The most expensive place to live screams yet another annual report on expat living. Really? I’m not sure. In fact I sometimes wonder if these authors are referring to the same city in which we live. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Hong Kong’s cheap; it is of course a major world city with all the baggage that entails but whether it’s significantly worse than anywhere else of equal standing, especially after other costs are factored in, deserves discussion.To be honest such reports can be somewhat misleading and, consequently, I take them all with a pinch of salt. In fact they often remind me of that hilarious BBC comedy skit I Saw You Coming written by Harry Enfield in which he plays a Notting Hill antique dealer flogging tat to the rich and gullible. It seems to me that our report authors must have spent most of their Hong Kong research time straying blissfully into several Harry Enfield sets, the perfect parody of Hong Kong where paying through the nose, they’d like us to believe, is a necessary way of life.
Well, believe me, it doesn’t have to be that way; for example they tell us the average two-bedroom flat rental would set you back £4754, we pay less than a third of that, a café would rook you £5.43 (think Enfield) for a coffee, we pay £2.90, they’d milk you £2.82 (I Saw You Coming) for a litre of cow’s best, we pay 99p, a loaf of white bread could rise to £3.09 (that’s better), but we pay £1-2 and so on; you get my drift? Indeed, it goes without saying that to stand any chance of survival in a big city like Hong Kong a touch of shopping savvy is required; otherwise they certainly will see you coming! Instead of banging on about what’s hideously expensive therefore, I’d like to tell you of the many other things which are considerably cheaper here and will certainly help mitigate the effects of that big ticket item: RENT.
Yes, rent, it’s what frightens most people about Hong Kong living. Expensive? – well, it certainly ain’t cheap! Incidentally, that reported rental of £4574 (and much higher) does exist, but then so too do a host of cheaper ones. After all, not everyone’s on a fat expat package, the locals have to live here too. It all depends on where and how you want to live; in the city, in the country, near to work or a bit further out, high-rise or house, number of rooms, need garage, garden, both or neither, there’s quite a choice so consider the options carefully as pros and cons abound. For us, flats in the range £800 – £1600 are quite acceptable.
We opted for a place further out, a flat occupying one floor of a village house, 900 square feet with a roof garden above. It’s quiet, there’s no traffic noise only birdsong; also, it offers a completely contrasting lifestyle to the frenetic craziness which might be regarded as travel brochure Hong Kong – now that suits us fine. Incidentally, to add some perspective four years ago we met a Londoner on our Asia-bound ship whose small flat rental even back then was more than ours is now – interesting!
As with elsewhere, to obtain a flat here you will have to visit one of the city’s many estate agents (website or in person) and for the first time caller that can be bewildering and frustrating. Bewildering because unless you’re hunting in an area popular with foreigners adverts will be in Chinese only and staff English proficiency might not be guaranteed, frustrating because agents here haven’t really got a clue what sells a place; typically, details will be scant and photographs will be either none existent or there may be just a few, not even genuine, highlighting a bland corridor, staircase or wash basin! Conclusion: if you can’t speak or read basic Cantonese take a local pal with you – it will be less daunting and to show you know the score you can at least point to adverts in the window so as not to get fobbed off (I Saw You Coming)with something unnecessarily expensive!
Always be prepared to negotiate and of course the usual rental terms of deposit and advance will apply. Minimal rental period tends to be one year. Please note: many Hong Kong landlords are excessively greedy and, consequently, do step carefully! Also worth mentioning is that items such as local rates or council tax are normally included in the rental amount.
Let’s now look at that other bugbear of household expenditure: utility bills. Well, although talk of rent could easily drive any unsuspecting newbie towards a premature seizure this section I hope will aid recovery and leave you pleasantly surprised. Yes, no need to look away, this part’s perfectly safe!! For information all rates quoted here are per month for two persons sharing a two-bedroom flat; figures based on an exchange rate of £1.00 = HK$10.10. I should also clarify that we do our best to live a green and economical lifestyle as regards utility use, this approach might not suit everybody though in this day and age perhaps it ought.
Starting with electricity then; we have two power companies, one mainly for Hong Kong Island and the other for Kowloon and the New Territories – tariffs are generally similar and very reasonable. Sultry summer months tend to be more costly due to use of air-conditioning, we also use electricity for light, a few appliances and cooking, nevertheless our monthly bill averages out at £28. Not bad! Now for gas; being off-grid in a village house means we use bottled gas, in our case only for hot water. This generally works out at about £5.40 per month. Water is so ridiculously cheap it invites half the population to waste it needlessly, for us it’s a mere £2 per month!! Imagine that? Other charges consist of a very basic pay-as-you-go mobile phone we barely use at £1.60 per month and a broadband internet (8Mbps) + Now TV package at £30.30 per month. All in all, very reasonable, and not a Harry Enfield to be seen!
Another significantly pleasing aspect to Hong Kong life is public transport in terms of cost, availability and convenience. We all know of the legendary island trams costing 26p for as far as you want to go and the Star Ferry crossing the scenic harbour for only 27p, but how do the other forms of transport stack up? Quite good in fact, and the Territory is well-served by a fleet of buses with single fares varying from 35p for short journeys to £1.00 for much greater jaunts across the entire Territory. Equivalent cross harbour buses are more expensive, 90p to £2.60, so take the ferry if you have the time – not only is it cheaper it’s also therapeutic! Many routes are served by minibuses with fares ranging from 26p for short hops to £2.20 for long distance.
The Mass Transit Railway (MTR), Hong Kong’s metro seems to be constantly adding lines to more places; fares vary from 45p for one stop to maybe £2.30 for a really lengthy journey of 30 km including a harbour crossing. Again, cross harbour trips are dearer, similarly those on the airport express – if you have the time use the ferry and bus respectively. All in all for such a comprehensive transport system, prices are extremely competitive and, for a world class city, you might even say low.
Shopping for essentials can be an odd experience in Hong Kong and it’s very much down to where you go and how you do it. For example, should you enter the City Super or Yata supermarkets on your debut shopping foray you’d be forgiven, having eyed the price tags, for screaming hysterically, diving Jackie Chan-style through the plate-glass window and rushing headfirst to the airport! And that’s because both stores stock a huge array of highly priced items which fall easily into the I Saw You Coming category, though having said that it is possible, on occasion, to find something slightly cheaper than elsewhere if on special offer. Of course, if you feel the need to splash the cash on that well-deserved treat, why not? – a regular main shop however might be out of the question if you’re sticking to a budget.
A word of warning, beware a trend to pay silly money for extravagantly packaged (read dangerously severe use of plastic) fruit from Japan; admittedly it’s a situation found at most Hong Kong supermarkets these days and appeals greatly to Japan-obsessed locals with more money than sense not to mention hordes of similarly afflicted mainlanders from across the border. At City Super I recently noted approximately 1lb (my estimate) of Japanese cherries on sale at £88 and six Japanese pears at £48; Seriously ! I Saw You Coming, clearly Someone-san in Japan possesses admirable business acumen!
Back to reality now and what of our other more mainstream supermarkets? Well, you’ll soon become familiar with Wellcome and ParknShop, both reasonably priced and apart from the wet markets it’s where most sensible locals will shop. Those with an eye for a bargain, yes, that’s us, can do well on the yellow sticker (reduced for quick sale) front saving a fortune in the process and bringing the total food bill down to UK levels or well below; signing up for loyalty schemes and on-line surveys can yield further reductions.
Newer kids on the block, U-Select and Prizemart are cheaper still but stock range is limited. All are worth a visit however and perhaps that’s the underlying message here: shop around, pick and mix if you really want to save – it is possible! Oh yes, on another topic by the way, to keep me looking as sharp as ever, I can now get a nice haircut for £4.50, that’s the cheapest I’ve had in many years!
Eating and drinking out in Hong Kong is a tricky one to define, it can be as cheap or expensive as you wish. Hong Kongers love their food and I would say probably dine out a lot more than we might do in the west, if not that then at least a takeout at home would be the norm most days. We often enjoy a breakfast out and you can get a very acceptable one with a large mug of coffee for £4 each.
A three-course lunch would set us back in the range £5-7 each or a little higher at £8-10 for huge portions that seriously inhibit your desire for any afternoon activity! And, as stated earlier, a coffee at our favourite chain costs £2.90, sometimes less when they’ve a 2-for-1 deal on the loyalty scheme. Quite which rarefied establishment those report authors ventured into for the privilege of shelling out £5.43 I’ve really no idea and neither has anybody else we know!
Evening time and going out costs are very much down to you and whatever style you fancy; there’s everything from street food to dead posh, think £15-100 per head which isn’t too bad for this calibre of city. Draft beer in a western-style pub can be expensive at £6-8 a pint, but happy hours can bring this down to under £5 in some places and the smaller more localised bars will serve bottle beer for an awful lot less. We of course drink mostly at home with supermarket bought produce, 3 litres of respectable red wine for £8.50 and a litre of gin for £7.80; evenings you’ll understandably find us up on the roof imbibing a peaceful sundowner, balmy atmosphere provided by the tumbling stream at the rear of the house and the fragrant frangipani, now that’s what I call drinking!
And that’s my take on the cost of Hong Kong life, now, that wasn’t too bad was it? But the thing we must appreciate, and I touched on it earlier, is that the great majority of folk here survive on incomes which could hardly be described as high or anywhere near that of an expat package, but survive they do. And that’s the point, if in doubt watch the locals; follow, look and learn – surely a crucial fundamental to getting by anywhere. We seem to be able to make it work on a pension, some savings, nominal pay and prudent economy. In conclusion then, yes, Hong Kong is considered expensive due mainly to rent, but, factor in some of life’s necessities and incidentals and that fearsome cost of living can be significantly reduced to more manageable levels. And even if it does work out a bit higher than other places, you have to admit that paying a slight premium isn’t too bad for living in one of the world’s most exciting cities! I Saw You Coming? Don’t give ‘em a chance!