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Paradise lost … is the dream finally over for Hong Kong’s expats? By David Jordan

May 03, 2020
It was once the dream-posting for expats keen to further their careers in the booming heart of the Tiger economy. The reality now is very different. Rioting and pro-democracy protests that dragged on throughout much of the summer of 2019 took their toll and expats are leaving the territory in ever increasing numbers.

Hong Kong - Paradise Lost

High-density living, extortionate rents, coupled with increasing anxiety about Hong Kong’s future governance, have, it seems, finally broken the spell. Add to this the recent COVID-19 outbreak and you have the perfect storm. 

For those in the relocation industry this mass exodus has brought a huge increase in outbound shipments, but as the normal flood of inbound traffic turns into a trickle there are worries that unless things change, the future looks decidedly grim.

Rob Chipman is CEO of Asian Tigers Hong Kong, one of the largest mobility companies in the territory: “Things have been building up for about a year; first it was trade friction between China and the US that got people and businesses a little nervous, but the big deal came in the summer when civil unrest broke out and people became really scared for their safety. I don’t think any foreigners were actually hurt during the protests, but it made everyone uncomfortable and there were parts of the city where you couldn’t go.”

Rob ChipmanRob continued, “We started to see a big increase in people wanting to move out in September and that continued during October, November and December. Then in January when the coronavirus kicked off in China, the shit really hit the fan; now it wasn’t just their physical safety, it was their health and wellbeing too and people just wanted out. We were turning surveys away because we were fully booked and that continued through February and March and now into April when it seems to be easing off a bit, but it’s still very busy, unseasonably so for this time of year. My take on it is that it’s a defensive reaction to a series of unhappy events that have pushed people to the edge, even those who had been expecting to be here for the long term - they’ve just had enough.”

Although there is little doubt that coronavirus has contributed to the mass exodus of expats, the territory has so far largely escaped the worst of the epidemic. At the time of writing (April) there were only around 1000 reported cases and four deaths from the disease. The reasons for this are puzzling, given the bustling grubby streets, cramped accommodation and packed lifts that carry people - often nose to nose - to their offices and high-rise apartments every day. The answer could be the trend for people in the city to wear face masks while out in public and the health authority’s vigorous efforts to trace and isolate anyone who has been in contact with someone testing positive for the virus. Nevertheless, people, rightly or wrongly, are scared.

There is a partial lockdown of businesses such as bars and restaurants in Hong Kong, but thankfully for Rob and his removals teams, they are still able to operate, albeit with caution and sensible precautions, such as using hand sanitiser and other protective equipment.  Those who can, work from home.

One worrying problem for all international movers during the pandemic is what happens when a consignment arrives at an overseas destination that is in lockdown?

Rob explained, “We have shipments that were on the water before most countries went into lockdown and we’re going to have to deal with those when they arrive. We’re now giving people the option of storing their things here until the emergency is over and we’ve not had any problems so far, but I know there will be challenges ahead.”

Hong Kong may, for now, have slipped down the ratings of the world’s most desirable expat destinations, and only time will tell what the future holds. But the riots of 2019 have, for the time being at least, been quelled, and a year from now the global panic caused by the coronavirus will, inevitably have calmed. Perhaps one day the oriental magic of Hong Kong will return and for expats, paradise will be regained.

Photo: Rob Chipman

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