A Small Change of Place, a Big Change of Pace
Long story short, I’ve recently moved to Hong Kong from the cosy, comfortable shores of Cape Town. The fact that I am only now, nearly 6 months later, writing this down is due to a number of factors – it’s busy here, sometimes you think you’ve figured it out but then things change, it’s busy here, lack of discipline, too much to do and, you guessed it, it’s busy here. Or it’s very easy to keep busy here, which is a good thing if you are keen to make the most of your experience in the shortest time. But not such a good thing for being mindful of said experiences, taking it all in and meeting all of your obligations. It takes some dedication to keep your diary up to date. From that perspective, it can be overwhelming.
However, there are moments when you just have to stop and appreciate it all, like when you find yourself on the terrace with two-Michelin star dim sum being served or drinking wine older than your mother with the founders of the Hong Kong wine culture. These moments make you realize how darn lucky you are to be here.
Work and Visas
In terms of the actual practical element of the move, I was very lucky. I found a company willing to hire me and sponsor my visa – a combination which is getting more and more difficult to find. Many companies are looking to hire people with working visas already in place. So, unfortunately, I can’t offer much advice on how to do it differently.
Home Sweet Home
House-hunting is a nightmare as space is tight and rent is astronomical. If you’re not particularly inclined to nest right away, Apple Dorm has been a great option for me in that it’s cheap and convenient, especially since I’m barely home in any case. Effectively, you have a tiny room of your own (there are various options in terms of size, but the cheapest option is obviously the smallests) on a floor with about 15 other people sharing bathrooms and very basic kitchen facilities (by basic, I mean a fridge and a microwave). If you prefer to cook at home, you can buy your own rice cooker or the like and keep that in your room. The advantage of Apple Dorm starting out, besides the low rent, is that it’s a month-to-month rental so you’re not tied down into any contracts while you’re finding your feet.
In terms of where to live, it’s cheaper to live off of Hong Kong Island generally or further out from the central financial district if you are on the island. This all depends on your appetite for spending on rent combined with commuting. Public transport is a breeze but can be crowded at rush hours.
Banking was probably my biggest hassle as you need to have quite an extensive list of paperwork with you in order to open the account, and will go through varying degrees of pain and suffering (dependant on bank and branch) to eventually access your funds. Beyond that, banking is not particularly functional and you’ll find much more value in using your Octopus card (I’ll explain shortly) or cash. My top tip would be to ensure you have enough cash on hand for the first 2 – 3 weeks at least. How much cash? Depends entirely on your lifestyle, I’ll get to that as well.
First, Octopus card. Let this be the first thing you buy when you arrive. It’s most handy for almost any task, from paying for public transport (the intended use), to paying for groceries, restaurant bills and most other small-ticket purchases. You will have to “Add Value” in cash, but can do this at most convenience stores and MTR (metro rail) stations. There is a way to link it to your bank account, but I revert back to an immediate state of pain and suffering when considering doing anything that is not absolutely necessary involving a bank here, so I have not tried this. On the back of the Octopus card, transport is generally easy to navigate, quite reliable and wonderfully cheap. Depending on the location of your home and office, you’re most likely to use a combination of walking, the tram, the ferry, the MTR and buses. The tram and the ferry are my favourites as I find them endlessly charming, although not always the fastest or most practical form of transport.
Second, cost of living. It is a tricky one. You can, on average, eat 2 meals in one of the traditional local places for less than you’ll pay for one glass of wine in a bar. It is largely your choice how much or how little you want to spend dependant on whether you want a few Michelin stars, a nice enough restaurant with a drinks list, or if you’re happy on an old stool sipping tea from a plastic cup. The possibilities are endless, and largely all delicious, especially at the local places! Happy Hours, 2-for-1, Half Prices and many other deals abound, so you’re not entirely likely to run into bankruptcy if you’re willing to spend the time doing some research on the best options. And make sure they haven’t closed down before you go.
There’s a fantastic exercise culture of utilizing public space to avoid the cost of a gym membership. If you’re that way inclined, you could easily do a free workout in a park most nights a week and twice on weekends. That is if you’re willing to sacrifice the air-conditioning. I’ve joined up with a group called November Project who workout twice a week – initially for convenience as they meet right across the road from me, but I’ve stuck with it for the fantastic people. I’m also involved with an off-shoot outdoor yoga group started by some of the November Project regulars. Hiking is very popular and it’s easy to find a group to tag along with on Meetup or Facebook.
Meeting New Faces
Making friends is also largely dependent on your lifestyle and how willing you are to put yourself out there. Most people have been or still are in the same boat so, in my experience, they’re generally quite warm and welcoming. It does take effort, as anywhere, to make new friends. The unfortunate part is you’re never sure how long they’ll stay. People flow in and out of Hong Kong, which seems to be the biggest drawback for people who have been living over here for some time, constantly having to say far too many goodbyes.
There are plenty of very active Meetup groups where you can meet people with similar interests as well as loads of expat communities built around home country, language or culture that can easily be found on Facebook. InterNations is also very active and has fairly regular events. Most of the people I have become friends with are either through work (luckily I work in a very socially-oriented industry), through November Project or they are friends of friends – you’d be surprised how many people know somebody in Hong Kong!