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13 things you need to know before you take a banking job in Hong Kong

You’re being relocated to Hong Kong for a banking job – how do you ensure that your move goes smoothly and you hit the ground running in your new role?

We asked expatriate finance professionals to outline the key challenges you should expect during your first few weeks and months in Hong Kong. Here are their top tips.

1. Learn some basic Cantonese

“When we moved here my wife constantly reminded me that everyone in my world (multi-national firms) spoke English, while everyone in her world (the gas-meter reader and air-con repair man) did not,” says Henry Chamberlain, a Hong Kong management consultant and former head of selection at Standard Chartered. “Have a local friend on speed-dial to help you when you’re stuck in a taxi or dealing with any non-English speaker. And take a stab at learning some Cantonese – even a few basic phrases will earn you good will.”

2. Work hard, but get some balance

“Hong Kong people work hard, so be prepared to work long hours and weekends. And if you work for a global bank, be prepared for conference calls at all hours of the day,” says Chamberlain. “Given the tough work ethic, make sure you take care of your own wellbeing. Join a hiking meet-up, yacht club or social club as early as possible.”

3. Never eat lunch at your desk

“Despite the heavy workload, lunch is sacred. Don’t even think of eating at your desk and don’t expect your team to either,” says Chamberlain. “Food plays an important role in Hong Kong and people often socialise and network over lunch. If you’re a manager make sure you occasionally take your team to lunch to bond with them.”

4. Learn to be prescriptive

“In the early days my Hong Kong team members expected me to be quite prescriptive, not just in what I wanted them to achieve but also in how they should go about achieving it,” says Russell Graham, a former Hong Kong-based global head of client management at HSBC, now a partner at transaction banking consultancy SkyTxB. “This was different for me as I’d moved from the US where my team would probably have revolted if I’d tried to tell them how to do things.”

5. Set aside cash for up-front rental costs

While it’s no secret that monthly rentals for Hong Kong apartments are exorbitant, you must also be prepared to pay a lot of these costs in advance. “Landlords often demand the equivalent of three months’ rent as a deposit, plus three months’ actual rent up front, so it could be a six-month layout before you even move in,” says an expatriate banker who asked not to be named.

6. Dispose of your worldly goods

“Your apartment will be very, very small,” says the banker. “So pretend you’re going camping. Chuck out as many things as you can before you come to Hong Kong to save on moving costs – but mainly because you’ll need the free space when you get here.”

7. Walking and cycling is frustrating

“Hong Kong isn’t a good city for walking or cycling in,” says the banker. “You’re often fighting steep hills, unpredictably winding alleys, humidity, and footpaths that start and stop at random. There are great walking and biking trails at weekends, but not for day-to-day commuting.”

8. Annoying exams

“In the banking sector when you move to Hong Kong you have to take the necessary Securities and Futures Commission exams,” says Singaporean Lyn Sia Rosmarin, a former Lehman Brothers and Nomura banker in Hong Kong who now runs swimwear company K.BLU. “These exams add more stress on top of rearranging your family commitments and adjusting to a new work environment.”

9. Scarce school places

“Hong Kong schools are very hard to get into for the expatriate community,” says Rosmarin. “So check with your bank’s relocation team to see if they can give you any help with school places.”

10. Network with exaggerated confidence

“In Hong Kong people like to have a detailed understanding of your strengths, so get out there and start networking,” says management coach Chamberlain. “And be sure to sell yourself confidently – in a slightly exaggerated manner compared to what you’d do in the West. I initially struggled to sell myself in this way, but if you don’t, you’ll never gain the respect you need.”

11. But don’t be aggressive

“Hong Kong culture is oriented towards harmony and respect,” says Chamberlain. “Even mild-mannered Westerners may come across as too direct and aggressive. Tone down your assertiveness by at least 50% and ask a trusted local colleague to give you feedback on your level of directness.”

12. Wear some bling

“Hong Kong is all about brands – people pay attention to what you wear and use,” says Chamberlain. “Depending on your budget for luxury items you could either indulge in branded jewellery, pens, handbags, watches and shoes, or pick a few carefully selected items that show off your brand sense.”

13. Don’t use too many metaphors

“While most Hong Kong finance professionals are fluent English speakers, when I first moved here a colleague told me that my language was too rich with metaphors and idioms that went over people’s heads,” says Chamberlain. “Don’t assume that people understand you if you say ‘barking up the wrong tree’ or ‘playing hooky’ – you could be interpreted literally.”

Image credit: OwenPrice, Getty

AUTHORSimon Mortlock Content Manager
  • Ni
    5 April 2018

    These tips are great--sounds like they came from someone that has walked the walk.

    Would also add: don't try to recreate the life you had in LON or NYC. Hong Kong is a different place, and if you are constantly comparing it to those two you're going to get frustrated. Embrace what's different here and take advantage: cheap flights to Asia, boat parties, outlying islands, etc. And watch your spending--yes the income tax is lower but you're probably making up the difference with rent alone!

    Would recommend you stay at a serviced apartment for the first 1-2 months as you get settled in. There's a site with no ads and most of the properties in HK:

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