Living and working in Hong Kong

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As Asia's premier international financial centre, Hong Kong offers excellent career opportunities. Many people also find it an exciting place to live, with a vibrant social life, good sports and leisure facilities and shops stacked with consumer goods.

Tropical waters dotted with craggy islands provide an attractive backdrop to the spectacular skyscrapers of Central, the busy financial district on Hong Kong Island. For anyone wanting some peace, quiet hillsides and woods lie just a few minutes away.

Though lacking New York or London's theatres and galleries, Hong Kong buzzes with modernity as the capital of international Chinese popular culture.

This is also a dining city. Choices of Asian cuisine are practically endless. For the less adventurous there are hundreds of excellent European alternatives. A raucous pub and clubbing scene makes this a truly 24-hour society.

Financial centre

Despite strong competition from Singapore, Hong Kong is the regional headquarters of most investment banks. Commercial banking and capital markets activity is dominated by the HSBC group, but other big international players run large operations.

A buoyant IPO market among firms in China has underpinned investment banking profitability. Lower deal activity has led to a trimming of headcounts recently, but not drastically.

Hong Kong remains the non-Japan Asia hub for most equity capital markets operations' after a consolidation of regional sales and research teams. It has however recently lost fund management market share to Singapore.

The main banking district, Central, is extremely compact. It is centred on the Exchange Square complex and the recently completed Cheung Kong Centre a five-minute walk away. Fifteen minutes walk from Central ñ or one stop on the MTR underground ñ is the Admiralty district, where Pacific Place also houses large banks.

Cramped apartment living, for even the well-heeled, makes dining out almost a nightly affair for many. Business is more personal in Asia and that means frequent cocktail parties and networking.

The city is defined by its fast pace of life, energy, and the constant ring of mobile phones.

Multicultural

Since the handover from Britain to China in 1997, changes to Hong Kong's way of life have been gradual and do not affect the average foreign resident.

English is widely spoken, though certainly not universally. At the minimum, a smattering of Cantonese is handy for taxi rides. Many companies offer courses for employees and putting in some effort makes a big difference to forming local friendships.

Plenty of expatriates live in the city for years with almost no knowledge of local culture, politics or social developments, and with contact with the local way of life limited to the occasional Dim Sum lunch.

Hong Kong teems with overseas-educated local people and foreign-born Chinese drawn by job opportunities. The same goes for Europeans, Americans, Koreans, Japanese, Thais, Filipinos and others, making it a distinctly multicultural city.

Work

Everyone works hard. Westerners sometimes feel that an emphasis on rote-learning in the local education system can lead to a lack of initiative among employees. On the other hand, perhaps nowhere else can decisions, once taken, be acted upon with such efficiency

Hong Kong is fundamentally a business and trading city. It brokers goods and financial products and is a gateway between China and the rest of the world.

Many foreign managers routinely do the three-and-a-half flight to Singapore. Making up for the frequent travel is the usually excellent service of carriers such as Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines.

Craig Stephens, a Scottish analyst at JS Cresvale Securities, says the regional focus of Hong Kong is the crucial factor keeping work stimulating. &quotOn its own, Hong Kong is too small a market to remain interested in. The ability to travel and cover companies across the region keeps me sane,&quot he says.

Salaries are on average higher than in most Western cities. This, combined with a flat 15% tax rate, makes it highly attractive.

Work visas are simple to arrange for anyone hired by a firm willing to provide sponsorship. Plenty of others arrive with just a suitcase and a CV, although visa processing takes a minimum of six weeks.

Housing and transport

The further you go up the hill that towers above Central on Hong Kong Island, the better and more expensive the flats. Rents are expensive. The average middle-ranking expat will spend US$6,000-15,000 a month for an international quality property.

Happy Valley, another Hong Kong Island expat area, is removed from the main traffic arteries and has a good range of shops and restaurants. It's also close to the territory's main race course.

For families, the south side of the island offers a quiet, suburban (still mainly high rise) environment with comparatively little traffic and pollution.

For most expats, high-rise life means the journey from flat to office is short.

Taxis and buses are cheap and plentiful. The Mass Transit Railway (MTR) underground is clean and efficient, though extremely crowded. It links the Central area to much of Hong Kong Island and to Kowloon on the mainland.

The roads are congested and private car ownership is constrained by the cost of parking. Many people do without one.

Hong Kong has a good range of schools catering for expats. The English Schools Foundation, a quasi-governmental body, offers a UK-based curriculum.

Social life

A typical night out begins in the densely-packed bar and up-scale restaurant area of Lan Kwai Fong, a stone's throw from the Central district. The streets are packed with local professionals as much as the international crowd.

In recent years much of the formerly scruffy area behind Central has been gentrified with scores of new restaurants, bars and clubs. Hong Kong has the highest concentration of restaurants per person in the world.

Service is not always the best and dinner for two at a middle-to-high end establishment costs US$100-150.

At the other end of the scale excellent noodle restaurants offer simple dining for as low as US$5. Seafood dining on the outlying islands is a popular weekend pastime.

Wan Chai, made famous by the book World of Suzie Wong, retains its sleazy tone.

Sport and Outdoors

Hong Kong's best kept secret is its enormous country parks and fabulous coastline. Much of Hong Kong Island remains undeveloped, despite the intense urban development on its coast.

Sailing is a big pastime with the Hong Kong Yacht Club having several facilities around the territory. Windsurfing is also popular. Team sports such as football and rugby are an integral part of expatriate life.

Cricket lives on, with a sizable south Asian population generally whipping the Brits in time-honoured fashion. Golf is expensive, especially membership.

In summer trips on junks are popular. Many companies own their own for hospitality purposes. The craft is a variant of the old Chinese junk with a large covered picnicking area and lounging space up top and at the front.

A typical day involves eating too much seafood and wine followed by swimming. Hong Kong's waters can at times be shockingly dirty and some refuse to go in the water.

Yet this writer has always swum and never become sick.

Many people take frequent breaks abroad to get away from Hong Kong's frenzied pace of life. Tropical resorts in Thailand the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia are great favourites.

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