What is it like living in Hong Kong? | An Expat Guide

Hong Kong Skyline

What is it like living in Hong Kong? I get asked this question quite often, especially when I’m back in the UK.

So, I thought it was about time that I put a little more care into my answer rather than just shrugging my shoulders and saying something non committal like, “Uh, ok, fine, I guess…” while wondering how best to describe the madness of being an expat in Hong Kong.

So here it is – the best answer I can come up with to summarise what it’s like living and working in Hong Kong; the paradoxical and bewitching vertical jungle that is The Fragrant Harbour:

What is it like living in Hong Kong - Thoughts on Expat Life

What is it like living in Hong Kong?

The language is hard, the language barrier isn’t.

Public transport is cheap and fast, though the bureaucracy can be slow and frustrating.

The job market is good, thought jobs in Hong Kong for expats tend to fall into one of two categories: teaching English or working in finance.I guarantee the majority of fellow expatriates you meet living and working Hong Kong will be doing one of these two.

View of the Hong Kong skyline from the Peak

The politics are messed up, but, then again, they’re messed up everywhere.

People wear surgical masks when they’re sick, kind of like a zombie film.

The skyscrapers look like something out of the future; the temples make you feel like you’re stepping into the past. The views in Hong Kong are absolutely spectacular.

The cost of living in Hong Kong is fairly low, compared to other global cities.

Isn’t Hong Kong just skyscrapers and neon lights?

Beach and mountain view of the New Territories from the MacLehose Trail

You think of Hong Kong as a city until you venture into the New Territories and realise that you’ve been wrong the whole time, the majority of HK is actually countryside and you should do some of the amazing hikes that Hong Kong has on offer.

You cross your fingers and hope that the breathtaking country parks won’t be bulldozed and turned into MTR shopping malls any time soon.

What’s the food like in Hong Kong?

Chinese food is delicious and constantly surprises you in its diversity, from dim sum to dumplings to hotpot to barbecue. (Oh, and some of the dishes you think of as Chinese are not actually Chinese at all.) However, be warned that going for a meal can be a bit like Russian roulette for your stomach.

Chicken feet - Chinese food in Hong Kong
Chicken feet, a Hong Kong delicacy…

You regularly eat Asian cuisine that you didn’t know existed before, such as Vietnamese pho, Korean bibimbap and Japanese curry, which are all readily available because everyone eats out all the time rather than cooking.

You also try popular food fusions such as Korean-Mexican or Japanese-Italian, and wonder where it all went wrong.

Staying on the topic of food, local people assume that, as a British expatriate, your favourite food must be fish and chips, and you miss it like crazy. Locals will constantly ask you how much you miss it or how much fish and chips you ate the last time you were back.

Chinese New Year fortune wheel at The Peak in Hong Kong
Chinese New Year fortune wheel at The Peak in Hong Kong

In truth, you could give or take fish and chips, but you do miss proper cheese, proper bacon and a proper roast dinner.

You start to refer to yourself as a “westerner”, much to the confusion of everyone you know back home.

The rent in Hong Kong is high, but apartments are small.

Badly translated t-shirt in Hong Kong

There are cockroaches, tree spiders and snakes. There may be a lizard living in your flat, but OK because it will eat your cockroaches.

What’s the climate like in Hong Kong?

Summers are scorching hot, sticky and humid, but you’re cold all the time anyway because the air-con is on full blast everywhere.

The local TV is mostly awful, although sometimes so bad it’s good, and the news can be shamelessly censored.

Chinese Hot Pot Restaurant in Hong Kong

During storm season you pray for a typhoon warning from the Hong Kong Observatory so that you get the day off work.

What’s Hong Kong nightlife like?

Ladies drink for free on Ladies Nights, and you’re not sure how you feel about it. Sometimes you are disgusted by the sexism and effectiveness of a cheap marketing ploy, while at other times you drink for free!

You become an expert at finding the best Hong Kong Happy Hour deals in town for each day of the week.

You will buy drinks at a 24-hour 7-Eleven and drink them on the street making new friends with other foreigners in Hong Kong who are doing exactly the same thing.

7-Eleven Drinks in Lang Kwai Fong in Hong Kong

There is a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark (and I lived in it for the first three weeks that I lived in Hong Kong).

Chicken tastes weird.

Hong Kong living conditions vastly vary. The most expensive real estate in the world is here and the city is home to millionaire tycoons. On the other hand, poor old ladies go through rubbish bins at night to find recyclable material that they can sell just to earn a little bit of money.

Noah's Ark on ma Wan Island in Hong Kong

It’s cheap to travel to the rest of Asia, though a trip to the Chinese embassy to get a visa to Mainland China is a nightmarish experience.

There are day-long junk boat parties every summer; you know, the expat lifestyle in Hong Kong is very hard!

Many households have a “helper” – a maid/nanny/servant who usually comes from the Philippines or Indonesia.

Junk boat parties in Hong Kong

What about cultural differences?

Over time, you develop an “international” English accent, mixing British idioms and turns of phrase with American vocabulary, peppered with slang from just about everywhere else around the world.

You discover that queuing is a Western cultural norm, not a global one.

The smog is gross, but the skyline is magical.

My Tiny North Point Apartment in Hong Kong
My tiny HK apartment that couldn’t even fit a bed…

The education system is crazy competitive and most children have no free time because they study so much and take a load of extra-curricular classes in the evenings and at weekends.

There are infomercials on TV that remind parents that children should have at least one hour of play every day.

Are there any good beaches in Hong Kong?

The surrounding ocean is dirty, but there are still some secret beaches hidden away with white sands and sparkling turquoise waters, if you know where to find them…

View of Long Ke Beach from the MacLehose Trail

You eat more McDonalds than you have ever done before in your life, as the majority of branches are open 24/7 and the food is consistent with what you would have in a McDonalds back home (if you ignore the corn pie and crayfish bisque, that is).

Even though you will try, you will never truly understand the concept of “saving face” in Asian cultures.

Tax is low and paid once a year rather than being taken out of your paycheck every month, but it is near-impossible to work out how it is calculated.

Hands for Eyes Buddha Statue at Ten Thousand Buddha Monastery in Hong Kong
Hands for eyes. HANDS FOR EYES.

Once the tax is collected, the government decides it has too much money and reimburses high-earners the majority of their tax in a “sweetener” deal, rather than spending the money on real issues… Yep, it doesn’t make any sense to me either.

Is Hong Kong safe?

The crime rate in Hong Kong is one of the lowest in the world and you feel safe walking alone at night just about anywhere.

The birth rate is also one of the lowest in the world. There are also infomercials on TV that remind people to have more children.

Tamar Park yoga with the Hong Kong skyline

Being an expat in Hong Kong, you discover that the community of foreigners is small and you will inevitably know everyone through everyone else within a year. You will also, inexplicably, bump into someone who is from your tiny hometown and marvel with them at how big and small the world is.

So, what’s it like living in Hong Kong?

Moving or relocating is always tough and there are times when you miss your family and friends back home, but there are also times when you remember that you’re living in Hong Kong!

What's it like living in Hong Kong

If you’d like to know more about being an expat, making friends in a new city and why I’ve since left Hong Kong after five years of living there, read the posts linked here or for more about HK, visit the Hong Kong category of this site.

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