FT correspondent on how to survive — and thrive — in Hong Kong

Josh Noble says beyond the glitzy glass towers and expat hang-outs, there is a city oozing charm and tradition
Josh Noble near Pedder Street, Hong Kong

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From my desk, I can see the South China Sea. Behind my computer screen is the lush green spine that runs along Hong Kong island, and to my left the glass spires that make up its skyline. For most FT journalists, this is the rarest of treats — at our London headquarters, the lucky ones might get to peer down over the car park.

I moved to Hong Kong in late 2010 with my now-fiancée Zelie. She needed some convincing. Although we had visited before on holiday and enjoyed it, she wasn’t sure why we should leave London, our home, for Asia. It was so far away, so crowded, polluted and noisy, and it was, from our own experience, uncomfortably hot.

For me, it was a no-brainer. Having studied Chinese at university, the chance to help with our coverage of Asia was too good to pass up. Plus I had friends working in the city, which would help make the transition easier.

In the end, the argument was partly won by circumstance. Zelie was working in the London office of Christie’s, the auction house, and the Asian art market was in the early days of a boom. Experience in the region, we decided, would prove invaluable for both of us.

Settling in took about 10 minutes. We found a one-bedroom flat on the 34th floor of a residential tower in the city centre. It was smaller than hoped, and far pricier than planned, but it came with seductive views over the harbour. Plus, my journey to work would be a five-minute walk, Zelie’s closer to 15.

We soon got into the swing of expat life. Weeks slipped by with long office hours, working late into the night, broken up by lazy brunches and the occasional weekend hike or trip to the beach.

Some things that seemed bizarre quickly became routine. Foot massages were a regular treat, while the need for new clothes usually resulted in a trip to the tailor. A night out would easily end at 6am after hours of karaoke.

Compared with London, Hong Kong is a truly 24-hour city. If you want dim sum, fried chicken or black pepper crab at 3am, no problem — just walk a couple of blocks. Need toothpaste at 11pm on Sunday? The shops are open. For those who miss their ferries home, the fishermen moonlight as water taxis. Human life here is everywhere and always.

Street food stall

On the flip side, Hong Kong can move at an alarming pace, and many people get left behind. Shops and restaurants often last just a few months before rapacious landlords force them to shut. In the past few weeks, an 80-year-old pawnshop has been marked for demolition, a beloved 40-year-old cow-shaped neon light torn down and century-old banyan trees mauled with chainsaws. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it way of life is buzzy, but can be exhausting.

Many expats never quite take to it. They come for the standard two-year stint, cling to expat hang-outs and laud only the city’s convenience. They complain about the prices, the pollution, the dearth of culture. They pine for a return to a “proper city” and wait out the clock.

After about 18 months, the rhythm of our time in Hong Kong changed when Zelie started running a gallery. Soon our evenings were dotted with openings and artist visits, plugging us into Hong Kong’s small but fast-growing art scene. Though she is now back at Christie’s, it was during her time at The Cat Street Gallery that Zelie made her best Hong Kong friends and started to feel at home.

Sunset over the city’s skyline

Gradually, we got to know the city that exists outside the shiny expat enclaves. Beyond the glass towers and neon-lit streets, Hong Kong is a place brimming with tradition and oozing with charm. The quaint wooden “ding ding” trams that cart people across town are not simply for tourists — we rely on them. Ditto the Star Ferry, a cutesy remnant of colonial times, but a practical one too.

In obscure nooks of the city, you can still find fortune tellers to boost your luck, and sorcerers — known as “villain hitters” — to punish your foes. Crowds gather outside temples on auspicious days, while feng shui — the system for harmonising your surroundings — is part of life. Even in the FT office, we have a team of goldfish to soak up the bad vibes, and potted plants to bat away the “poisoned arrows” zipping off a nearby skyscraper. Once, when a handful of the goldfish died, our feng shui master hailed the FT’s good fortune — the goldfish had done their job and vacuumed up the evil spirits that might otherwise have lingered round our desks.

The Star Ferry in the mist of Hong Kong harbour

That dedication to old ways is matched by an endearing kookiness. Dogs often wear clothes. People line up for Hello Kitty-themed dim sum, or to have a picture taken with local celebrity Brother Cream. He’s a cat. I once saw a woman walk her pet rabbit on a leash.

But Hong Kong’s subtle, simmering tensions can boil over too. Last year, tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to the streets demanding political reform. Quickly the office district was marked out by peculiar sights — from barricaded highways and baton-wielding police to dozens of black-shirted students eating instant noodles on the steps of the Mandarin Oriental hotel. Emails flooded in from family and friends asking if I was safe.

Fa Yuen street market in the Mong Kok area of Kowloon, Hong Kong

But this was a protest like no other. The city’s main six-lane highway was more festival than fortress. It included a wall of protest art, a massage tent and a homework centre for students and their volunteer tutors.

In my mind, it wasn’t just about politics, but a rejection of all the things that people feel have gone wrong with their city — insane housing costs, lack of open space, the creeping influence of Beijing. And though the fight ended when the bulldozers moved in, it proved to the world the people of Hong Kong deserve better. After five wonderful years, we leave a city gripped by uncertainty. The goldfish have their work cut out.

Josh Noble is the FT’s former Asia regional markets correspondent and is returning to London to join the main news desk

Inside knowledge

What you can buy for . . .

$500,000 A two-bedroom apartment in Avon Park, New Territories

$1m A two-bedroom apartment in Kornhill Garden, Quarry Bay

$2m A two-bedroom apartment in Hillsborough Court, Mid-Levels Central

Noble’s verdict . . .

Pros

● Ease of getting around

● Huge variety of food

● Access to the countryside

● Safety

Cons

● High cost of living

● Lack of culture

● Pollution levels

● Lack of conservation

Favourite places

● Book a BBQ pit at Shek O beach and enjoy a lazy afternoon by the sea

● Walk up Victoria Peak along one of the many routes on Hong Kong island

● Wander around the bizarre street markets of Sham Shui Po — and remember to bring a camera

Photographs: Berton Chang; Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images; Yiu Yu Hoi/Getty Images; Howard Kingsnorth/Getty Images; Roland Nagy/iStock

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