a very international place, though Taipei is quite decent, and there is a very local mindset and not much knowledge or awareness of the wider world that constrains how Taiwanese companies operate.

Salaries haven’t budged much from many years ago, and fresh university graduates can earn starting salaries even less than those from 17 years ago. Things are somewhat better for expats, who by law have to receive at least about NT$48,000, which is still only roughly US$1,600 (and my first job’s wages didn’t even reach that). Fortunately, aspects of daily life like eating out and transit and apartment rents, even in Taipei, can be ridiculously cheap, especially again, compared to Hong Kong.

However, if low salaries can be bearable, there are not that many different type of jobs available for foreigners with English teaching, technical writing, and marketing making up the vast majority. Meanwhile, in the workplace, it is difficult for foreigners to get promoted, because of language and local working culture. There is no corporate ladder for expats to climb in local companies. Many Taiwan companies that operate in overseas markets are focused on China to a very heavy extent. Even at larger companies that are very active in many international markets, like a networking company I worked in, there were roughly 10 expats and only two, including my boss, were managers, and even then it was only one level above.

Taiwan could do much better when it comes to being more internationalized and attracting more expats.
Improving relevant work and immigration policies for foreign professionals would be a good start.
Unfortunately, Taiwan seems to continue to want to do things on the cheap. One proposed measure to attract more expat white-collar workers is to lower the requirements, including scrapping the NT$48,000 minimum salary. Now while this might sound like it will be easier for companies to hire foreigners, the question is why would expats be lured by even lower salaries than those being offered now? Perhaps those from less developed countries like the Philippines or India might be ok with low salaries, and this would indeed be beneficial to Taiwan. Though I’m not sure that engineers or IT specialists, for example, from those countries would indeed be satisfied and willing to relocate to Taiwan for salaries less than US$1,600. Even a government minister said earlier this year salaries were too low to attract expats, though the unspoken question is what is the point of lowering the salary requirement in the first place.

Companies also need to consider other markets beyond the local one and China, and with the government’s new “going south” policy which supports firms in expanding into Southeast Asia and India, there may be a greater need for expats and hence, more jobs.

It is good that Taiwan got some recognition for being a great place for expats but it’s still got some ways to go.Still, getting more expats to come to Taiwan would be beneficial. Taiwan itself is not a very diverse society, and neither is the expat community, which is mostly Western and male. In this sense, Beijing and Shanghai have much bigger and broader expat communities. So yes, Taiwan is very convenient and rather pleasant for expats, but it isn’t the land of honey that being termed the best place in the world for expats might cause one to think it is.

China · Sports

Random links – China, Taiwan, renting, dinosaurs

Home ownership has been something that has perplexed me for a while. Since I was in university, I’ve looked at the astronomic prices of homes (then in Toronto and now in Taipei and Hong Kong) and wondered why more people didn’t rent. I know the supposed benefits of owning your own place- the secure feeling of owning your own home which then forms a big part of your assets, as an investment, and as something you can pass on to your children. Yet costwise it seems sometimes it doesn’t make sense. No matter how good a location or the potential surge in values, there’s no reason why you should buy a home that would cost you several decades to pay off. In America, more people also seem to be embracing renting, a sentiment which I strongly agree with. I’m not saying I wouldn’t want to own a home, but at a reasonable cost. Besides, change is a bigger aspect of our lives than our parents or grandparents, with moves and job changes and long-term travel more common now.

This recent development in China was a slight surprise to me, but the reason for it isn’t surprising. Expats are being forced to turn away from Beijing and Shanghai to lesser metropolises like Chengdu and Hangzhou, due to more Chinese returning from overseas. More and more Chinese going abroad to study  and picking up Western skills, knowledge and savvy, and many will of course want to return home. As such, it’s not going to be so easy for expats to make it in China, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a role for them. They, and myself as well, will just have to try harder and be open to new opportunities in other cities.

In golf, there’s more good news on Chinese prodigy Guan Tianlang, as he made the cut to move into the final round. Guan made history by being the youngest person to play in a golf major, and he made further history by being the youngest to make the cut. His age- 14. Guan is from Guangzhou and has already played and won tournaments with adult competitors. Good luck to another Chinese succeeding in sport (though golf is not actually a real sport).

Here’re a few more interesting links on China and Taiwan from earlier this week and which I posted on my China blog Random China.

Chinese tourists are swarming the world and for some, it’s a big concern. The article is subtitled “The good, the bad and the backlash”, which gives a good idea of what it’s about. Not surprisingly it mentions Hong Kong, where some of the worst anti-mainland bias can be found, especially against mainland tourists. 83 million Chinese traveled overseas in 2012, becoming the top spending tourists in the world and overtaking Americans and Germans. This is good because it means more Chinese have the means to travel and are able to spend well. This is a positive development and I just hope the numbers will continue to increase. Of course, there are adverse effects from the big numbers and cultural differences and unfortunately, bad behavior from a significant minority. The article does a good job to examine this last issue with several Chinese quoted saying that many Chinese do not condone rude behavior and are indeed aware and ashamed when fellow countrymen act badly abroad.

Dinosaurs were found in Yunnan province recently. Actually, these were fossilized dinosaur embryos that were estimated to be 190 million years old! The fossils might even contain tissue remains which could be extracted for research. That’s pretty amazing to think that organic matter could have survived so long.

I was initially surprised when I first saw the headline of this article, but after some thought, not so much. Basically, Taiwanese don’t read much, much less so than people in countries like France, Russia, Japan, and mainland China. This worries the government so much that the ministry of culture has come up with a plan to help local publishers. The Atlantic Monthly article describes the decline in reading and, and mentions this is contrasted by Taiwan’s many bookstores, highlighted by the very well-known Eslite, an elegant local version of Borders (US) or Chapters (Canada). The main conclusions are that Taiwanese mainly buy Western bestsellers or self-help books, reading isn’t very popular, and that the local literary scene is not in good shape.
I do have local friends and acquaintances who read, and Western books are indeed popular. I can’t confirm the article’s assertion that nobody reads (the title is definitely a very hyperbolic one). Many people do read newspapers, magazines, and manga (Japanese comics). However, I’d say I don’t find it surprising that locals don’t read much books on average, since I feel that many young people, or even middle-aged people, don’t seem curious about or want to know more about the world. Since most available books are written by non-Taiwanese and about the world, I’d think this doesn’t help to make books very appealing. Couple that with the fact that the local media is not very professional and focuses more on gossip and scandal than hard news, making for a less informed population, and that there’re many forms of entertainment and leisure to distract Taiwanese, and it’s not hard to see that reading, especially serious literature and nonfiction, may be seriously declining. As the writer says, many people in libraries here are either studying or browsing magazines or newspapers, or making out (I can’t say I’ve seen this), while Eslite is popular but it’s mostly a hangout spot (to be honest, I do see many people reading whenever I’m there).