The Other Hong Kong

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November 30th 2008
Published: February 5th 2009
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"You are a legend! Keep living the dream, kiddo..." - Big Sturms

As soon as I step out of my arrival terminal, I am greeted with all the comforts and familiarities of a proper, if even one of THE most proper, first world enviornments. Three months in Africa have never seemed so far away. Everything in Hong Kong is shiny, everything is new. Everything is the latest technology and everybody wants to serve YOU. A/C in the winter, wasteful decorations and enough twinkling and lighting to give everybody observing an epileptic seizure. Hong Kong in December is even better - it doesn´t matter that nobody actually from Hong Kong cares about Christmas, they will make a spectacle of it anyways.

I have lived in Hong Kong now for three separate periods of my life, although I have no ethnic or family ties to it. The first time, I studied abroad for five months in one of my three English-speaking options of Australia, London, or Hong Kong in 2004. The second time, I came for an investment banking summer internship at a large Swiss bank for three months in 2005. And the third and last time I lived in Hong Kong, I was recruited, naive and fresh off my Wharton degree, to work full-time for said large Swiss bank beginning in 2006. There are many things I could describe about Hong Kong, but describing the physical city I have inhabited intermittently for the last 4 years and continuously for the last 2 is not what I want to do. Instead, I want to describe to you the society in which I have lived for the first developing, independent years of my life. People often ask me "what it´s like to work in Hong Kong." They say they have been there on vacation, they say they have been there on stop-overs. What you have to understand, however, is that there is a very distinctly separate, a very distinctly different Hong Kong behind what you see as a tourist. There is a Hong Kong of dim-sum, Jackie Chan, old men peddling melons on the street, the Peak Tram, whores following you around offering "sucky sucky", women selling knock-off Rolexes and LV bags, old temples and the Big Buddha. But then there is also the ex-pat Hong Kong, a Hong Kong that rarely leaves shiny Central, and basically never leaves moneyed Hong Kong Island. Kowloon?? Forget about it, what´s Kowloon? This is the Hong Kong, perhaps one that you likely didn´t see on that stopover, that I want to discuss here, now.

Hong Kong is one of the most isolating bubbles I have ever experienced. The ex-pat Hong Kong does not mix with the local Hong Kong, and rarely mixes with the tourist Hong Kong either, unless a tourist knows somebody in the ex-pat Hong Kong. The ex-pat Hong Kong is a great city to work in as a young professional. It is a great city if you have money to make and to blow. The entire city revolves around two industries: Finance and Fashion. If you weren´t working as a banker or a client, you were the model trying to bum the champagne off his table at Dragon-I. A small side-industry I suppose would have been the import-export crowd, but in my two years I only had a handful of friends in that. The vast, vast majority of the people I knew were all in finance.

The social dynamics of Hong Kong are quite interesting. Because of the nature of many people´s work, your social network tends to be very transient. People come to Hong Kong to take advantage of the 16% tax rate (obviously not applicable for Americans such as myself), but the city is flooded with Brits and Australians, coming through the city to rake in the big bucks for a couple years in hopes of bringing retirement a few steps closer. Chinese/Cantonese is not even near required to live in Hong Kong. The most important word for the Hong Kong ex-pat to know is the word for "here," which sounds something like "lee-doh," which you use to ask your drivers to stop as you near your destination. And if you are feeling particularly ambitious, you can also utilize "mm-goy," the word for "thank you." That´s about all you need, no kidding. And because of the transient nature of most of the city, people being in-and-out, wham-bam-thank-you-maam, everybody is really friendly, eager to make friends, eager to know you, because in Hong Kong, everybody needs friends. That woman´s boyfriend just moved back to NY, that guy´s best mate finished his two years and is back to Sydney, that girl´s big bro just got transferred to London. You get the picture. (I should stick in somewhere here, that the rate of social incest is also astounding. That stunning guy you snogged at the Mandarin Oriental, well he´s also been in three of your friends´pants, and hey - your boss knows you snogged him the next day!)

Unfortunately you can see how this leads to a large majority of "friendships" made being rather superficial. I mean only so many of your friends in Hong Kong, you have known for over a year, if even. This brings me to another defining characteristic of the Hong Kong social scene - it is extremely difficult to separate your personal and business lives. Because literally, EVERYBODY in Hong Kong works in the same field, EVERYBODY knows EVERYBODY, and EVERYBODY knows EVERYBODY´S business. Everybody I knew was either an investment banker like myself, or was a colleague, a client, a fund-manager, his sales-guy, her best trader. You knew when Tom fucked up a big trade, and you knew when John made a killing on the dip in the market that day. You knew Kevin and George´s wives were pregnant, and you knew Ryan was having an affair, and he was having it with his secretary Jan. I saw my bosses out at the bars smashing cans, I saw my bigger bosses out at the clubs yelling at women. And because everybody is interwoven through work and play, you have to pretty much be friendly with everybody, even maybe be "friends" with everybody.

Hong Kong is a great city to make great money and spend great money. The first part of should not need an explanation. Finance, regardless of location, tends to make extremely good money anyways. But if you land an ex-pat package, you are paid extra for housing allowances, for food allowances, even flights home. For example I was being paid the same amount as my friends working in NYC, only one additional benefit I received was USD 25,000 extra a year just for rent. The funny thing is, in a city like Hong Kong there is no need anymore for housing allowances, which were originally offered as a sort of "hardship" allowance. Somebody in HR told me though, that since other banks on the street still offer this benefit, no other bank can cut it. On top of that, most people don´t need to pay for dinner. Banks give you something near 25 USD (at a 22-yr old analyst level) to
shopping at the Landmarkshopping at the Landmarkshopping at the Landmark

unfortunately, what you spend half your time in HK doing
expense via the company AmEx for dinner every day, that is if you are expensing anything on your own AmEx at all. Because chances are, you are out with clients or other sell-side people who can expense on THEIR AmEx.

Ooohhh... Expensing, the spending of the great money. What an art form this has become in Hong Kong. The basic rule is, as long as you have a client present, (client being anybody that can bring money to your company, which is basically anybody in Hong Kong) you can expense the whole bill. Doesn´t matter if there are 5 Citi traders and 1 hedge-fund guy, they expense the whole bill. It also doesn´t matter if they are all best friends and would be drinking every other night anyways. Imagine that: having The Man fund every debaucherous outing of you and your mates. Dinner of Kobe, Wagyu, and Angus steaks - expensed. Cocktails at the Mandarin Oriental - expensed. Tickets to Sampras vs. Federer at the Macau Venetian - expensed. Bottles at Dragon-I - expensed. You could say this was being abused, but the beauty of Hong Kong is that same wretched quality of nonseparation between business and personal, is also a HUGE financial plus of living in Hong Kong. Being associated with a bank or a fund was also a HUGE plus in getting any tickets of the many events flowing through the city. Every bank had a number of tickets for concerts, sporting events, races, tournaments, to give to clients and to their bankers who would accompany their clients. And these are not, offer to let you buy tickets, but there are offer to GIVE you tickets for free. As a 22-yr old analyst, unfortunately I was obviously not senior enough to have my name on 5 tickets to dispense at my will, but if your bosses liked you, as mine luckily did, he´d hook you up and possibly even your friends as well. Even at 24, before I left the bank I had my first buy-side client offer me tickets to the Singapore F1 night Grand Prix that fall. How proud that made me! Too bad I think I was off in the middle of Mozambique at the time.

I do not have time to fully describe all the perks of being a Hong Kong ex-pat. Housing paid, food paid, drinking paid. I very, very rarely

Ben, Stef, and John
ever paid for a drink myself when I lived in Hong Kong. Business class flights, shiny buildings, never seeing your cell phone bill, secretaries that make all your reservations. I barely walked and never took the subway. Due to the level of expensing and provided comforts, you were left to spend your under-taxed salary and bonuses as you see fit. Boats, wake-boarding, surfing, traveling to any southeast Asian beach on the weekends. Buying your Jimmy Choos, DvF without caring about price tags. Buying air tickets without regard to price, as you always justified it by saying that you free time was limited.

I would have never believed that I could have lived so wastefully as I did in my two years working full-time in that Hong Kong. I had fun, don´t get me wrong, and I do not regret anything. (I have also already reflected on the lifestyle in a previous post.) Most of my friends in Hong Kong were around 30, had been working for a decade and had really fine-tuned good living. With my friends in Hong Kong, I was only living the best. They had already their lists of the best restaurants, the best dive sites, best vacation spots, best airlines, best concerts around the world, best products and best designers, best F1 races to attend - and they were sharing them with me. But I guess at some level I realize that I cannot live like this the rest of my life. At some level I realize that I can´t become accustomed to this lifestyle at age 22. At some level, time and youth is more important, and it would really be a shame to spoil myself so young and have nothing to look forward to.

It is interesting now, though, returning to Hong Kong as the world economy gets blown to bits by bazookas of the credit crunch. I decided to fly through Hong Kong for Thanksgiving, opting to spend it eating sushi with my friend Stephanie (is Singaporean, just got married in Bali in a gorgeous wedding, renovated a beautiful chic apartment in Hong Kong, and is bajillion dollars rich) at Tokio Joes. I meet with friends and old bosses for the remainder of the week and learn slowly about the changes in the economy that are affecting even this seemingly untouchable bubble. Gone are the days of expensing without thinking of the bill. Gone are the days of even business-class flying! At the clubs, people still throw down for bottles, but instead of 5 or 6, they try to keep to a couple. People start cooking at home. People are getting laid off, while some people are TRYING to get laid off. Work has become slow and monotonous. people are depressed about job security, bosses are depressed about having to lay off their teams.

This entry for me is self-reflective and I finally articulate a lot of what I have been feeling for the past years while working abroad. From Africa back to the US for Christmas in a short break in my travels, Hong Kong does seem a bit out of the way. But I wanted to see some of my very good friends, some people who have generously guided me and although it seems from this entry that I am NOT grateful, people who have given me priceless advice to set loftier goals for myself than I think humanly possible to achieve. These are people who have acted like big brothers and sisters to me; people who wired me thousands when I was mugged in Africa, people who always made sure
me and Jennme and Jennme and Jenn

one of my best friends from Summer 2005 during my internship
I had a ticket to Sharapova vs Williams, people who planted my passion for scuba-diving, people who yes, even urged me to take off to travel the world. And now as I travel, I am recieving more and more emails from my friends telling me how lucky I am, that I am young and that I can do these things during these markets.

I get a lot of credit these days about some of the things I am doing and the times I am experiencing, as if I, all by myself, plan all of my travels. But really, I would never have had the inspiration, the ambition, or the guts to do any of this without all the little seeds of adventure and idea that these older and wiser, probably cooler, friends of mine in Hong Kong have planted over the last 3 years. I am doing this trip on a collective blend of many of their ideas, their past memories, and their "I wish I had´s".

For Thanksgiving this year then, I give thanks for these amazing friends of mine, whom I am privileged to know and whose stories I am privileged to hear:

Big Sturms, whose stories of bull-riding puts mine to shame. He sends me surf shots and pictures of natural phenomenons. The original diving fanatic, he has spoiled scuba-diving forever for me. After those prime spots in SEAsia, nothing I have dove since comes close.

Lana, who shakes her head at every ridiculous thing I say. She acts as the only voice of reason in my life and calls me when I am friendless in Rwanda. She has also instilled in me any sense of appreciation for airline miles. She´s going to let me live in her bathtub in NYC if I ever become really poor.

Nick, whose tales of traveling and living around the world have served as the greatest inspiration for what I´m doing now. He tells of surf in Nicaragua, marrying Chinese pop-stars from Beijing, and three magical months in Buzios, Brazil. He has also scared me with stories of his three-time malarial sister.

Steph, used to ride motorcycles when she was younger, enough said? Is runner-up for spoiling scuba-diving for me. I also blame her for my uncontrollable penchant for Diane von Furstenburg. Tried to talk to me about finance and where to take my career, until she realized I was going to peace out anyways. She is bajillion rich and really smart. She could waste you, and I think she seems a bit of a man-eater.

John B, who showed me that choppering into the Monaco Grand Prix is THE only way to do it. An avid McLaren fan, he has taught me how to live the fine life, suppose it is only suitable that he be British. If I ever become really poor and sad, I am coming to him for a job as a live-in nanny.

Ben, I will never forget that he bought me my first bottle for my 21st birthday at Dragon-I. One of my oldest friends in Hong Kong, back when he lived on Lana´s couch. He´s gonna be a daddy soon...

Niccolo, who claims to be related to Diane von Furstenburg. Working as an investment banker in an investment bank would never have been fun without him and the McDonalds Big and Tasty burger. Too bad he left me working the job alone to go from Munich to Hong Kong on a motorbike.

Joey B, wow I don´t even know where to start with him. How many adventures, I could not count. Nearly died of hepatitis in Nicaragua. He also almost became a shrimp farmer, before he decided to sell out to work finance, only to get hit by a car in a horrible accident on his bike.

John S & Sam, two of the best bosses I could have ever hoped for. John can drink more than a freshman frat boy. He gives me a lot of those tickets I mention above. I wish I could babysit his kids. Sam used to surf and used to live in the apartment above Hugh Jackman in London. He has worked in just about every financial capital of the world, and collects antique books and Australian aboriginal art. My life as an investment banker was only tolerable working for them. I would think in normal life we would have been friends, but they are so cool I don´t think they would have ever talked to me if I wasn´t working for them.


8th February 2009

Interesting read...
...although more shocking insights into the banking monster would have been appreciated of course. :P I've been touristing to HK a few times and keep coming back for more. I still rate it as the most likely (and likeable) place should I face my inner demons and uproot myself from the peaceful existance in my Swedish smalltown bubble. I am still very fond of the neighbourhoods around Tin Hau and North Point and only somewhat reluctantly move into the heart of Central, so it was fun to see a report from that other side.
12th August 2009

i love you olle pipoule sseeeee uuuu

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