Relocating to Hong Kong without corporate assistance? Here’s some helpful advice from an expat who’s been there.
The rumble of thunder punctuated the blasts of lightning outside the window of the 747 as it bobbed and weaved its way over a stormy Hong Kong. The lights of the city seemed to reach for the wing tips. Suddenly, the plane rolled level and slammed on to the runway with a loud crashing noise, as though a china cabinet full of collectibles had been forcefully toppled over.
Fortunately, this was the most dramatic thing about my first experience moving to Hong Kong. On that trip five years ago, a representative of my new employer met me at the airport, placed me in an air-conditioned car, and whisked me away to my new residence.
Some people moving to Hong Kong will have that same experience: a job and accommodation waiting from the moment they step off of the plane. But for many others, the ups and downs of the dramatic flight into Hong Kong will be only the beginning.
My second trip to Hong Kong was more typical of the latter group. I stepped off the plane into a familiar city, but I was alone. I dropped off my luggage with an old friend before taking the bare essentials to one of the tourist hotels in Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon Peninsula. I spent the night recovering from jet lag before heading out into the city to find an apartment. Two nights — and two often frustrating days spent in real estate offices — later I was sleeping in a one-bedroom apartment within five minutes of my office.
That’s not to say that is was easy, though. One warning for fellow apartment hunters: be prepared for sticker shock. Prices for apartments (flats) in Hong Kong are among the highest in the world. A shoebox-sized one bedroom apartment in an average building, in a modest neighborhood can easily cost over US$1000 a month. In a prestigious neighborhood, it can cost many times that. Also, most real estate agents expect first month’s rent in advance plus a deposit equaling two month’s rent. That one-bedroom shoebox may require over US$3000 up front. Realizing this, many employers in Hong Kong will advance part of a salary to cover this initial expense.
Knowing Cantonese is not a prerequisite to surviving in Hong Kong. Many local people speak at least some English and all street signs are in both English and Cantonese. I found my apartment by going into the neighborhood where I wanted to live, finding a real estate office — these are easily spotted: small offices with lots of paper taped to the windows advertising apartments — and then finding an apartment that fit my needs. Patience, however, is a prerequisite: I went through a lot of chaff before I finally got to the wheat.
Some of the trendy (read pricey) neighborhoods among expatriates in Hong Kong are the Mid-Levels, just above Central, and Kowloon Tong on the peninsula. If money is not an object, there is no place more prestigious in Hong Kong than the Peak. Some places there rent for over US$30,000 a month. A couple of years ago, a mansion on the Peak sold for around US$30 million, and the new owners planned to tear it down and rebuild on the land!
Repulse Bay, on the southern side of the Island, can cost nearly as much. For a person willing to sacrifice a short commute for better prices, Sha Tin in the New Territories and South Horizons on the southern end of Hong Kong Island are a bit cheaper than the central areas (and much cheaper than areas like the Peak). For more space — and some peace and quiet — as well as even lower prices, try the Outlying Islands. Lamma and Lantau are particularly popular among expatriates and are worth it if you don’t mind spending a couple of hours a day commuting back and forth by boat. High speed boats make the trip from Discovery Bay on Lantau in about twenty minutes, but prices have risen considerably in recent years.
If you are single, sharing a flat is one way to avoid the enormous up front costs of renting. Advertisements for shares can be found in any of the three daily English-language newspapers.
Keep in mind that Hong Kong is a city like no other, one that can be equal parts overwhelming and magnificent — and one that few go to without feeling enriched in some way. Arriving there is only the beginning of the excitement; Hong Kong is a journey in itself.