Italians in Hong Kong: young, ambitious and making the most of opportunities in the city

More Italians are moving to the city, encouraged by the career opportunities and lower tax rates, and they are a younger crowd, employed on local terms. We talk to settlers new and old about la dolce vita in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 December, 2017, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 December, 2017, 5:35pm

Anna Romagnoli arrived in Hong Kong from Milan at the age of 21 and worked as an intern at the Italian Chamber of Commerce. She only intended to stay a few months, but four years down the road she is the chamber’s general manager and has no plans to leave.

“The career and the opportunities here are 10 times more and 10 times faster than in Italy,” she says.

Romagnoli is typical of the young Italians flocking to Hong Kong. The city has seen a more than 80 per cent increase in Italians moving here since 2011, bringing the total to 3,648, according to the Italian consulate in the city, and the trend looks set to continue.

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A lacklustre economy back home combined with good career opportunities and revised legislation that does away with double taxation makes Hong Kong an attractive proposition, she says.

“In Italy, it takes at least 10 years to get established in a career, but in Hong Kong you can do that in two or three years. Even in big companies it’s possible to climb the ladder quickly,” Romagnoli says.

It is young people – in their 20s and 30s – who have boosted the numbers in the Italian community. They are at the beginning of their careers and are usually employed on local terms. The demise of generous expat packages that included housing, education and flights back home means fewer established, mid-career, middle-aged Italians are coming to town.

“The Italians we see now are not in their 50s; they are 30-somethings and we are seeing more children because having a helper makes family life easier, so they can have a second or third child,” says Sarah Negro, deputy consul-general of Italy in Hong Kong and Macau.

The numbers may be increasing, but that’s not to say that Italians aren’t leaving. Enrico Gili, a photographer turned restaurateur, has lived in Hong Kong more than 20 years and says this is the first year he has been to more farewell parties than birthday parties.

It’s super easy to fall in love with Hong Kong. It’s easy to blend in and it’s a great opportunity for me to grow personally and professionally
Anna Romagnoli

“The way I see it, Hong Kong is an expensive city. Companies don’t have much money to give for housing allowance and benefits. Some Italians I know are now based in Shanghai,” says Gili, who cofounded the Italian restaurant La Piola in 2010.

He recalls the good days more than 10 years ago, working for a large food and beverage operator, when “company credit cards were flying”. Budgets are much tighter now and rents continue to rise, but he is committed to Hong Kong.

“If you don’t make enough money, it’s not an easy place to live. But I still feel positive about Hong Kong and more people are travelling to Italy so they understand Italian food better,” he says.

He’s pleased to see that more Hongkongers are beginning to understand and embrace the concept of aperitivo, the Italian custom of stopping for a couple of after-work drinks on the way home.

“People were asking me, ‘Is this like happy hour?’ No, it’s not. It’s the difference between slow and fast food,” he says.

He introduced the aperitivo at La Piola on Lyndhurst Terrace and continues it at the restaurant’s new location on Johnston Road in Wan Chai.

“First of all people would come to Piola and sit at the table, expecting table service. But then they see Italians doing it – getting a drink and mingling at the bar, doing small talk with colleagues or family – and they begin to understand how it works,” he says.

Aperitivo whets the appetite at La Piola, the Italian restaurant with a new home in Wan Chai

Negro says the number of Italian restaurants continues to increase and with them come more Italian chefs and managers. The similarities to Chinese cuisine make it easy for Hongkongers to adapt to it, she says.

“There are definitely some connections. The Chinese have noodles and we have our own version, spaghetti; and Chinese dumplings are not unlike gnocchi,” she says.

Novelist and historian Angelo Paratico says when he arrived in Hong Kong in the early 1980s the only Italian restaurants were Rigoletto in Wan Chai (since closed), and Mistral and Sabatini Ristorante Italiano in Tsim Sha Tsui (both still going strong).

It’s easy for Italians to come here. And we are more open than, say, the French. We mix easily with Chinese, English, Germans, everyone – we don’t have a nationalist streak
Angelo Paratico

Paratico is another long-time Hongkonger who has noticed a shift in the Italian community. More than 30 years ago when there were fewer Italians, he says, about half were religious folk.

“Most of the Italians in those days were priests and nuns, because they were the people who came here first,” he says.

Indeed, there has been an Italian presence in Hong Kong – and coastal south China – for more than 150 years. Father Paolo Reina arrived in Hong Kong in 1858, the first of more than 210 missionaries from the Seminary of the Foreign Missions of Milan. They founded numerous kindergartens, and primary and secondary schools, greatly contributing to Hong Kong’s education system.

When Paratico arrived he met and married a Chinese woman, but it didn’t work out and they divorced.

“Now I have an Italian wife. At least when we argue we can understand each other,” he says.

In many ways, he says, it’s easier for Italians to adapt to life in Hong Kong than it was 30 years ago: air fares back home are affordable and more frequent, and there are many great Italian restaurants. What’s more, Italian wine is now cheaper, following the abolition of the wine tax in 2008.

“It’s easy for Italians to come here. And we are more open than, say, the French. We mix easily with Chinese, English, Germans, everyone – we don’t have a nationalist streak,” Paratico says.

Romagnoli counts the ease of making friends as one of Hong Kong’s big pluses. “I have so many international friends, that’s how Hong Kong works. I’ve never made friends so easily and fast. And they are good friends, ones who share the same values,” she says.

She believes Hong Kong people have a positive image of Italians, associating them with fashion, culture, and fine food and wine.

“Whenever I introduce myself as an Italian it’s always a positive thing here. People don’t make silly jokes about the bad stereotypes, like the classic one, the mafia,” she says.

Paratico agrees, saying that Hongkongers have a high opinion of Italy and the Italians.

“It’s even higher than the Italians themselves. They see you as Ferrari and Dolce & Gabbana. We are better able to see our defects and problems with the country,” he says.

As vice-president of the local branch of the Dante Alighieri Society – which has been promoting Italian language and culture in Hong Kong since the 1920s – he has seen a recent increase in Hongkongers keen to learn Italian. Most of the students want to learn the language for work, so classes are held in the evening, though some are keen to pick up some Italian ahead of a European holiday or because they have an Italian boyfriend.

If you don’t make enough money, it’s not an easy place to live. But I still feel positive about Hong Kong
Enrico Gili

“In Japan the most popular European language after English is Italian. It’s a very big business, and I think in a few years we’ll see the same situation in Hong Kong,” Paratico says.

Hong Kong has plenty to keep Italians happy – world-class Italian restaurants and great job opportunities, especially for the young – but that doesn’t keep at bay the occasional bouts of homesickness. After four years away from her native Turin, what Negro misses most is the street culture.

“Walking on the street is a completely different experience in Italy. Here, everything is shopping malls, but in Italy there are shops on the street and restaurants on pavements. It creates a great atmosphere,” she says.

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For many, the pros outweigh the cons, and Romagnoli has stopped saying she’ll leave in a year and is now playing it by ear.

“It’s super easy to fall in love with Hong Kong. It’s easy to blend in and it’s a great opportunity for me to grow personally and professionally,” she says.