Work scheme gives overseas youngsters a chance to experience Hong Kong

Youngsters from overseas are making the most of an opportunity to experience life in Hong Kong for a year under a working holiday scheme,write Mark Sharp and John Kang

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 July, 2014, 1:49am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 July, 2014, 1:49am

Pop culture exports from South Korea have been the all rage throughout Asia since the late 1990s, long before Psy dominated music charts worldwide with his Gangnam Style. And the Korean wave shows no sign of abating, with local devotees eagerly tuning into the latest K-drama and flocking to K-pop concerts.

Hongkongers may be pleased to learn that the love is requited. Under the government's working holiday scheme, young people from nine countries are allowed to visit Hong Kong for a year for work and pleasure. The bilateral agreement with South Korea came into effect in 2011, and interest has been on the rise.

Seventy-four of its citizens were granted visas in the first year and, as word spread, 200 South Koreans - the maximum allowed - joined the scheme in 2013. In response to the demand, the government upped the quota to 500 starting from this year, opening the door to another kind of Korean wave. In the first quarter, 149 visas had already been granted.

Visa holder Luke Yun Ki-hoon, 23, is bemused by Hongkongers' fondness for K-pop, and admits he isn't familiar with any of the pretty boy and girl bands. But he cites several reasons his countrymen like Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has a good image in Korea. It’s cosmopolitan, but has a clear Chinese style, which is unique. It’s exotic for Koreans

"Firstly, I found out from forums that many Koreans think they can learn English and Chinese at the same time in Hong Kong. Secondly, many think that it's a really fascinating place to visit because of the East-meets-West culture. Also, because of the Korean wave, many think Hong Kong people are likely to be kind to Koreans."

Yun found out about the scheme from forums on Hong Kong life and culture. He has been in the city for four months and is an intern at the Hebe Haven Yacht Club in Sai Kung, where he works as an assistant sailing instructor.

He came here thinking it might be easier to get a foothold in the yachting industry than at home. His interest was piqued when he visited the city in February and passed the yacht club on a minibus. Yun says he has long been interested in boating, and would like to be a yacht broker.

"I am still young, and I have a passion for yachts and want to learn more about the industry. So my main purpose for being here is job experience and, secondly, there are many chances to get close to different cultures like Western culture, Hong Kong culture and Indian culture. It's like a mixed hotpot."

Yun says his experience at the yacht club has been invaluable. He has taught international school students and has a chance to assist a group of disabled yachtsmen at October's Asian Paralympics in Incheon, in his home country. "It has been unforgettable so far, and I hope there are still many things I can experience," he says.

For another South Korean, Yoo Ma-lo, the city had an exotic appeal. "I wanted to experience living in Hong Kong. I've visited many times on holiday and enjoyed every moment," the Dankook University business student says.

"Hong Kong has a good image in Korea. It's cosmopolitan but has a clear Chinese style, which is unique. It also looks like a good place for foreigners to live because there are so many of them. It's exotic for Koreans."

Yoo, 23, found a job as a support service engineer at global IT firm Dimension Data by searching job websites upon arrival. It involves connecting to clients with computer server problems in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia. He enjoys the job, but isn't sure it will be useful for his future career. "I'm just happy to be working at a good company and learning about Hong Kong's working culture," he says.

Yoo enjoys hiking and has walked many of Hong Kong's trails. "I can't do that in Korea because it's too big and spread out. In Hong Kong, everything is so near and I can go trekking with a sea view. It's like a holiday."

He also finds Hongkongers open and friendly. "At a food court, people will sit next to me and eat even though I don't know them. People don't do that in Korea. It's uncomfortable."

Yoo - who speaks Korean, English and Putonghua - says not all of his countrymen who come here on the scheme are as lucky as him. He estimates that about 90 per cent toil six days a week in restaurants, spending their only day off sleeping.

The consolation is that restaurant owners often provide them with a place to sleep, so they are not crippled by the high rents. Yoo and Yun both say the high cost of housing is the worst thing about living here.

"It's really killingly high rent. It's suffocating," Yun says. Yoo says he pays a third of his salary to rent a studio flat. "If I were an intern, it would have been much more difficult."

The working holiday scheme has been in place since 2001, when the government signed agreements with New Zealand and Australia. Over the years, South Korea, Ireland, Germany, Japan, Canada, France and Britain have also come on board.

The number of visas issued for each country differs because of immigration laws and other considerations. The scheme is open to those aged 18 to 30 and is easy to join. Applicants need backup cash in the bank - the amount depending on the place of origin - then it's more or less a case of first come, first served.

The Labour Department, which administers the scheme, says the aim is to provide an opportunity for young people to gain first-hand experience living and working in a foreign culture and widen their horizons, thereby strengthening their self-confidence, resilience and interpersonal skills.

"Apart from facilitating cultural exchanges, the working holiday scheme also enhances bilateral co-operation and promotes tourism and development between Hong Kong and our partner countries," the department says.

According to department figures, 3,200 people had visited Hong Kong on the visas as of the end of last year. Some 46,000 Hongkongers had visited the nine countries the city has agreements with.

After South Korea, France is the country with the largest number of citizens coming here on the special visas. The country joined the scheme last year, and 99 of its nationals were granted visas. In the first quarter of this year, 73 visas had already been issued. Two-hundred French nationals annually can take advantage of the scheme.

Teacher Clotilde Renaudin was already in Hong Kong, visiting a friend, when she heard about the scheme. "I found out about it quite randomly," the 27-year-old says. "I knew Australia and New Zealand had working holiday schemes, but not Hong Kong."

Renaudin, who teaches French at the Alliance Française, says she would like to be sponsored so she can stay in the city after her visa expires. If that's not possible, she will go somewhere else.

Renaudin says Hong Kong has been much better than she'd imagined. "I expected the tall buildings but not how good the life could be; the party scene, music, you can go to the islands. I thought I would be working all the time and have no life, but the life is good."

She doesn't miss home like she did when she lived in other countries because of the large French community here.

Britain became the latest country to sign an agreement with Hong Kong, in January, and in the first quarter 55 young Britons took up the opportunity to come here. A maximum of 1,000 visas a year can be granted to British nationals.

Briton Rachel Thorley has applied for a visa because she has a friend who relocated here in January. Having recently graduated from university, she hopes to arrive next month. She is excited and anxious in equal measure, having never left Britain before.

"I've heard that the rent is really expensive but I'll be OK because I have a friend to stay with," Thorley, 24, says.

However, she is concerned about finding work. She hopes to save enough to get to her next destination - Australia, which also has a bilateral visa agreement with Britain.

"My friend really loves Hong Kong, so I am hoping that we can earn some money but also have a good time when I am there," she says.