Encapsulating a multi-dimensional place like Hong Kong is not an easy task, even for expert expat Juliet Fairclough.
It is technically a specially administered region (SAR) of China, but the amount of Mainland Chinese influence changes daily - particularly recently.
Those who have lived here through different life stages often feel like they have lived in several different cities, with both the back-drop and the residents changing at an unstoppable pace.
Boring it is not!
Life...and lots of it!
The time difference is the first thing that will hit you when you arrive on our ‘fragrant’ shores. For those newly arrived, whether on business or pleasure, the young or the young at heart, this often means hitting the mean streets of Lan Kwai Fong until early hours (it’s still lunchtime in London). Hong Kong really is the city that never sleeps, with nightspots having no legally enforced closing time. During typhoons, many office workers (or anyone without children) excitedly crowd in to these areas for the famous T8 lock-ins. Watch out for your teenagers (don’t worry - it’s incredibly safe)!
For those with young children, wild nights out play less of a role, but readily available (and usually live-in) help means that the good times do certainly continue rolling, earning Hong Kong the other nickname of the ‘city where you never grow old/up’. Lunches for the expat wives during the week are famous, and family brunches in restaurants such as Zuma and all the five star hotels are legendary.
Children, when asked what they like so much about Hong Kong, vote resoundingly for the sea, the weather and the outdoor things one can do on the water. And it is true. So much of Hong Kong’s magic comes from the fact that it is an island surrounded by water.
Firstly its name, Hong Kong, literally means "fragrant harbour" in Chinese, and while we all scorn the word fragrant now (as you would probably get cholera if you tried to swim in it), it is still a breath-taking harbour, both day and night. One favourite journey is the slow trip across on the Star Ferry for around 20p and nothing is quite so much fun as showing visitors the lights at night from the harbour.
But there are also beautiful (swimmable) beaches where you can usually still swim even in mid-winter. Junk trips with speed boats and wakeboards will be out all year round, without the bother of a wet suit. These unique-to-Hong Kong junks (flat bottom boats) are wonderfully social. They used to be a great treat that came with many people’s jobs, and although that is no longer the case as the days of the real expatriate package die out, they are still readily available to hire, and days on them are always magical for all ages. You can search for junk companies on the internet then head to Po Toi or Lamma for seafood, or venture out further to the famous Millionaires Beach.
However the best kept secret of Hong Kong must be the hiking. Whether tackling The Dragon’s Back on a Sunday and ending up in Big Wave Bay for noodles, burning calories up the famous ‘Twins’, entering the 50K Green Power race or facing the mighty 100K Maclehose challenge, there are hiking and trail running opportunities for everyone. Oh, and did we mention the views…
But back to the beginning. Moving anywhere new is intimidating, strange but wonderfully exciting. The experience will make you appreciate things you have back home but also lead to fantastic new adventures that you will all talk about for years to come. Hong Kong has to be one of the most vibrant places on earth. It is a city with energy, grit, glamour and a huge personality.
School First, House Second: Where to Live
Unlike those singletons arriving in their early 20s, expats with families rarely live right in the city. Most of the family friendly accommodation is out of town, yet the city is often only ten to fifteen minutes away… ensuring that it really is always accessible.
Whilst some intrepid souls love living in ‘the dark side’ of Kowloon, there are three key areas that expatriates tend to gravitate towards: the south side of the island including Stanley and Pokfulam; the Peak; and over to the New Territories, Sai Kung and Clear Water Bay.
All of them have their pluses. Most people go for Southside (Hong Kong Island) as it is fun to be near the heart of the action, as well as being an easy-ish commute for those with offices in Central. Whilst the Stanley road is breath-taking, it can also be slow, although the new MTR going from Ocean Park to Admiralty has significantly helped the commute in the last year.
Beaches are aplenty on the south side and Stanley has a great atmosphere and community spirit - even the residents adore the famous market. Weekend traffic and huge rents, not so much. Americans and the French love Stanley and Tai Tam due to their proximity to HKIS (American) and FIS (French) schools. And where the French go, delicious bistros and chic clothes shops follow...
Pokfulam is the perfect option for those wanting a shorter commute (8 minutes in a cab to IFC), yet also the benefits of exceptional hiking and sea-views. Some apartment blocks lead right out onto the country park, with a trail up to the peak and the rest of the ‘Hong Kong trail’. Dog owner and child heaven. Hong Kong University is the main landlord here (big, fun, ‘colonial’ blocks), with easy proximity for those wanting to study Chinese (or other courses). This is also where the British International School (Kellett), ISF (a super-duper Chinese/bilingual school) and two excellent ESF options are located.
Others adore the fresh air and friendly atmosphere (not to mention lower rents) of Sai Kung and Clear Water Bay. Those with children at Kellett Kowloon Bay, the Australian School and HKA amongst others have a good school run from here. Central can be reached in about 45 minutes to an hour (although locals claim it’s much faster – on a clear run, at the dead of night perhaps!). Many people love it for the extra space, and lots of the houses have stunning views over the sea. Sai Kung country park is also an absolute gem, both on land and foot. Some lucky souls manage to acquire weekend houses in the park.
The Peak is very expensive and subject to the cloud, mist and fog that can descend in the humid summer months. The desirability of the Peak has somewhat waned since the introduction of air-conditioning (it used to be the only ‘cool’ place to live) but still retains its status as the place to live amongst the very wealthy local and mainland population.
Whilst it has its fans and is fairly close to Central, we would hesitate to recommend it as a terribly friendly place for expat families. However, there are certainly some wonderfully luxurious houses, as well as the much loved Peak (ESF Primary) school and the highly academic German Swiss School. The ghastly ‘Galleria’ shopping centre is being jazzed up at the moment, so hopefully that will become more appealing or at least, useful.
When you are deciding where you are going to live, schools are a major part of that consideration. Whilst many schools have bus services, they do not go to all areas, are often expensive and can result in a long commute for very young (and tired) children. Community spirit and friendships are often school based. We cannot emphasize this enough. ESF schools are zoned, so for those, location is vital.
Yet, within the past five years the landscape has changed, with new schools opening all over Hong Kong, upping the desirability of a lot of new areas of the new Territories and Kowloon: Kellett School in Kowloon Bay, Harrow on the Gold Coast and Malvern College near Sha Tin. Lamma Island is great for those on a budget (with ferries to Aberdeen for schools) and Lantau – close to the airport - is wonderful for both weekend houses or full timers. Discovery Bay has lots of fans, thanks to a fast ferry to IFC and great schooling options, but it’s a bit too resort-like for some (including HK Disneyland).
Finding a home in HK can be dispiriting, with most having very limited space compared to back home, and dreadful bathrooms. Try to remain positive. Once you have rented your house or flat, there are many fantastic furniture shops such as Bowerbird and Indigo, not to mention our favourite outlets ‘over the border’ ensuring that in no time, your house will be a home. We find that if you rent a house with lots of other (particularly expat) renters in the building/compound (rather than mainly owner-occupied) and keep an eye out for children’s toys, bikes and scooters, you can find a great block that will provide a fantastically social community for both children and parents alike. Come at different times of the day, so that you can see the neighbours in situ. If you go to a reputable estate agent (one of the good international ones...eg Habitat, Connect Hong Kong, Colliers etc), they should help you find such communities near your school.
Another thing about HK you may find daunting, besides the astronomically expensive housing, is the pollution. Hong Kong is paying the price for all the development that is taking place on both sides of the border and is frequently covered in a depressing layer of haze. Hong Kong (and China) is finally waking up to the consequences of this, and starting to make some sensible policy changes.
Electric cars are more popular here than in most other cities (Teslas are the ultimate status symbol) and chargers are available in most shopping centre carparks. However there is still a long way to go to catch up with London and other cities, especially where it comes to recycling and reducing plastic use. If you are interested in environmental action, there are lots of great lobby groups and initiatives set up by other expat mums.
Clubs and Sports
It is a little known fact that Hong Kong is mostly made up of country parks, which offer spectacular hiking and trail-running opportunities. Whilst lots of people have no gardens or if they do they are London postage stamps, it is possible join clubs with swimming pools, tennis courts, bowling alleys etc, and all these clubs organize sport activities for the children after school. You do not necessarily have to be a member to do the activities at the club, such as cricket at the Cricket Club and football/rugby at the Football Club. Combined with the weather, which is unquestionably a vast improvement on the UK, you will find that you do spend a lot of your time outside.
Clubs to consider if you can are the Football Club, the Cricket Club, the Yacht Club, The Jockey Club, the American Club and the Country Club to name just a few. Many of them offer sporting memberships, so if you are a fantastic footballer, cricketer, tennis player or rugby player, this can be a great way to meet people. Other clubs like the Aberdeen Marina Club will need a corporate debenture or squillions of dollars to join, but the AMC has mind-blowing facilities if you can beg, borrow or steal a membership.
Your sporty children can join Sandy Bay (Pokfulam) and Valley Fort rugby clubs (various Southside locations), culminating in playing during the famous Rugby Sevens (a massive sporting and social event here).
Hong Kong can offer a wonderfully privileged lifestyle and when you add in the luxury of full time domestic help (and most people do), it can offer a great social life and for many, the chance to work again if they so choose. Dependent visas give you the chance to work without any red tape, although finding employment can be increasingly tricky without Mandarin or Cantonese skills. Those who want to set up their own businesses can open a sole proprietorship business or limited company very easily, too.
Getting utilities sorted once you move is reasonably straightforward and any house agency will point you in the right direction for phones, internet, television, electricity and gas. The key internet, phone and satellite TV channel provider is PCCW and its offshoots, Now TV and Now Broadband, (unfortunately of poor quality). However, many expats despair at the quality of the Now offerings (and the difficulties removing themselves from the contract afterwards) so go straight for a UK TV/Expat TV type of box, which covers every type of TV channel on air. The expat grapevine will tell you how to set this up.
For that and all other questions, the Facebook group ‘British mums in Hong Kong’ will tell you all you need to know. For non-Brits, it’s ‘Hong Kong Moms’ (the more American version).
Hong Kong ID card
The other key thing you have to do when you get here is to get your HK Identity card which involves a boring couple of hours at immigration but is really not too painful and makes the immigration queue at the airport a lot shorter.
Setting up a bank account is not too difficult although, like anywhere, proof of credit rating can take time. The old Hong Kong Shanghai Bank (now HSBC) is of course the main bank here along with Standard Chartered. Online and phone banking are of course available, and cash machines are plentiful.
In many ways, a relocation to Hong Kong can be a fairly uncomplicated one. It was, after all, until 1997 a British colony and some things are still very, very British. Despite the fact that English speakers are a small minority, there are two key daily newspapers and all the street signs are in English and Chinese. Although a lot of people speak very little English, if you are patient and willing to use sign language, it is pretty easy to get around.
We find that if the locals can’t speak English, they will most certainly be from Mainland China, and will welcome your (or your children’s) attempts at Mandarin. For those wanting to learn Mandarin or Cantonese at a serious level, HKU offers a two year full time course, which is the minimum you will need in order to communicate effectively, and longer for business level. However, any attempts are welcome by locals, especially if you enjoy shopping in China.
Shopping: Groceries and Everything Else
In the supermarkets, there are lots of things from the UK including Marmite (for 10 GBP a pop!). The key supermarkets are Welcome and Park N’ Shop. These vary massively according to location. The Scenic Villa Welcome sells five types of quinoa and practically has its own fan club, whilst ones in less expat areas sell mainly chicken feet and durian (the smell is not for the faint hearted – Indonesian passengers recently balked at boarding a plane with a large load of it; the flight was subsequently grounded!). The smarter supermarkets include Great, Oliver’s, and City Super. You may find you will have to visit several to get what you want.
Marks and Spencer (food and clothes) is also here along with H&M, Zara, Gap and most other international brands. The prices are a little higher than at home so many try to shop online: John Lewis, White Company, Boden, House of Fraser, Selfridges and many other offer free/cheap delivery to Hong Kong and may refund VAT. Hooray! Another exciting addition is U Select which sells Tesco products.
Stanley Market is beloved by all and is the place to go to for party bags, cashmere, knock-off handbags, ski kit, hand painted names in Chinese, linens, everything basically…
Most expats in Hong Kong have private health insurance, although you will have full access to the public system too. The local hospitals are very good but bedside manner is often lacking. The main private hospitals to use are the Adventist on Stubbs Road, which has an excellent A&E and The Matilda on the Peak (a wonderful place to have your baby, you will never want to have them in England again after that!). You may find your choices limited by your insurance so try to get a policy, if you are starting a new one, that does allow you to choose where to go. There are very good family obstetric as well as family practices available, including one at The Matilda. The main Western medical providers are Central Health and OT&P. For insurance, all the key ones are here including AIA, BUPA and Blue Cross.
The other practical thing is to find a domestic helper, as babysitters are few and far between. Most expats take advantage of the availability of full time help. Supermarkets, big apartment blocks, word of mouth, agencies and Facebook groups such as ‘Hong Kong helpers’, are a great place to start.
Beyond Hong Kong
Living in Hong Kong will also provide you with access to China. Trips across the border to Zhuhai and Shenzhen (AKA ‘Shenners’) are great fun and you always come back laden with goodies. Many have their curtains, bed linen etc made there for next to nothing as well as key parts of their wardrobe (buyers beware). Most expats go several times a year. Getting a multiple Chinese visa in advance is a good idea but you can usually get them at the border (check first as it is nationality dependent).
If you are a business traveller you can get an APEC card, which means queue and visa free travel all over Asia, whoopie! There is, of course, far more to China than what is immediately across the border. Beijing and Shanghai are musts but there is lots to explore. Macau is a one hour ferry ride away and is the ‘Las Vegas’ of Asia. The casinos are not to everybody’s taste, but there are also great shows, waterparks and hotel deals for a cheeky family weekend away. There is also the new 55 Km Hong Kong–Macau–Zhuhai bridge and the high speed train, so there’s no excuse not to set your sites further than HK.
Exploring Hong Kong: From chopsticks to driving
Navigating the streets of Hong Kong either in a car or on foot can be a challenge, but try not to be fazed and you will get there. Hong Kong really is quite small and once the winding roads have started to make sense to you, be brave and get yourself behind the wheel of the car. Google maps work brilliantly on Hong Kong island but are a bit wobbly amongst the Kowloon skyscrapers. You will need to get your UK driving licence transferred to an HK (you keep both) if you wish to drive. This is a surprisingly straightforward process.
New cars have quite a hefty tax, whilst second hand ones are good value (locals here tend to replace their cars very frequently, so lots are up for grabs). If you don’t fancy driving yourself, many expats and locals employ a local or Filipino driver.
Public transport is also good: buses and trams are fun but not always very speedy; the Star Ferry magical; and taxis plentiful and cheap - although the driving ability is somewhat mixed/vomit-making. Green minibuses are generally fine, once you have worked out the route, whilst red mini-buses are only for the seriously brave: they have no fixed routes, stopping points, fares or, as far as we can tell, speed limits.
In a nutshell
Hong Kong is a cultural melting pot, rock n roll, roller-coaster of a place. When you leave you will have friends dotted all over the world and a dim-sum shaped space in your heart. Make the most of it and enjoy!