The hardship post in expat paradise

Austerity, Hong Kong-style, begins to bite, writes Rahul Jacob

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There is trouble in the plutocrat’s paradise that is Hong Kong. Expatriate bankers’ rental allowances have been slashed, sometimes by as much as half, and property agents report that rents for flats costing from US$10,256 to US$23,077 per month fell by 18 per cent in the first three quarters of 2011 because fewer bankers can afford such rents. Just last summer, one of the executives at a US hedge fund company was complaining but also bragging about having held his landlord to a mere 90 per cent increase in his rent. This correspondent, who has never had to manage his household finances in the face of such extortion, did not have the temerity to ask why the executive elected to renew his lease.

Now, all is change. The market for rents in the range of US$25,000 to US$32,000 has been particularly hard hit because some financial institutions and banks have chosen not to fill vacancies at the director level, says one property agency. Many financial industry expatriates are reportedly considering moving down from the rarefied higher reaches of Hong Kong’s Mid Levels to Discovery Bay, which requires a ferry ride to Hong Kong’s central business district – and used to be called “Delivery Bay” because so many young couples pushing prams chose to live there. All this on top of many bankers’ offices moving to a huge new financial centre in Kowloon, which had already made commuting more arduous than the typical five to 10 minute taxi ride.

To make matters worse, berthing charges for luxury yachts are being doubled at some Hong Kong marinas because so many wealthy mainland Chinese are choosing to buy their yachts in Hong Kong to avoid paying a 43 per cent sales tax in, er, communist China. The airport is also short of parking space for private jets. If this continues, Hong Kong will have to be classified as a hardship posting.

Caesar’s wife

In picking Henry Tang, the oenophile son of a textile magnate, as its favoured candidate in the elections for the next chief executive of Hong Kong next month, Beijing at least showed it was sensitive to the concerns of local tycoons, nearly all of whom support him. Tang is expected to defend their oligopolies in real estate, supermarkets and much else. Hong Kong’s feisty tabloids had other ideas. Revelations last week that Tang’s wife, Lisa Kuo, illegally built a 2,250sq ft pleasure palace in their basement, which allegedly includes a wine cellar and a wine-tasting room, look set to scupper his chances if Beijing withdraws its support for him. Kuo redefined chivalry when she said it was all her idea – she just wanted a “comfy place” for her family. After being pilloried for allowing his wife to take the blame, Tang said he had “feelings too” and was hurt by accusations he was “hiding behind a woman.” In October, Kuo, Tang’s wife of 27 years, appeared at her husband’s side when he admitted to having had an affair.

Political wives the world over have found themselves in the predicament of having to forgive their husband’s indiscretions under the harsh glare of public and prurient interest.

But Kuo wins the ‘Stand By Your Man’ award for having thrown herself before Hong Kong’s raucous media pack twice in five months.

“If the woman loves her husband so much, why don’t we nominate her to run (for chief executive),” one caller to a local radio station opined. A kind thought, but it would be better to have a chief executive who understood that the law applies to Caesars and their long-suffering wives.

Starstruck

The Hong Kong media was out in force to cover the novelty of an election in the fishing village of Wukan about 10 days ago. Wukan is the Chinese village where thousands of residents protested daily in December despite a siege by local police. The star turn at the elections was Xue Jianwan, the 21-year-old daughter of Xue Jinbo, whom the protesting villagers allege was tortured to death in police custody in December. Ms Xue, a primary school teacher, remained composed even as a rugby scrum of journalists played out around her after she had voted. Ms Xue went on to win among the highest votes in the election to become one of the village’s representatives. The irony of a village in communist China being allowed a freer election than the one in Hong Kong scheduled for next month was hard to miss.

rahul.jacob@ft.com

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