City Weekend

Escaping the expat bubble: the families opting for a quieter (and cheaper) life in Hong Kong

Fed up with overpriced city living? More and more foreign workers are moving further afield to live in areas that were once almost exclusively inhabited by Chinese residents

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 September, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 September, 2016, 3:35pm

Ha Che may only be 40km from the heart of Hong Kong, but you could not feel further away from the atmosphere of the city’s hectic pace when you wander the streets of the peaceful village.

Canadian Jen Ritchie first moved to Ha Che, part of Pat Heung in the New Territories, seven years ago.

The 32-year-old freelance graphic designer and online business owner lives there with her 36-year-old Australian husband, Luke, and their seven-month-old son, Arlo.

They set up home there after an 18-month stint in San Po Kong, in the bustling district of Wong Tai Sin, which Ritchie describes as a “completely different” pace of life.

As the cost of living in Hong Kong rises and multinational companies are cutting back on salary packages when they relocate staff, foreigners in Hong Kong are responding in different ways.

The Post reported earlier this month that new enclaves are emerging in Hong Kong as expats seek cheaper rent.

Meanwhile, some expats, like Ritchie, choose to eschew living in an expat community and instead opt to immerse themselves in the local culture.

“Moving out here was a lifestyle change,” Ritchie said. “There isn’t a community feel you might get in the city living close to friends or in a gated community.

“When we first came here, there was nothing – not even a 7/11 close by. But we recently got a marketplace and there are more things moving out here.”

Expats considering relocating to Pat Heung should prepare themselves for a much more rural set-up, Ritchie suggested. Owning a car, for example, becomes essential; her husband’s commute to work in Sai Ying Pun takes at least 40 minutes.

And although she generally enjoyed village life, she said she rarely crossed paths with the small number of expats in her area and admitted she occasionally felt isolated.

“I sometimes think now that we have a child, we should move into a more community type place,” she said.

“I miss being able to spontaneously have coffee with someone close by; being able to walk to the grocery store and having access to a swimming pool. But then again, we have space and quiet most of the time. I would not give up the village life now.”

A desire for more space, access to better schools and more “local” amenities are other factors that prompt some people to try a life away from traditional expat hotspots.

Tim Harper, a 43-year-old primary school teacher from Stoke-on-Trent in England, is one expat who feels particularly well adapted to life in his more “local” community. He has lived in Lam Tin, Kwun Tong district, with his Filipino wife Luz, also 43, and their children Kyle, 10, and Keira, seven, for nine years.

The couple, who met in the Philippines and previously lived in the UK, are one of a handful of expat families in their neighbourhood. Harper previously worked as a psychology and sociology college teacher in the UK, and said he needed to overhaul his life.

If I could get a 20-year contract at work then I would ... We’re very happy here – I have no complaints
Tim Harper, who lives in Lam Tin

“I wanted a change from my life at home, because I was stressed out and underpaid,” he said. “When I was in the UK, I had a two-hour commute to Manchester. But I put my foot down and said ‘no, not any more’. So now I only walk 10 minutes to work.”

Harper said he enjoyed living in a close-knit community.

“I often meet people I know in the supermarket,” he said. “I do not drink or smoke, so I am never going to do anything too bad to embarrass myself here.

“If I could get a 20-year contract at work then I would, but for now I only get the opportunity to renew every two years. We’re very happy here – I have no complaints.”

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Laurence Rothwell, a 41-year-old corporate training manager from Kent, England, opted to try a more rural experience in the village of Tai Hang near Tai Po.

He rents the top floor of a 1,400 sq ft village house, which comes with a roof terrace, and commutes to Central for work. He said he wanted to replicate the life he had in the UK when he moved to Hong Kong in January.

“I didn’t want to live on Hong Kong island”, he said. “I didn’t want to live in the expat bubble. You get a lot more for your money off the island. It’s a nice area; it’s quite quiet and rural. It is not polished; it’s a bit rough around the edges.”

Rothwell, who does not speak Cantonese but knows basic Putonghua, said he found most locals spoke English even in his remote part of Hong Kong.

“People have been very friendly,” he said. “There are no Western-type businesses in the village but that’s ok.”

Tai Po and the surrounding villages also benefit from more open space. Rothwell enjoys walking his three dogs – George, Junito and Momo – around Penfold Park in Sha Tin.

“Walking dogs in Hong Kong is very restricted,” he said. “But here I have the countryside nearby.”

Expat infiltration of Hong Kong’s districts which have previously been almost exclusively inhabited by Chinese residents could have mixed implications for the city’s future development, commentators suggested.

Professor Thomas Wong Wai-pong, honorary associate professor of sociology at the University of Hong Kong, said the trend was potentially “destroying that quintessential valuable feature of urban life”. He suggested, however, that further study was needed to establish the long-term effects of gentrification.

On the one hand, gentrification is transforming, and in a sense destroying, the traditional neighbourhood
Professor Thomas Wong Wai-pong

“It’s a most interesting phenomenon,” he said. “On the one hand, gentrification is transforming, and in a sense destroying, the traditional neighbourhood.

“Many local stores are being replaced with chain stores catering to big housing estates, not to mention the many demographic and commercial features that used to characterise particular districts and communities.

“On the other hand, the sprouting of new high-rise buildings in these old districts, in Kennedy Town and Sai Ying Pun for example, means that, with hefty housing costs, many expats are found to be living in these apartments, thus bringing them in touch with different faces of Hong Kong that the erstwhile privileged expats could not possibly envisage.”