I’ll Take Hong Kong: Living the New York Dream, on the Other Side of the World

Our new columnist on life as an expat

When I returned to New York, the city felt positively Schenectady. Times Square’s neon lights and billboards looked small and dim, and walking along Madison Avenue at lunch hour felt like a leisurely stroll down Main Street. Hong Kong was taller, brighter, busier and more exciting. It was, as my dad would later put it, “New York on steroids.” When I was there I felt like anything was possible.

I loved this so-called “Asian Manhattan,” but more than anything, I loved Suzie—or rather Wendy, the actor who played her. Two and a half years later, we got married. I wanted to move to Hong Kong immediately. But I knew that wasn’t practical. I was an actor, and the clock was ticking on my career. If I was ever going to have a successful film career and live in an apartment larger than a storage unit, I felt like I had to go to L.A. I moved there in 2003. Wendy joined me a year later. My New York dream was over.

I quickly soured on the L.A. acting scene. Driving an hour to audition alongside 50 guys who looked exactly like me felt like an utter waste of time. I transitioned to writing and radio producing, in large part because I wanted to be flexible, to work anywhere. Now and then I thought about moving back to New York, but it was a great place to be when you’re poor and in your 20s—or when you’re rich.

While living in L.A., I constantly dreamt of Hong Kong, and after the U.S. economy tanked, I thought about it even more. I knew that if I quit my magazine, I’d have little chance of landing another job. And yet I couldn’t stand the lifestyle. I wanted to live in a land of opportunity again. This past summer, we packed up our things and headed to Hong Kong.

Wendy arrived two months before me and found a 417-square-foot apartment in the North Point neighborhood, an area once ranked the most densely populated place on earth. We live on the 18th floor in a newly refurbished two-bedroom. There’s no pigeon-poop shaftway, and our mattress is firm and new. Still, the building has its quirks. Recently, the Filipino maid upstairs hung the children’s Snow White sheets so low that they blocked half of my office window. It’s a local neighborhood. Very few Westerners live here. In our building, I’m one of two white guys. And that’s just how I like it.

I feel like I’m in the center of the action, a pasty-white gweilo observing Hong Kong’s uncomfortable transformation from former British colony to bustling Chinese city. Before Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the city-state was a bastion of free enterprise, long rated the most economically free place on earth. A place with no sales tax, a capped salary tax of 17 percent and few unions of any significance.

Today Hong Kong is booming, with an unemployment rate of 3.3 percent, helped tremendously by China’s rise and the 77,000 mainland tourists who pour into the city, a place one writer deemed the “Great Mall of China,” every day. Hong Kongers may deride these “Strong Country People” for wheeling large suitcases through department stores (and packing them with everything from Louis Vuitton handbags to baby formula), but they contribute to a strong economy that continues to draw Westerners to this South China Sea archipelago.

Some 55,000 Westerners call it home, many of us sponsored on work visas arranged by banks and architecture firms. We come from New York, London, Paris and Sydney to escape gloomy economies and to join the workaholic workforce. It is, to most I’ve talked to, a relief from the bleak climate back home.

Here the air, while not great, is better than on the mainland. The taxes are low, and people enjoy personal freedoms unheard of in China. Of course it’s not as culturally rich as New York. You won’t find witty tabloid headlines or a capella singers on the subway, and nobody comes here for Broadway shows. But hurrying down Hong Kong’s sidewalks, you’re surrounded by something else equally electrifying: opportunity.

I turned down the gig Margaret offered me, along with the $240,000. I continue to write and produce radio spots for the U.S. market, but what I never expected was that I’d return to the acting I’d given up years ago. It only took me a couple weeks to get back into it here. Now I’ve not only returned to corporate diversity training, but I’m recording voice-overs and dubbing movies and TV shows. And while these gigs may not be as glamorous as a memorable appearance on HBO, it’s steady work. In the past five months, I’ve worked more days in a recording studio than I ever did in New York.

Hong Kong is, despite its urban density and exorbitant rent, far more liveable. Old buildings are (sadly) torn down and replaced with efficient, modern ones. Heading to the airport? A bus will cost you $5. Public transportation is blissfully smooth, efficient and cheap—a ride costs anywhere between 30 cents and $1.25. Lunch at a Hong Kong-style restaurant will set you back as little as $2.50. I could barely save a dime in New York. Here I’ve already saved three.

The comparisons between Manhattan and Hong Kong are endless. They’re skyscraper cities on islands with similar citywide populations (8.2 million in NYC and 7 million in Hong Kong). Hong Kong is often called the “Manhattan of Asia.” The other day, a bus whizzed by me with a real estate ad pasted on its side. It was, like all other new developments here, a gleaming collection of high-rises boasting modern amenities and glass façades. “Iconic Residence, Manhattan Lifestyle,” it read. As exhaust swirled around me, I thought of my Hell’s Kitchen and Upper West Side apartments. They looked nothing like the Manhattan Lifestyle being touted here. I still love New York, but for now I like living in the Manhattan of Asia a bit more. It’s the place I wanted to move to nearly 20 years ago, when I first got off the bus in Port Authority.

editorial@observer.com