Without realizing it, I’ve lived in Hong Kong for more than two years.
I’ve had a constant love-hate relationship with Hong Kong even before I arrived from Toronto in 2014.
As a young child, I visited the city where my parents once lived and another time as an adult, and both times I pledged that I won’t live here. But my life is ironic and nothing ever goes as planned.
In 2013, I saw a job opportunity that seemed enticing to me.
I thought, maybe I can give Hong Kong a chance because living and visiting a place are two different things.
To my surprise, my first nine months were amazing. I enjoyed work, I made friends on and off campus and I finally can understand people with no language barrier.
Things were not perfect but it was definitely much better than the previous two years where I faced isolation.
However, not all good things last. After I left my first job, things started to change. The weather heated up, my new job was stressful and I was slowly falling apart. The longer I lived here, the more things I noticed and things I became dissatisfied with.
I’ve analyzed a few aspects of living in Hong Kong and put out the advantages and disadvantages. These are all personal opinions and observations that I made while living in Hong Kong.
Cost of living
Advantages: You pay for what you get.
Disadvantages: Expensive! Expensive! Expensive! Hong Kong is now ranked as the most expensive housing market in the world for the sixth year in a row and it is becoming impossible for young people to buy a home. This has implications on the entire economy and everyone who lives in the city. It means that young people have to stay with their families due to their inability to rent/buy their own. Eating out in restaurants is also unaffordable because the prices are also a reflection of the rent that they need to pay for. It also means cutting back on going out and budgeting well.
Advantages: Cantonese is a difficult language to learn and the one good thing about this city is that there is a lot of English signage. Most restaurants have English menus, especially chain restaurants and ones that are located inside malls. Even if they do not, you can ask if they have a special English menu and sometimes, they actually do. You just have to ask for it and pinpoint what you want. Most people also speak some type and form of English but how fluent they are really depends on their interest in English and their exposure.
Disadvantages: Even though most signage is in English, not all menus are offered in English. For example, the daily special menu is changed frequently so these are not found in English. So you lock out on what you can choose. Also, most labor-intensive workers may not speak a lot of English given their education level. And even though Hong Kong used to be a British colony, the level of English may mostly be from reading textbooks and lecture notes. You may sometimes hear and see some odd phrases everywhere, and badly written e-mails from large corporations. The level of English is said to be going down each year as Hong Kong now belongs to China and the exposure to the language is slowly diminishing.
Advantages: Hong Kong is in a good geographical location. It is easy and cheap to fly to many countries from here. You can easily go to many parts of East Asia and Southeast Asia with various budget airlines to choose from. To top it off, Hong Kong locals love to travel and use their vacations wisely to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city.
Disadvantages: Young people here work a lot until they burn out and then they go away on vacations to compensate. Employers expect you to give your all while you’re young and expect you to work long hours and overtime (with no overtime pay). Psychologically and emotionally, you are tied to work. All you think about is how to earn more and move up because Hong Kong is a busy and competitive society, and if you don’t want to do it, you know someone will quickly replace you. It is a fast-paced society where money and climbing the ladder are top priorities.
Weather and climate
Advantages: If you hate cold and freezing weather, Hong Kong may be your new home. There are only two main seasons in Hong Kong, with three-fourths of the year ranging from warm to extreme hot weather. This year, the warm weather started around March, extreme hot weather from June to September, and warmth again that lasted until mid-November. At the end of November, it is a little chilly, with temperatures around 10-15 Celsius. Since it is a very humid city, meaning it is wet and cold, you may need to bring a spring jacket when walking around the city but it’s rather comfortable.
Disadvantages: This type of weather is certainly not right for everyone. If you have allergies or any type of skin condition, it can get so severe living in Hong Kong. I’ve heard many cases of eczema that started or got worse due to Hong Kong’s pollution and weather. It causes horrible discomfort on the skin in the summer, as you constantly sweat and feel sticky all over. When you are outside, you are burning, and when you go inside, it is freezing with air-conditioning. For me, this type of weather has been a constant battle on my health. Also, due to the humidity and wetness, a dehumidifier is necessary. Otherwise, your things can get moldy and extremely wet.
Advantages: Hong Kong has some of the best universities in the world. Every year, there are a few local universities that are ranked on the world’s top universities list. Also, if you go to a local university, the government funds undergraduate students, paying a huge portion of the tuition.
Disadvantages: I work in the education sector and I look down at the education gap that keeps widening. When asked about the education system here, I say two things that sum up my feelings: 1) Life planning starts at two years old, and 2) Education in Hong Kong is made for the elite and the wealthy.
To me, it is absurd that students have to go through a number of exams and interviews to get into a school, even for kindergarten, due to the competitive nature and a lack of good schools. Schools are divided into three bands. Band 1 is the best, band 2 is medium/average, and band 3 is the weakest students. If you don’t get into a good kindergarten at three years old, then your chances of going into a really good school is really slim as well (preferably band 1 primary school). So in a way, if you don’t plan well from a young age, you are also left with little options later on in life.
For those who can afford to escape the local system, you take the international school route which costs a fortune. Most schools require a large debenture in addition to expensive tuition fees. The debenture helps you get an interview which can lead to possible enrolment and the more you pay, the higher your chances. So if you ask me, it’s not really fair. The ones who go to international school are usually those with a wealthy family background and who plan to leave Hong Kong to go to top schools in the US and the UK. Therefore, it’s all about prestige and where you come from, and your social and economic background that set your future in Hong Kong.
Entertainment and activities
Positive: Hong Kong is a vibrant and dynamic city. There’s something for everyone. For those who love the outdoors, Hong Kong provides beautiful scenery and many hiking trails. If you want a party lifestyle, head down to Lan Kwai Fong where you can find international pubs and restaurants that open until dawn and tons of people on the streets that will socialize with you as well. If you are a foodie and love trying different cuisines, chances are you will find it in the city. From traditional Cantonese dishes to authentic American food, it’s all here.
Disadvantages: Unfortunately, everything comes with a price. The reason things are open late is that workers get off late. Since they need to accommodate people’s late working hours, restaurants and stores need to be open later and people have fewer holidays. On most holidays (except Chinese New Year), everything is open. This is awesome for the majority of people, except the workers themselves.
In regards to food, yes, you can find whatever food your heart desires but it comes with a price as well. If you are homesick and missing some Western food, think twice if you actually want to pay the price for it. It is a luxury to eat American/British/French food because it is imported and it is considered “exotic”. These are also served in some of the most expensive parts of the city which are expat-oriented and targets tourists and foreigners.
Advantages: Hong Kong is small and there are enough people that make Hong Kong continuously have a good reason to expand. Wherever you wish to go, there are multiple options to get there. If the subway is not close to your destination, you can choose the bus, or even the minibus. One of these options always can get exactly where you want to go as they are run by different companies that cover different parts of the city. And if it all does not work out, taxi is so affordable here and you can simply get one by swinging your hand in the air.
Disadvantages: Hong Kong has more than seven million people and even though all three transportation methods are convenient, it is crowded. For example, the minibus can only seat 16 passengers, so the line can be super long at certain hours of the day. The bus is double-decker so it is generally better but that also depends on the time of day. Lastly, the subway. The subway is always full at all hours of the day and even though it is perhaps the fastest and most convenient mode of transportation, the stations require lots of walking (even if its indoors) and at every hour you don’t have any space to yourself.
This post has been also featured on EJ Insight.