A couple weeks after I moved to Hong Kong, I had coffee with a British woman named Margaret.
Margaret had lived in Hong Kong for many years and was the director of business for a communications consultancy. When I lived in New York, I had occasionally worked as a corporate trainer, and wanted to resume that work now that I lived in a financial capital again.
A friend recommended me to Margaret, and I liked her immediately, even though she told me I talked too much. “But that’s okay,” she said. “We can work on that.”
She took a nibble of her biscotti and flipped her Hermès scarf over her shoulder. “You’re just the kind of person we’re looking for. So let’s talk compensation. We pay $5,000 a day.” I clamped my lips so as not to spew English Breakfast all over her.
Even as a moderately successful actor—I portrayed “Mr. Pussy” on Sex and the City—I’d rarely made more than $5,000 a month, let alone in a day. I resisted the urge to fist-bump Margaret.
She told me that her company would train me for three months, and that I’d coach business leaders in presentation and negotiation skills about four times a month, for five grand apiece. “But this is a full-time job,” she said, scrutinizing me. “We’ll need you in the office the rest of the time, ringing up potential clients. We want someone who is fully committed.”
I calculated my annual salary: over $240,000. “Do you want me to sign in blue or black ink?” I asked.
She looked me square in the eye and sighed. “You’re an independent spirit. I fear a corporate role may be too restrictive and dull for you.”
She wasn’t wrong. I’d worked the last six and a half years as a magazine editor and hated the 9-to-5 life. I couldn’t understand the appeal of rush-hour commutes, vapid office chatter and having to wear pants to work. When I quit in August, I vowed never to do it again. I wanted to be my own boss again, like when I was an actor in New York. But still … $240K?
“I can change,” I said extending my fist for a bump.
“From what I see on your C.V.—actor, writer, radio producer, teacher—flexibility is what you want. Be honest with yourself and get back to me in a few days, alright love?”
And with that she kissed me on both cheeks and exited down the shopping mall’s polished floors. Margaret really had a flair for the dramatic. I collapsed into my chair and thought: Okay, doofus—if you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere.
The first time I visited Hong Kong was in 2001. Back then, I was a proud New Yorker living in a Park Slope railroad apartment that tilted at a 15-degree angle. Despite the funhouse accommodations, I loved the city: popping into Stromboli for a slice, making wacky experimental theater with friends and trying to predict what The New York Post’s headlines would be. Wacky Jacko Backo? New York was the grad school I never attended, a place where I was constantly stimulated and pushed to be more inventive, clever and competitive. It wasn’t the greatest city on earth—it was the only one.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, my parents took my brother and me to the city a couple times a year. We’d make the usual tourist rounds, but what really captivated me were the skyscrapers, with their lighted windows at night. Riding up Madison Avenue, I’d look out the window of our Ford Escort and wonder what people were doing in those offices and apartments. At that hour in my hometown, people were calling it a night. In New York, they were just getting started. Ten days after I graduated from college, my bus pulled into Port Authority. It was January 1995. I was 23 years old and my dreams were big.
Being a struggling actor wasn’t easy. At first, I shared a cramped Hell’s Kitchen walk-up. My room looked out onto a shaftway flecked with pigeon poop, and I slept on a grubby single mattress that had once belonged to my great-uncle when he lived in New York in the 1920s. Later I moved to a 105-square-foot shoebox on 71st between Central Park West and Columbus. The bathroom was so tiny that to reach the shower I had to step over the toilet. But I was willing to make these sacrifices. After all, I lived in New York, and I was certain that if I stuck it out, I could make it.
By the time I moved to Park Slope, I was fast approaching 30 and wondering if I’d ever experience anything remotely close to a civilized life. While my living situation was bleak, I had all my teeth and most of my hair and was scratching out a living acting in film, TV, theater, commercials and corporate diversity training programs. Those last were the gigs that first took me to Hong Kong.
Here’s how they work: rather than asking employees to sit through a training video, companies invite actors into their offices to perform scripts designed to help participants better communicate with people from different cultures. After the scene is over, the actors stay in character and interact with the audience. In 2001, one of our clients liked what we did so much that it asked us to train its employees across the globe.
In Hong Kong, I played “Patrick,” a young ex-pat investment banker who botched Cantonese names, pried too deeply into his Chinese co-workers’ private lives and bossed around his dutiful but suffering assistant “Suzie.” It was a fun role to play—jerks always are—and during my three weeks there, I got to see the world as a privileged Westerner. I was flown over in business class, put up at the Shangri-La Hotel and treated like a rock star in a city known for its superior customer service.
Like Patrick, I knew little about Hong Kong. Unlike him, I loved it. There, it felt like the natural order of things had been dialed up to a furious speed. Restaurants served food fast and hard, slamming down bowls on tables and whisking them away as soon as you’d eaten your last grain of rice. Hong Kongers hustled and talked away on their mobile phones at all hours. This was a place where business got done.
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.