Hong Kong's Middle Class Exodus
Hong Kong's middle class has had enough of skyrocketing housing prices and a declining quality of life and is looking for a way out. For some, Taiwan has become an oasis of hope.
Hong Kong's Middle Class ExodusBy Monique Hou
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 557 )
In a second-story flat in a quiet alley off Yumin Road in the Taipei suburb of Tucheng, petite Michelle Chan busies herself sewing small change purses. Her husband, Sanford Poon, standing 30 centimeters taller than her, dexterously places cotton wadding inside the purses.
Both 31 years old, they are computer science majors, one from Chinese University in Hong Kong, the other from the University of Virginia. Prior to moving to Taiwan, they were employed as engineers by French engineering firm Thales, typical members of the middle class with generous salaries and stable jobs.
However, in Hong Kong they were members of a class stuck in the middle, with income too high to qualify to rent public housing and too low to afford to buy their own flat at the going rate of nearly NT$1 million per square meter.
The couple previously lived with their parents back in Hong Kong, with three or four people crammed into flats just 33 and 40 square meters in area, respectively. Poon, who stands over 180 centimeters tall, had a small bed and desk befitting an elementary school student in his room that left him with just a sliver of space half the width of a person. When he slept, his feet spilled over the edge of the bed.
The couple later moved in together, sharing a 34 square-meter flat for NT$31,000 per month. "It's only been three or four years since we lived there, I hear the same place now costs 14,000 Hong Kong dollars (NT$56,000)." Over the brief period of little more than a year that they lived there, the ownership of the flat changed hands twice, typical of the feverish turnover of Hong Kong's real estate market.
"We didn't want to stay in Hong Kong, where there is nowhere to go other than to and from work. Everywhere you go it's crowded with people," describes Chan.
Before coming to Taiwan, Poon was sent to Dubai by his company, and the couple lived there for three years.
Accompanying her husband in Dubai without a job of her own, Michelle found herself checking out DIY books to pass her idle time. She soon began fashioning items like handmade change purses and mobile phone pouches, and tried selling them over the Internet via etsy.com. The response was so unexpectedly positive that the couple could not even spare the time to have a proper Christmas dinner together, settling for a quick home-delivered pizza.
A Nice Place for a Second Home
At present they count customers in 48 countries, with the United States accounting for 60 percent. While still residing in Dubai, they managed to achieve sales of US$4,000-US$5,000 a month.
"This got us to thinking that we seemed to have found a business that would allow us to escape the constant relocation associated with working in rapid mass transit and that would provide a good living," relates Michelle. However, setting up a company in Dubai requires a majority of local ownership, "Plus, Dubai does not accept immigrants, and they follow a different religion."
The couple also considered Singapore and China, but the cost of living in Singapore is too high, and for them China "lacks freedom. They block many Internet sites like Facebook, the air is dirty, and the food is cause for concern," Poon adds, shaking his head.
So why did they not head back home to their roots and families in Hong Kong? "The quality of life in Hong Kong is deteriorating, and a decent quality of life is only available to you when you have a lot of money. In this business, not being about to make a quick buck, how would we be able to survive over the first five years of losing money?" asks Michelle.
While living overseas in Dubai, the couple returned for an annual visit back home to Hong Kong. "Even during off-peak hours on weekdays, the subway was packed with people, and all the shops were different each time," Michelle says. Glancing out of the corner of her eye at husband Sanford, she adds, "You have to wait in a long line at any place popular with tourists."
"It's absurd that, even at Cubbies Cookies, a place only we locals knew about before, we had to queue for more than two hours," Poon exclaims. "And everything has gotten expensive, with meals costing even more than in Dubai."
"We became more and more sure that, if given a choice we would not stay in Hong Kong," says Chan.
A place to settle down for the long term was necessary for Michelle to concentrate on fashioning her hand-crafted items, marketed under the name Misala. There was a lot of discussion on the Internet about emigrating to Taiwan at the time, but nobody had actually done it. "So we went ahead and did it. It took only 40 days to set up a company and get an Alien Resident Certificate – a lot easier than we'd imagined," remarks Poon.
Since moving to Taiwan last June, everything has gone smoothly as hoped. Michelle's creations are now sold at Taiwan's Eslite bookstore chain, priced at NT$800 to NT$1,000 each. Selling over 100 pieces through Eslite per month, Michelle had to hire a helper to handle the workload.
The couple's creations dominate the living room of their 150 square-meter flat in Tucheng, distinguished by its blonde wooden flooring. They are especially pleased with their spacious 30-plus square-meter bedroom, enjoying the comfort the apartment provides.
Was moving to Taiwan the right decision? "We're increasingly sure it was the right thing to do." The two exchange looks, and Sanford Poon says, "We can accept losing money for five years, as long as we can go ahead and keep at it with no weight on our minds."
The couple have become advisers for other people considering emigrating to Taiwan from Hong Kong. "We've gotten two or three enquiries a month from people in their 30s and 40s, all with good jobs in Hong Kong, and one of whom comes from a very rich family," offers Michelle.
HK middle class migrating around the globe
Examples of the Hong Kong middle class taking off and leaving are everywhere to be seen.
"We have friends that have emigrated to Australia, Singapore, and even Germany," says Hsu Tze-hsuan (許子軒), a professional in the financial industry.
According to official Hong Kong government figures, over 3,900 citizens emigrated abroad in the first quarter of this year alone. "The 1997 sovereignty handover wave was the older generation, for whom the Chinese Communist Party conjured fear and bad memories. Now it's the young generation of middle class people that is emigrating," observes Lau Yin Kwong (羅英光), a journalist.
"Our friends are opening a bed and breakfast in Yilan," says Leung Suk Yin (梁淑賢), who studied in Taiwan, and has returned to stay, obtaining a local ID.
"Our friends are coming to Taiwan to open a restaurant once they've gotten their retirement arrangements in order," adds media professional Ng Tsui-ping (吳翠屏), adding: "Give me liberty or give me death. My maternal grandfather was a landowner in Shuntak (Guangdong Province), who was made to kneel on glass before he was executed. So my mother was forced to flee to Hong Kong. I love Hong Kong, but now I just want to leave."
"Hong Kong people are realists, and are happy as long as there is money to be made. But now even making money is a problem," offers Lau Ying Kwong. "Rich people go to Europe and America. For the others, Taiwan is their only opportunity."
It has become popular in Hong Kong over the last two years to talk among friends and acquaintances about emigrating to Taiwan. Even university professors making upwards of NT$400,000-NT$500,000 per month have taken action.
Dr. Will Ma (馬偉傑), 55, assistant professor in the Department of Journalism & Communication at Chinese University, is also furiously at work preparing to "say goodbye to Hong Kong" within the next year or two.
He began scouting out Kenting, Yilan, and Tainan two years ago, ultimately deciding to settle in Tainan.
"I want to leave because I've had enough," he admits. He counsels the Hong Kong government to pause and give some thought to what has driven the "Taiwan immigration tide," lest even more people take his lead and leave for good.
"A lot of people ask me if I want to leave, and how one goes about emigrating to Taiwan. I laugh in response, because only people with the talent and financial wherewithal are able to get out," relates political commentator Alexis Tan.
Tan himself has become a naturalized citizen of Taiwan.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman