Staying Healthy As An Expat In Hong Kong

Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast. We are chatting to one of our regular columnists today, Ben Zabulis, who I’ve interviewed in the past about his decision to retire to Hong Kong. Now, lots has been happening in the world since our last chat, so I’m really keen to check in with him and hear his perspective, and also find out how he and his partner keep themselves well and healthy as retirees abroad.

I hope you enjoy this conversation, and if you are looking for expat health and wellness resources yourself, head over to our website, expatfocus.com.

Ben, I realised the other day that it has been about three years since we last had a conversation. How are you doing?

Ben: I’m doing very well, thank you. Yeah. The time has gone so quickly. I can’t believe it’s been three years. It’s just like yesterday.

Carlie: For those who haven’t listened to our first chat, or who haven’t been reading your columns on expatfocus.com, you and your partner, Hillary, did retire to Hong Kong. Can you give us a bit of a recap of what led you to do that?

Ben: Well, it’s a bit of a long story. I should point out that most of my long-term travel has been through work or work-related. I was never a long-term backpacker or a digital nomad, as they call them nowadays. So, I went off to work, and in ‘92, I went to Hong Kong, and I met my partner over there, and I was working.

But in 2004, we decided to go back to England. So, it was a sort of early retirement. Hong Kong was getting a little bit manic. The work was getting crazy. I also had a house to sort out. My mother had recently passed away, and there was a house to sort out and all that. So, we decided to go back, and we were there just about 10 years.

I suppose we found it very restrictive. It wasn’t really what we wanted. And so, we thought we would emigrate. And we looked around at many places. Spain was an idea. Canary Islands was an idea. And then we thought, Well, wait a minute, because we have got residency in Hong Kong, why don’t we go back to Hong Kong? And so, we did.

We thought, at first, that it would be a very expensive exercise. Hong Kong has a reputation for being very pricey. It is and it isn’t – it’s two worlds. And so, we decided to give it a shot. And it’s already been just over six years now, and we are back here. It hasn’t proved as expensive as we thought, because of course, when we were working before, it didn’t really matter. You got a good salary; you could pay any rent and all the expenses. No problem. If you were lucky, the company could pay a lot of it, too.

But when you’re on your own, you’ve only got your savings. Maybe a small pension, or something like that. It’s more difficult to make ends meet. But it’s been surprisingly successful. The rent is quite high here, but the other bills are quite reasonable. So, we’re very happy at the moment. And that’s it. That’s – to cut a long story short – it.

Carlie: So, I’m curious, the second stint in Hong Kong is obviously different to before, because you’re not working. It’s a very different way of life when you’re living the retired life. Can you take me through a typical day or week for you both?

Ben: Well, it’s actually very quiet. We’re actually very good at doing nothing. We’re very experienced now. But the good thing about Hong Kong is you have this parallel culture, which is the Chinese side, alongside your Western side, if you like. And there’s always something going on. And it makes it very interesting.

And also, you can have an interest in the flora, the fauna, the language, and all sorts. So, the day passes very quickly, and we tend not to do very much. We keep the brains exercised. We’ve got into the Guardian newspaper, which does an online crossword called the Genius.

Carlie: I was going to ask if you did Sudoku or something.

Ben: We do a lot of those. We’ve never won yet, but we always manage to finish it, which is the main thing. And the Genius crossword is very, very difficult – they make it so – and it can keep us going through a month. It comes out every month. There’s a £100 prize. And so, that keeps us busy. We have a good mix of things. I think that’s the key: variety.

Carlie: Absolutely. I know health is so important, even more so as you get older. In this past year, I think, for so many of us, it has been in the spotlight, with Covid-19 and everything that has come with it. So, what do you both do consciously to stay well and healthy?

Ben: I think it’s quite simple. I think we eat well and we sleep well, and more importantly, there’s no stress, no pressure. And I think that’s the most dangerous thing in our life nowadays: stress, pressure, call it what you like. So, we generally just have a very laid-back life. We have a positive outlook on everything. We don’t let anything get us down.

It’s as simple as that, truly. Good food, rest, occasional walking … We walk a lot. We do some hiking. Hong Kong is very good for hiking. And that’s it. It’s just a very pleasant lifestyle.

Carlie: Would you say that Hong Kong is a very health-conscious city?

Ben: Yes, I think it is, actually. People like to go out and play sport. Cycling is very popular. Hiking, as I’ve just mentioned, is probably the national pastime. Everybody does it. You think of Hong Kong as a big city, but there are so many lovely hiking trails. Within an hour, you can be out of the city. You don’t see another person, even though it can be very popular.

Water sports are very popular. In fact, when I was working for the company, we had a dragon boat team. That was great fun. If you think about it, factories in the UK have a football team or a cricket team. Well, here it’s a dragon boat team. You see, it translates quite nicely. So, that is very popular.

The hiking … We did lots of competitive hikes, and also we did what was called the pedal carts race. And every year, in one of the parks here, they have a charity 24-hour paddle carts race, where you paddle these carts all around this circuit for 24 hours.

Carlie: I’m sort of picturing something between a bicycle and a go kart that you’re kind of sitting in.

Ben: Yes, it’s like a go kart but with pedals. You have to pedal as fast as you can. And so, those sorts of things. People are very health conscious. I think, more recently, food-wise, they are also more health conscious. Before, maybe the food here had a bad reputation? A lot of MSG and that sort of thing. And that’s really being phased out quite a lot now. The salt content is much less.

So, I think they are very health conscious. I think, on the whole, they are quite healthy people, the Chinese. People seem to think obesity is a problem here, especially with school children, but I’m not sure myself. I can’t see it.

Carlie: I know, here in France, as an Aussie in France, I am guilty of indulging way too much in baguettes and croissants. I love a little tarte de citron – a little meringue lemon tart – and it’s the reason why I’ve put on the Covid-19 kilos, or at least one of the reasons.

I think in the UK they called it the Heathrow injection, when Aussies went to the UK and got a bit of weight on them. First, I had the Heathrow injection, and I don’t know what the equivalent is in France – the baguette bum, or something like that. But I’ve definitely got that problem.

So, what are some real treats in Hong Kong, and how do you stop yourself from just feeling like you’re on a permanent holiday and eating that sort of stuff all the time?

Ben: We don’t stop eating it. I think moderation is the key. One of the things you get here is … I don’t know whether you’ve heard of those Portuguese egg tarts?

Carlie: Yes, I have.

Ben: They are very sweet and very tasty. They are here by virtue of a Macau, which is just down the road. And they have the Portuguese influence, and of course they have these egg tarts, and of course they travel very well. Now we make our own here in Hong Kong, and they are very sweet and very moreish and very lovely. So again, we would only have them very occasionally.

Another one … We also have a Marks and Spencer’s. I don’t know if I should be mentioning brand names here. But [anyway], they do pork pies. It’s a very British thing – Northern England, actually. And they are very, very tasty, but again, it’s moderation. We wouldn’t have them all day every day, but maybe once a month.

Carlie: Yeah. I’ve definitely found that the Aussie foods subscription services here in Europe are great for getting snacks.

Ben: Yeah, so it’s the same thing really. It’s another nice thing, having the East meets West aspect. We have all the local produce, but you can still go to M&S and buy all this stuff from England.

Carlie: Those tastes from home.

Ben: Exactly, yes. So, I would say: moderation; take it easy.

Carlie: Something I need to learn a bit more.

Ben: Discipline!

Carlie: Ben, we do get a lot of questions – in the Expat Focus Facebook groups, in particular – about healthcare when you’re living abroad. And I’m curious, for yourself and your partner, you moved to Hong Kong as retirees. Obviously, everyone’s situation is different, but I’m curious, for yourselves, what did you find as a solution for healthcare / health insurance?

Ben: To be honest, we haven’t. We’ve got residency, so we can use the local system whenever we want, but we haven’t, as yet, bothered to take out any private insurance. We’re both quite fit for our age, and we don’t pre-empt anything. I think we work on the [idea that] prevention is better than the cure.

So, we try and have this positive outlook and good diet and stay healthy. And that seems to be working. We haven’t yet bothered with health insurance. Maybe we should. But we can, if there is a problem, use the local system. So, we’re happy to do that at the moment.

Carlie: Does the local system cover a lot of out-of-pocket expenses?

Ben: It does. Yes, it does. It’s the same as the NHS, really. You could say that probably it’s modelled on the NHS from the British days, in fact. You pay a nominal fee, which might be just a few pounds for a consultation or something like this. And of course, if there’s any medicine, you would have to pay for that. But generally, it’s a very well subsidised system.

There are many people in Hong Kong, still, who are probably more or less on the poverty line, so it’s really for them and to help them get good treatment. A lot of companies now, they offer top-up medical insurance, and this sort of thing, as a condition of employment. And that’s very good. That’s a relatively new thing, I think. So, at the moment, we are very fit and healthy. Hopefully, we’ll stay that way, but we haven’t done anything about it.

Carlie: Well, you’re keeping your custard tart and mince pie intake at a low level, so I think you’re taking the right approach.

Ben: That’s right. Yes, exactly. It’s just keeping a very positive outlook, and I think that’s half the battle. There’s no stress; there’s no depression. You just keep cheerful and take every day as it comes.

Carlie: Well, speaking of outlooks, I think it has been a challenge to keep positive all the time in the last couple of years. Looking at your situation in particular, you’re from the UK, where, since we last spoke, Brexit has happened.

And that’s caused a lot of pain and anger, particularly among British expats. We’ve had, of course, the past year with Covid-19. And then, of course, in Hong Kong, there have been quite intense protests happening for a good year. And I’m not sure if that’s still going on?

Ben: No, it’s not going on now. As you say, it went on for most of 2019. And they were interesting times. I never thought that would happen in Hong Kong, because the Hong Kong people are generally quiet, peaceful, meek, and mild, you might say. And when they were all there on the streets and fighting and shouting, it was quite an inspiration.

The good thing about the riots is that there was actually a programme of them. You could see where it was going to be. Yes, it was very well organised. So, usually they started out as a peaceful march in the daytime, but towards the end, there would be some sort of change, and it would develop into a violent situation.

I wouldn’t like to say who was at fault, whether it was the protestors or whether it was the police – probably 50/50 – but they usually ended in violence. And that was a shame, because the actual daytime walks were very peaceful. All sorts of people, including children and older people … There was something of a carnival atmosphere, almost.

[It was] a bit like some of the protest marches in England – although I don’t think they’re very peaceful nowadays. But on the whole, yes, that was a problem. It got very much out of hand, and then along came Covid-19 and the restrictions on outdoor activities. So, of course, that put an end to the marches and protests.

Then the government did really well here with Covid-19 and organising it and managing to contain it. We’ve done very well for a city of 7 million people. We’ve only had, I think, just under 12,000 on the infection numbers, and deaths of only about, I think, 210, which is very impressive.

The moment they knew this thing was coming, they closed the borders. We all wore face masks. And then, the Track and Trace was super. There was a doctor, one of our head doctors, who used to come on the television every night. And she would say that patient number three is related to patient number six, who is a stepmother to patient number seven, etc. They knew everyone and were able to contain it. And it was almost down to zero.

And then they opened the borders again, to let a lot of people come back in – mostly from the UK, students, really – and they all had Covid-19. So then it went up again a little bit, but now it’s down to … Well, I think we’ve had no cases today or yesterday or the day before. So, it’s looking quite promising now. But, as I say, we were very careful. Social distancing was the norm.

It didn’t really impact on our lives. It was the same as the protests. We were never really in those places. The protests were very localised. Covid-19 is not, but again, you can be very careful. Our supermarkets and our shops remained open. The coffee shops and the restaurants remained open. Only the bars closed, really. That was the only thing. And some of those are still closed.

But again, through all this, yes, you could go a bit mad. But again, [it’s having] a positive outlook. We can say that, with the riots, there was a positive side. Hong Kong has found its political awareness, if you like. With Covid-19, the positive side is that the air quality improved dramatically, because nobody was traveling.

And also, I don’t know if you know about our pink dolphins in the sea. They were an endangered species. You can go and see them, if you want. They were endangered, but because of the drop in sea traffic, they are now multiplying again, and they’re coming back. So, each one of these problems has a positive aspect.

I don’t know how Brexit will impact us. I’m not sure it will, actually. It may have repercussions for trade, but on a personal level, I don’t think it’s going to cause a significant problem. I hope it works for them, but you don’t know.

Carlie: It sounds like really, from a mental health perspective, you and your partner are doing all the right things and keeping a really positive outlook, through what has been quite a disruptive couple of years.

Ben: Yes, definitely. I think you’ve got to just keep going. But as I say, we’re lucky here. We didn’t really have the severe lockdowns that we’re seeing in Europe. It didn’t really impact our lives significantly. We kept going out; we kept going to our favourite coffee shops. We kept going hiking. There was no great lockdown. And so, from that point of view, we weren’t so contained.

I know friends in the UK who have struggled with it, and a lot of people have had issues, but fortunately we haven’t, and we were able to carry on more or less as normal.

Carlie: And now the vaccination rollouts have begun. I know, here in France, I’m so excited. I’ve had my first jab, and I can’t for the second one. And I don’t know if it will change much about life, but at least I’ll feel a bit more protected. I have read that in Hong Kong, they’re actually offering incentives for people to get vaccinations. Like, there’s a lottery, and there are free flights going…

Ben: Yes. Apparently, some housing company has put a flat available for the lottery. And it’s a flat of only about 500 square feet, but it’s 10 million Hong Kong dollars. Now, that’s just under a million pounds, which gives you some idea of the property prices. And also, I think the airport authority have made available 500,000 flights. I mean, that’s half a million.

Carlie: They really want people to get vaccinated.

Ben: I don’t know whether people will be taken in. I’m not sure. I think, again, it stems from the protests and a mistrust of the government. People are perhaps politicising the whole vaccine arrangement. I, myself, haven’t applied for it yet. I’m happy to be as I am

Carlie: You don’t want to win a house or free flights?

Ben: But Carlie, what would I do with it? At the moment, I’m happy that the supplies they have got here should be used for the frontline workers, and they can have it all first. I do regard myself as, I suppose, low risk, in that we don’t go to crowded places very much. We don’t really have to go out that much now – two or three times a week. That’s okay for us.

So, again, it’s something that, if the situation gets more serious, I might do it. We haven’t got any travel plans, so that’s not an issue at the moment. In fact, I don’t even have a passport now; my passport expired last August. I haven’t renewed it yet – it seems pointless at the moment, as we can’t go anywhere.

Carlie: Well, on a final note, I was going to ask, what’s coming up for you? Clearly not travel.

Ben: Well, not yet. It will, I’m sure, feature at some point in the future. For me, and for us, I think I would just like things to carry on as they are, for the moment. Let’s enjoy the stability and the safety. The virus has gone, and the social unrest has gone, and we’ve got new laws now that mean it won’t come back, I don’t think, even though the feeling remains.

I would just like things to carry on as they are. It’s going to be a very different world anyway. So, how will we react to that? I don’t know. We’ll just stay healthy, stay happy, and carry on enjoying Hong Kong. We’re very lucky to be in Hong Kong. It’s just a fantastic place. There’s so much to do. There are many places to visit – good parks, good museums. You’ve got the harbour. There are plenty of places to visit – outlying islands and all sorts. So, that can keep us busy for a very long time.

Carlie: Well, I hope you enjoyed that catch up with Ben! You can read more from him about life in Hong Kong in his regular column for Expat Focus. Find it at expatfocus.com.

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re now recording video podcasts! So, if you would like a peek behind the microphone, search ‘Expat Focus’ on YouTube. The videos are also available on our website – just head to the podcast section. Remember to follow us or subscribe, so that you never miss an episode, and I’ll catch you next time.