Edouard has been living in Hong Kong for almost 10 years and as a French citizen, is an experienced expat. Originally transferring to Hong Kong through a French company, he now runs his own company, HelperPlace, an online platform for employers and domestic helpers. Edouard met his wife here and is raising a child in the cosmopolitan international hub of Asia. Read on for his tips and advice as an expat in Hong Kong.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I was born in Paris (France) but used to live in Strasbourg (east part of France) for most of my childhood.
Q: Where are you living now?
A: I’ve been living in Clear Water Bay, Hong Kong for two years. I moved several times since I first arrived in Hong Kong.
Q: When did you move here?
A: In 2009, eight years ago, so I am a Hong Kong Permanent Resident! After seven years of residence, you are entitled to become Permanent Resident.
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I was single when I moved to Hong Kong, so I came alone. A few months after my arrival, I met my wife who is also an expat for a French company. Now I have a family in Hong Kong with my wife and my son.
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I was working in the financial department of a French retailer. After a few years, I was asked to take over a CFO position in Hong Kong. That is how I decided to move to Hong Kong. I did not know much about this city except for a few business trips but I was very excited to challenge myself with an international experience. I am now starting a new phase of my career and I am the founder of HelperPlace. HelperPlace is a free online platform connecting domestic helpers and employers. Finding the right nanny is very important when you have kids!
Living in Hong Kong
Q: What do you enjoy most about Hong Kong? How would you rate the quality of life compared to France?
A: Hong Kong is kind of magical when it comes to convenience, speed and safety. I am always amazed by how easy and convenient life is, such as paying invoices, opening a bank account, applying for a working visa, signing a rental lease… Not much paperwork and it’s quick.
I also enjoy the safety, you'd be surprised to feel so safe in a city like this. People are disciplined, follow the rules, and criminal activity is very low. People can easily walk in the streets or take any public transportation very late in the evening without feeling worried. That really makes the quality of life much better compared to a big city like Paris.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about France?
A: Hong Kong is an extremely busy city with more than 7 million people living in a such a small area. Streets and any other public areas are usually very crowded and polluted, and it’s not very pleasant on the weekends. Sometimes you can’t see the sky in the city because of the high pollution. Space is very rare and expensive, which makes the cost of living in a decent apartment extremely high. I do miss the space and quiet places of France. Within a few hours of driving or a train ride in France, you can easily escape busy cities and enjoy fantastic landscapes, nature, mountains and breathe fresh air; this is not the case of Hong Kong.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here in Hong Kong? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: The first adjustment is the language. Because I was used to speaking only French in my hometown, it took me a while to learn to easily switch to English when I communicate with local people or the international population. The English I was using for work was definitely very different to the English I have to use in my daily life here.
Another obvious adjustment is the working culture. When I was in France I worked with people who like to express themselves, asking questions, voicing their satisfaction but also frustrations or complaints, and I found a totally different working culture in Hong Kong. Employees are generally disciplined and efficient, but at the same time, they do not dare to express themselves in front of their managers. Efficient staff - but not easy to read!
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to France? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: The cost of living is very much linked to the way you want to live in Hong Kong, for example, either like a Hong Kong local or more like an expatriate. Accommodation cost is for sure a big expense in the household budget unless your employer is paying the rent. As far as food budget is concerned, if I want to eat the same food as I used to buy in France, the same ingredients will cost two to three times more expensive because they are usually imported from overseas (Australia, New Zealand, Europe). But if I decide to eat local meat or local vegetables, it will not be more expensive than in France. Then it is a question of choice to eat local or imported products, normal or organic. Besides housing and food, I would say the other costs are a bit cheaper than in France: utilities (electricity, gas, water), public transport, electronic devices… the biggest difference, of course, is the tax which is much lower in Hong Kong.
Q: How would you rate the public transport? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A: Public transport in Hong Kong is extremely convenient. Although space is not huge, the city still has a very wide and well-organised transportation network. Unless you’re living in more remote areas, the options are MTR, city bus, tramway, minibus, ferries… You can reach almost any place in Hong Kong quickly using this wonderful network and it also has very affordable rates. The public transportation is also very clean and safe.
Besides this network, taking the taxi is something very common and quite affordable in this city. Taxis are numerous, therefore super easy to catch anywhere in the streets. You can find four-seaters and five-seaters, which is definitely notable in terms of price when we are five people…
For the past two years, I’ve had my own private car, since we decided to live out of the city centre. Because we’re living a bit further away from the city and also have children, the car allows us to visit some areas of Hong Kong more conveniently. However, parking is not always easy to find and is expensive.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Hong Kong? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: There are two kinds of healthcare: private or public. I have not tried the public healthcare services, so it’s difficult for me to judge the quality. From what I’ve heard and understood, the public healthcare service is quite good but you need to be ready to wait in a very long line before meeting the doctor.
The private clinics/hospitals are like 5-star hotels with very good service and healthcare, but the doctors are sometimes a bit too cautious. The doctors are usually graduates with international diplomas and speak very good English to communicate with expatriate patients. You can even find French doctors!
I would recommend Happy Valley’s Sanatorium hospital. It’s very easy to access, quick if you head to emergency and has good service overall.
However, going to the private clinics or hospitals means you need to have very good medical insurance to cover the costs which are very pricey.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Hong Kong? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: As explained earlier, Hong Kong is one of the safest cities in the world. So there are basically no safety issues. As for places that expats should avoid, Hong Kong has some areas in New Territories (village house areas) or some places in Kowloon which are more suitable for the local population. Of course, you can still feel very safe in local places, but it is more a question of the language barrier. Since people in those areas are usually dealing with local people, coping with foreigners could be more difficult for them in terms of language or culture. But again, there is no area to avoid in Hong Kong in my opinion.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Hong Kong? What different options are available for expats?
A: Hong Kong is famous as one of the most expensive cities in the world for housing. So finding similar housing to what we could have in France is quite complicated.
For expats, we usually have various options according to the budget: modern high-rise condos with extra facilities (swimming pool, playground, gym, tennis court…), flats in individual buildings, village houses or individual houses (for those who have a comfortable budget). The quality and price will vary a lot depending on the location (more expensive in Hong Kong Island than in the New Territories), but also on the view of the apartment. You can enjoy the breathtaking harbour and sea views but also face some neighbours when you open the windows…
The most famous expat areas in Hong Kong are Stanley, Repulse Bay, Happy Valley and Discovery Bay.
Q: Any areas/suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in Hong Kong?
A: Again, depending on the budget we have, I would recommend Stanley, Repulse Bay, Happy Valley, Discovery Bay and Sai Kung for families. You can live a bit further away from the crowded areas of HK and it is usually easier to enjoy nice views and a quiet environment. The school facilities in those areas are also set up for expat families with many international schools.
For single people or couples, Mid-Levels Central, Wanchai or Sheung Wan are very popular with younger people as these downtown locations enable them to easily go out and meet with friends after work. Shopping and going to restaurants are very accessible from these downtown areas.
Meeting people and making friends in Hong Kong
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women etc.?
A: Hong Kong people are generally very used to foreigners. As a previous British colony, the international population has been settled there for a long time. Being part of the French community, we know that there are more or less 30,000 French expats in Hong Kong! You can meet all kinds of nationalities here.
I do not feel any problems with intolerance of the locals towards the foreigners or any kind of discrimination either. Some local people speak English, and that shows how the city is open-minded. Since 1997, things have been changing and becoming more Chinese but the city still remains very open to international people.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: When you land in a new place, it is not always easy to meet people. In my case, I met most of my friends here because they were friends of friends or friends of colleagues. Fortunately, I got along well with most of my colleagues in the office. When I arrived in HK, they were therefore very willing to introduce me to their friends during some dinners or drinks outside the office environment. With this very pleasant and warm weather in Hong Kong, some people organize some BBQ or boat parties with many new people. And that is definitely the best opportunity to meet with new friends in a very relaxed environment.
Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?
A: In my network of friends, we are mostly expats and also mostly French. The easiest way is to join some associations or attend gatherings or meetings organized by consulates or other groups to widen the network. It is also a effective to get friendly with people from work who share the same jobs or professional interests as you.
Finally, if you practice some sports, it is also great opportunities to meet new people in a more casual context. French groups that I would recommend are UFE / HK Accueil.
About working in Hong Kong
Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: Obtaining the work permit was not a problem in my case. My previous company took care of the processing and documents, I only had to go to the immigration department to pick up the visa once done. But it would not be a major issue to go through the process myself. The procedure is pretty simple and clearly explained, and the most important thing to keep in mind is the processing time of about six to eight weeks. You can only start working once the visa is approved by the immigration department.
Q: What’s the economic climate like in Hong Kong? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job there? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: The economic environment in Hong Kong is very dynamic and so is the employment market. I met a few people who came to Hong Kong without any jobs, and within a few months they had found a job. Sometimes the jobs they found may not be completely in line with their previous experience. Nevertheless, some companies may need some international profiles with a good understanding of certain foreign cultures or good command of foreign languages for better communication with their customers or head office.
People can go through different options when it comes to finding a job. Official job searching websites (JobsDB, Michael Page or any other websites in certain industries) are a good idea, and headhunters are also very active. Linkedin and consulates also have some opportunities… and we can’t forget our own network of friends. That is usually the most efficient channel.
Q: How does the work culture differ from France? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Hong Kong?
A: Working in Hong Kong means flexibility and agility. You may not follow very strict working hours from 9am to 6pm, and probably will start at 9.30am but also get off work after 7pm or 8pm, especially when you work with overseas offices or customers in Europe. Overtime is common in Hong Kong. Being located in the key Asian platform, it is also very easy to travel from HK to everywhere in Asia to visit suppliers, overseas offices or customers.
Efficiency and speed are key in doing business in Hong Kong. As explained earlier, paperwork is not heavy here and processes for obtaining any permit or licence is simple as well. The whole environment in this city is to encourage people to pursue an entrepreneurial approach.
Family and children in Hong Kong
Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to Hong Kong? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: I was single when I moved to Hong Kong, but I met my wife in Asia. She was living in Shanghai for a few years but also comes from France. I did not have the problem of asking her to adjust to a new environment because she was living in Asia before me. She even gave me tips about expatriation.
However, I know some friends who came to Asia for work purpose and their families have followed them. Being the leader of such move for the whole family presents some kind of pressure, but it is also a very exciting experience for the couple or family. Lots of things have to be considered before moving to a new country like a job for the spouse or activities if she is not going to work, school for the kids, domestic helper to take care of the kids and the daily tasks at home…
Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for your children during the move?
A: I did not have to cope with this situation as my boy was born in Hong Kong. In my case, the main challenge is to find the right school for him because there are so many choices of international schools in Hong Kong (academic, Montessori, English, Mandarin, French…). If the child is older, the other challenge is to totally get into a new environment (new friends, new neighbours, new school and new activities). I cannot imagine how complicated this could be for a kid.
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: Local schools or International schools are the two main options. Most expats send their children to international schools because the education style is different and if they have to go back to their hometown, the adjustment would be easier.
International schools are quite expensive (100,000 HKD per year at least) but the quality of education and level is very high, with lots of extra-curriculars. Admission to famous kindergartens and primary schools is not always easy; little kids have to start having interviews from three years old to be admitted to a school! There is real exposure to international syllabuses, foreign languages or other educational methods like Montessori. Competition is tough in HK schools and you can expect a heavy homework load for the kids.
My advice: take the time to find the suitable schools and syllabuses for your kids by visiting the schools during open-days. Then see if your kids are really enjoying going to school and not struggling with the amount of homework. Your kids have to be happy at school!
Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Anticipating an expat move with sufficient preparation and information will be very useful, but at the same time don’t forget to enjoy the first year with fresh eyes. Everything is new and worth discovering: be open-minded to meet all kinds of people, try new activities and travel to new places to discover the culture.
► Interviewed November 2017