Living and Working in Hong Kong
The city and harbour from Victoria Peak
The purpose of this page is to give you a brief overview of what to expect when you arrive in Hong Kong. It does not seek to substitute for the various guidebooks, ‘what’s on’ magazines and histories of the city. We hope, however, that the advice below will be particularly useful for someone planning to stay here for an extended period.
The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China lies on the Pearl River Delta in Southern China. Hong Kong Island is just one of 236 islands. Many of them are uninhabited, while others are an interesting mixture of fishing villages and commuter hamlets. Lantau Island, home of Hong Kong International Airport, is actually larger than Hong Kong Island.
Across the harbour from Hong Kong is the roughly triangular Kowloon peninsula. This densely populated area comes to a halt under the Kowloon (nine dragons) Hills. Beyond the hills lie the New Territories, which were annexed by the British in 1898 (on a 99-year lease) in order to secure a reliable water supply. Once dominated by rice cultivation, the New Territories contain new towns such as Sha Tin, as well some historic villages. The New Territories come to an end at the border with ‘the mainland’. Walk through immigration and you find yourself in frenetic Shenzhen, reputedly one of the fastest growing cities in the world. You are now in the Chinese province of Guangdong (once known as Canton).
Hong Kong is generally hilly. If you find yourself on flat land it is probably land reclaimed from the sea. The airport, for example, is built entirely on reclamation. Hong Kong features some of the densest urban areas in the world while 60% of the territory is designated country park. The parks’ wetlands and mountains feature a wide variety of flora and fauna. The ability to get out of the city and into near-wilderness in the space of a morning is one of the most striking features of Hong Kong.
Farmer in the New Territories
Some recent history
The British colony of Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China on 1 July 1997. Shortly after the Handover, the Asian economic crisis swept through Hong Kong and caused a collapse in property and stock prices. The first years of the SAR were marked by recession and a feeling that Hong Kong would soon be over-shadowed by Shanghai and Singapore. When SARS struck in 2003, some feared that this would be the final nail in the coffin.
On the contrary, this marked a turning point. As the threat of SARS receded, Beijing started to give conspicuous backing to Hong Kong in its efforts to reassure the world that it was once again open for business. A new civic sense became evident in everything from rigidly enforced public hygiene laws to large but peaceful demonstrations for political reform. Inward investment began to perk up and the stock market started to recover. New regulations making it easier for mainland Chinese citizens to visit Hong Kong have had a substantial effect on the tourism and retail sectors. The Closer Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) gives Hong Kong privileged access to China markets, making it an attractive place for overseas businesses looking for a regional base. The paranoia about Shanghai and Singapore has greatly diminished.
Some background on the local education system
The education system in Hong Kong is closely based on that of England and Wales. There are six years of primary education followed by three years of junior secondary and then senior secondary for two years. Finally there are two years of preparation for A Level exams. There are 8 HE institutions and a number of other colleges offering associate degrees.
Only a small number of schools in Hong Kong are directly government-run. The vast majority receive a government grant but are run by sponsoring bodies. These bodies are mostly church groups (and mostly Christian), but also include industrial and commercial associations. A number of these schools are part of the Direct Subsidy Scheme, giving them greater freedom to manage their finances. Many DSS schools are considered highly prestigious by Hong Kong families.
There are a large number of primary and secondary international schools, such as the Canadian, the German Swiss and the Hong Kong International School (the latter is the most expensive). These receive no government grant.
The ESF schools occupy a unique niche in HK. Given their size and geographical spread they are highly visible. But many people are often unsure which schools are ESF schools and which are international schools. Some ESF schools may be renowned in their neighbourhoods but may not be perceived as being part of ESF.
Education is big news in Hong Kong and regularly makes the front page. This is partly because of the importance of education in Hong Kong society and partly because Hong Kong doesn’t have as many of the hospital scandals and transport crises that fill up the front pages in other parts of the world. Recurrent education stories are: standards of English (see below); the assessment of teachers in local schools; the fear that schools are over-reliant on rote learning and that this may threaten Hong Kong’s future as a knowledge economy.
Hong Kong’s public transport is cheap, clean, safe and reliable – among the best in the world. Your first introduction to it will probably be the futuristic Airport Express, which whisks you straight from the Arrivals hall to Kowloon and Central. The public transport system includes buses, mini-buses, trams, the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) system, the cross-harbour Star Ferry and ferries to the outlying islands.
Most public transport requires exact change, so an Octopus card makes life much easier. This stored-value card is available at the customer service centres of MTR stations for a $50 deposit. You can top up your Octopus at the ‘Add Value’ machines in MTR stations or in convenience stores. The card can also be used for an increasing number of small value purchases.
Taxis are cheap and plentiful in Hong Kong. Most taxi drivers have adequate English and they know the vast majority of destinations. If they are stumped by an obscure address they might ask you to speak to their controller over the radio, but that doesn’t happen very often. When in doubt, or if it looks like rain, flag down a taxi!
A tram in Wanchai
To drive in Hong Kong you need to obtain a Hong Kong driving licence. It is illegal to drive with a foreign licence, even temporarily, if you have a work contract. If you intend to drive, please remember to bring your current driving licence with you. This will enable you to obtain a Hong Kong driving licence without having to take a further driving test. Please also ensure you obtain a copy of your no-claims bonus certificate from your insurer.
There are some very good second-hand car bargains in Hong Kong. Apartments do not always come with a parking space and this can prove expensive, especially on HK island.
Hong Kong is sub-tropical. It is usually still hot and humid at the start of the school year, but starts to get more pleasant from Mid-October. You can look forward to low humidity and temperatures of around 20C from then until March, when it starts to warm up again. There are usually a couple of ‘cold snaps’ between December and February, when temperatures might fall as low as 10C for a few days!
Eighty per cent of Hong Kong's rain falls between May and September, but there are still plenty of nice days. Breezes on the coast and on high ground also help. In this period we can expect the occasional typhoon or rainstorm.
Typhoon Signal No.1 – A typhoon is located within 800km of Hong Kong. This announcement is put up in the lobbies of apartment buildings and shopping malls and is displayed on TV. Most T1s pass by Hong Kong without incident.
Typhoon Signal No.3 – Also known as the strong wind signal. People are asked to remove flower pots, etc. from balconies and to keep an eye out for weather bulletins. There is usually plenty of prior warning if a higher signal is going to be raised. Kindergartens and special needs schools close.
Typhoon Signal No.8 – Gale force winds. All schools close, as do most offices, the stock exchange, etc. A lot of surface transport can be disrupted.
Very rarely, T9 or even T10 signals are raised.
Amber, red and black rainstorms also occur during this period. Schools close during red and black rainstorms.
There are complicated rules about when schools and businesses should close and re-open, depending on when these warnings are raised and lowered. Please consult with colleagues.
For more information: www.weather.gov.hk/contente.htm
There is frequent criticism from the business sector and elsewhere that the system of weather warnings is over-cautious. Certainly, a T8 can often appear to be little more than a very miserable day. But most would agree that it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Lightweight natural fibres are the sensible choice for most of the year. A light sweater or jacket can be useful even in the middle of summer, as the air-conditioning on buses and ferries and in cinemas can be ferocious. Jumpers and fleeces make an appearance during the ‘cold snaps’.
Crime and safety
Hong Kong is a very safe place at any hour of the day. You are highly unlikely to be affected by crime. The usual precautions against pick-pockets in busy places should be observed, however, especially in areas that are popular with tourists. There have been a number of cases of shopkeepers defrauding customers – especially in camera and jewellery shops in Kowloon – by switching the purchase with a lower specification product at the last moment. Be suspicious of bargains. You should always close your windows when you go out, even if you live on a high floor.
Standard of English
This is a hot topic in Hong Kong. Whether standards are really declining or whether expectations are increasing is a never-ending debate. The fact is that English is a working language in Hong Kong – not the case in Beijing, Paris or Tokyo, for instance. So you won’t be seen as a presumptuous foreigner when you address a sales assistant or receptionist in English. English is all around – on road signs, in advertising, etc. Many Hong Kong Chinese will text or email each other in English because inputting Chinese characters is laborious.
The typically pragmatic Hong Kong result is that most people’s English is – at least – adequate for what they do. Often you’ll be very pleasantly surprised by someone’s standard of English; occasionally the person trying to help you will be out of their depth. On the whole, non-Cantonese speakers have little to complain about.
There are a wide variety of organisations offering beginner Cantonese courses, and private tutors advertise in places like HK Magazine. The problem is practising the language outside the classroom. Attempting to use your few words of Cantonese will usually be both indulged and appreciated, but your interlocutor will probably switch to English to save time and get to the point!
Information on flat-hunting, lease negotiation and some popular residential areas will be given during your induction.
Accommodation in Hong Kong can be expensive, although there are always cheaper options. Flats are usually leased on a two-year agreement with a deposit equivalent to two months’ rent. Leases can usually be given up after one year if two months’ notice is given. Rent is paid monthly in advance and, if an estate agent is used to find a flat, 50% of one month’s rent is payable in commission. A small furnished or partially furnished flat with a floor area of 450-800 sq. ft. (1-2 bedrooms) in a high-rise building in one of the urban areas would probably cost between HK$8,000 and HK$15,000 per month. 1,000 sq.ft. flats (2-3 bedrooms) are readily available from between $HK$15,000 and HK$25,000 per month, depending on location. Monthly rentals in the rural areas and outlying islands are often considerably cheaper. Most of the islands have fast, frequent ferry connections to Hong Kong island.
Village houses on Lantau Island
The cost of living
Like many parts of the world, Hong Kong is suffering from inflation. Rent and transport have increased over the past twelve months; food costs have also risen, due in part to fluctuating currency exchange rates. While the unprepared visitor can find it expensive, there is plenty about Hong Kong which is good value. Transport remains inexpensive and although Hong Kong Island apartments are pricy for their size, they are reasonable in terms of their proximity to the centre of town or one’s workplace. Groceries are cheap in the ‘wet markets’, acceptable in the big two supermarket chains, and expensive in the up-market western delicatessens. ‘High street’ clothing stores are very reasonable.
The cost of an evening out compares well with most big cities. Western restaurants can be expensive but Hong Kong abounds with plenty of cheaper alternatives, from open-air Thai eateries in Lan Kwai Fong to the seafood restaurants on Lamma island. Shopping
The vast majority of shops are open every day. Generally, shops are open from 10:00am-8:00pm. But there are exceptions. Stores in busy retail areas like Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui stay open later, perhaps until 9:30pm. Those in Central, meanwhile, have usually closed their doors by 7:00pm. Supermarkets stay open till 9pm or as late as 11pm, depending on the area. Many convenience stores are open 24 hours.
IKEA (www.ikea.com.hk) has four stores in Hong Kong. Queens Road East in Wanchai is full of small furniture businesses that often compare well in terms of price and quality, and usually offer more custom options than IKEA. The ex-Portuguese enclave of Macau (now a Special Administrative Region like Hong Kong) is less than an hour away by ferry and features many specialists in reproduction Chinese furniture at affordable prices. Finally, due to the high turnover in ex-pats, you will often see classified ads for apartment clear-outs, where you can pick up a second-hand TV or dehumidifier for not much more than the price of taking it away.
If you want to practise your Cantonese, the best place to go is a ‘wet’ market – a street market or covered municipal market selling fruit and veg, fish and meat. Some of the sights and smells are not for the faint-hearted, but these are the places to go for seasonal produce. Park’n’Shop and Wellcome are the two supermarket chains that dominate the high street – both also offer online shopping and home delivery. They sell a mix of imported and local foodstuffs which is heavily influenced by the neighbourhood: if there are a lot of ex-pats in the area, there’ll be a wider range of imported goods. Expensive, but hard to resist, are the upmarket international food halls: Great (Pacific Place), Oliver’s (Prince’s Building in Central) and CitySuper (Times Square and 2 IFC) are the places to go if you’re pining for something special from home.
Books, music, films, etc.
HMV (http://www.hmv.com.hk/) has four branches in Hong Kong and there is a local music chain plus some specialist outlets. CD prices are reasonable. DVD prices are generally cheaper than the UK and the range of titles is impressively wide.
Book shops tend to be modestly-sized and prices reflect shipping costs. Dymocks (http://www.dymocks.com.hk/) and Page One (http://www.pageonegroup.com/1/hongkong.html) are the two biggest chains. The Page One store in the Festival Walk shopping mall (Kowloon Tong MTR) is worth a browse. www.paddyfield.com.hk is a locally-run online bookstore.
The Leisure and Cultural Services Department run a large number of libraries across Hong Kong - most have a good selection of English language titles. Completed in 2001, the Hong Kong Central Library has comprehensive English language lending and reference sections.
Hong Kong is well supplied with cinemas but films can be a bit slow in coming here. Blockbusters predominate and turnover is fast – you can’t afford to hesitate if you want to see a movie on the big screen. The Broadway Cinematheque in Kowloon offers an alternative, as do film festivals organised by various consulates and cultural organisations. The Hong Kong Film Archive (Sai Wan Ho MTR station) also offers retrospectives. DVDs of the latest films and TV series can be rented from the Movieland chain.
Major banks are open from 9am to 4:30pm Monday to Friday, and 9am to 12:30pm on Saturday. They close on Sundays and public holidays. Some banks and branches are open slightly longer hours. Some banking services are not available an hour before closing.
Banks and finance houses
For a city with such a reputation for hard work, Hong Kong has a surprising number of public holidays. These include Buddhist and Christian festivals as well as secular holidays, such as those marking the handover (1 July) and the founding of the People’s Republic of China (1 October).
Media and internet
There are two local English-language daily newspapers - the South China Morning Post and The Standard - and many Chinese-language dailies. The international press is available in most bookshops and centrally-located news stands. There are two free-to-air English-language TV channels. Various satellite and cable TV packages are also available. There are 13 radio channels, offering everything from Cantonese pop music to English news programmes.
Broadband internet is reasonably priced and available virtually everywhere in Hong Kong. 10Mb connections are the current standard. Free wireless connections are widely available. Besides being able to surf the web at coffee shops and shopping malls, the government provides free Wi-Fi service in 2000 hotspots including 350 municipal buildings, sports and recreational centres, and three public parks.
The local arts scene is quite lively: the Academy for Performing Arts and the HK Cultural Centre host home-grown and major international performances; there is a cluster of small art galleries around Hollywood Road with frequently changing exhibitions; local bands, poets and DJs perform in venues such as the Fringe Club. The highlights of the year are the HK Arts Festival and the Fringe Festival. The HK International Literary Festival will usually feature at least a couple of household names. Major rock acts sometimes drop into HK on their way to the more lucrative Japanese market. Cultural organisations like the British Council and the Alliance Francaise often organise events – Le French May is now an established part of the cultural calendar.
The most popular spectator sport in Hong Kong is horse racing. Meetings are usually held at Sha Tin on Sunday afternoons and Happy Valley on Wednesday evenings. Everyone should go at least once, if only for the atmosphere. The major world-class sporting event is the annual Rugby Sevens, held at the end of March in the splendid Hong Kong stadium. European football teams often come over for exhibition matches in the summer and there are a number of smaller-scale events such as the Cricket Sixes and Soccer Sevens.
Hiking must be the most widely-enjoyed participation sport in Hong Kong, given the ready access to countryside that most people enjoy. There are any number of fun runs and sponsored walks, culminating in the annual 100km Trailwalker challenge in the New Territories.
There are a wide range of other sports where you can meet like-minded individuals: there are the usual club sports, plus kayaking, mountain-biking, rock climbing, scuba diving….even dragon-boat racing!
The Rugby Sevens
Some useful websites
For a comprehensive overview of Hong Kong:
HK Magazine is a free English language listings magazine available in shops and bars. You can view it here:
The online edition of the South China Morning Post:
A useful site for people moving to Hong Kong:
The website of the Hong Kong Tourism Board:
Local English language radio:
Sunrise at Silvermine Bay
Some background reading
- Hong Kong – Jan Morris: A little out of date, but still a classic history
- Fragrant Harbour – John Lanchester: A novel spanning 70 years in Hong Kong
- The Honourable Schoolboy – John Le Carre: A spy adventure set in 1970’s Hong Kong
- East and West – Chris Patten: The last Governor’s reflections on Hong Kong