Carlie: When it came time to think about retiring, Ben Zabulis and his partner Hilary quickly realised that the typical European expat retiree destinations, like Spain, weren’t quite right for them. Instead, they sold up in the UK and moved to Hong Kong, a place that had captured their hearts years before.
Ben’s a regular columnist for Expat Focus, and he joins me in this episode to talk about how he settled back into expat life. Where are you right now, having this conversation with me?
Ben: At the moment I’m sitting on my roof here, in Hong Kong, it’s a village house, surrounded by trees and it’s a very very quite area. Very different to what we think of as Hong Kong.
Carlie: Yeah for sure, especially myself, I know Hong Kong as this bustling metropolis, but that’s not where you’re located.
Ben: Not at all, no. The great thing is that a bus ride away will take us to exactly the Hong Kong you describe. So we have two lives if you like. One is, yes we can take part in that bustling, busy metropolis. And then we can get the bus home, and we’re in this very quiet area, you know I can’t hear any traffic. I can hear birds, I can hear the odd aeroplane going over, but in Hong Kong you can’t get away from that.
You know, we have a nice collection of plants on the roof, we’re sometimes visited by a monkey, there’s snakes by the door. It’s really quite a contrast, and to be honest, maybe that’s the one thing that makes it bearable!
Carlie: Now you sound like you’re from the UK. What brought you to Hong Kong?
Ben: Yes, I’m from the UK, I’m from a place called Nottingham. And many years ago, it was actually in 1984, I developed this yearning, this passion for travel. And fortunately my line of work, which was civil and structural engineering, did allow one to travel and take your job with you.
So I started travelling, and I went off to work in Nigeria in Africa, but then I went back to the UK, and, well, to be honest I just couldn’t settle after all that, it was just too much! So I guess this travel lark had gotten into my blood, and then I was on the lookout again for working overseas.
And I got a job in Japan, which also took me to India a little bit, but anyway, while working in Japan, I met two people from the company that I used to work for in the UK, and they said well, do you want to come to Hong Kong and work in Hong Kong? So I said yes, great stuff.
So after Japan I went to Hong Kong, this was in 1992. And, yeah, I loved the place. But, the work and the busy-ness got a bit tiresome at times, and, and so in 2004 we – that’s my partner who I’d met within that time in Hong Kong – we went back to the UK to see how that would work out, and again it didn’t (laughs)! We just got a little bit bored, and you know, you get itchy feet. And so in 2014 we made the decision, yes, time to go back to Hong Kong and live there and try again. So, we’re back here. We’re not working, so we don’t have those pressures, and it’s actually working out very well.
Carlie: I was gonna say, what is different about your life in Hong Kong this time, compared to when you first moved there?
Ben: Well I think that’s the main one, that there’s no work pressure. And you know, Hong Kong, the work ethic, it can be manic at times. Well actually it’s always manic! But now, we, we seem to be able to, if you like, call the shots a little bit. We can do a little bit of work when we want, and, and do nothing if we want to do that too.
So at the moment I, I do a little bit of teaching here and there, which brings in a little bit of money. My partner Hilary, who I mentioned previously, she also does a little bit more teaching than me, and then in between that I do a few travel blogs, well contribute to a few travel blogs, and of course write the Expat Focus column as well. And that’s it. So it’s a much more relaxed, you know, sort of lifestyle, you don’t have to get up with that alarm clock in the morning, and you’re not coming home sort of about 6 or even getting up at 7 o’clock, so in that regard it’s a much nicer, we can handle the chaos, the crowds, and it’s just so, so much easier.
Carlie: When you decided to leave the UK again, what was it about Hong Kong that made you both decide this was the place you wanted to be?
Ben: Mmm, good question really. To be honest, when we decided to leave the UK it, it wasn’t really Hong Kong at first. We thought about going to live in Spain, Canary Islands, and the more we looked at it, the more we realised that although it’s still the EU, there’s still a lot of hoops you have to jump through to sort of be able to buy a house, and you have to register for this and that and the other.
And then we thought, actually funnily enough because when we were in the Canary Islands looking, we actually looked at some properties, but, very close to the estate agent was a Chinese restaurant. And every time we passed this Chinese restaurant, I know something must have stirred our heart, and we suddenly realised, well, maybe that’s where our hearts really should be. We realised that, you know, having the right of abode in Hong Kong, which we’d gained before from seven years living here, we didn’t have to do any special trips to come in, you know, we could just walk straight in and live here. And in effect that’s what we’ve been doing.
Carlie: What would you say the most challenging aspects are of life in Hong Kong?
Ben: Well, at the moment it’s summertime, so I would say its very high temperatures! Funnily enough I think global warming has made it a little bit hotter here, than, than what it was before. That’s certainly a challenge.
Of course the crowds can be a challenge when you go out, because, you know, many parts of Hong Kong are amongst the densest populated in the world, so that will always play on your nerves a little bit.
Language can be a challenge too, but you know, we’re overcoming that, bits here, bits there, and you know, you do pick up quite a bit, and we picked up quite a bit before. On this occasion I’ve been concentrating more on the written form, so I’m able to read a lot more than before. The irony is that when I’m not working, I sort of have a lot more time to put into those sort of things now.
So, well I wouldn’t say there was a main challenge as such, but there are challenges, smaller challenges, in working here, but living here, I think on the whole, it’s easy-going.
Carlie: What makes Hong Kong such a perfect retirement, or semi-retirement destination for you? Compared to, you mentioned you were looking into the Canary Islands or Spain.
Ben: You know, I suppose we could say we’ve travelled quite a bit, and I think the one thing we have learnt is that nowhere’s perfect. So wherever you go there’s going to be problems of some sort. And we thought that, you know, Hong Kong is probably the best, well maybe it’s a case of better the devil you know! So, we were comfortable in Hong Kong, we had a good infrastructure of friends, and we knew how the system works, we knew a lot of things about Hong Kong. And I think that’s one thing that draws you, there’s a lot going on here, there’s so much to do.
It’s got a fascinating history, you’ve got the Chinese side, you’ve got the old colonial side. Politics now is entering the fray, that’s quite a new thing. There’s a lot to do, you know, we’ve just had the dragon boat festival, that’s great fun. We do a lot of hiking, you know, people wouldn’t associate hiking with Hong Kong, but, but we do.
And it, of course, being a fairly small place, it’s easy to get around. Public transport is, well I’d say second to none. And it’s very cheap, and it’s a great way of getting around, and Hong Kong is really, it’s such a lovely place, I think the people are very nice. It’s safe. Now that’s also a very important thing. And, and you have the sort of, as I said, the diverse contrast of the big city compared to the countryside. And just a short bus ride between the two.
Carlie: How does cost of living compare, Ben, compared to the UK? Do you feel like you’re saving money being somewhere like Hong Kong?
Ben: Oh no, no, no! No, not saving money, no! (laughs) Well, to be honest, you know, the rents here are very expensive. I mean it’s famous for that, Hong Kong is one of the most expensive places to rent. And we are renting. We sold our house in the UK to sort of fund our rent, and to be honest we’ve got a bit of savings as well which helps. Cost-wise generally, I think it probably works out, if you factor in all the extra costs, such as the gas, the electric, the water, public transport, probably the cost per month is not really a lot different from, say, renting somewhere in Nottingham.
The rent here, yes it’s expensive, but the water, ridiculously cheap, as is electricity, the gas. We hardly notice those costs, whereas in England they are major challenges to your budget, you know. So we’re not saving money, but then I suppose at our age also, it’s not really much of an intention to save money, so if, sort of in a way I suppose we’re sort of throwing caution to the wind, and enjoying it all while we can.
Carlie: Living out the best years.
Ben: Well yes, I’d like to think that was the case (laughs).
Carlie: And what’s the expat community like, particularly as you’re not in the city centre of Hong Kong? Do you have a lot of support networks?
Ben: To be honest no, we don’t really. I said that we have had a lot of expat friends here, but of course, over the years they’ve all drifted away. So we don’t really have too many at all, and most of our friends tend to be local.
Just recently I’ve joined the alumni committee for Nottingham Trent University. So that’s quite interesting, and that takes me over to central a few times, you know, now and again, and for the bars, and that sort of thing, so on the whole our life is probably more geared slightly towards the local side, than to the expat side, you know.
As I say, before, when we lived here before we had a lot more expat friends. But then we lived also in a place called Sha Tin which was a bit more lively and busier, and we could walk to some, well one or two nice bars and you’d meet people there. Here we tend not to do that, we tend to stay in a lot, being a bit more village and countryside-ish. It’s a slightly different lifestyle to what we had before.
Carlie: And how do the locals take to you?
Ben: It’s no problem really, it was very easy to adapt to. You know, we get on very well with the people in the village, they’re very kind, they’re very pleasant. Some may say they’re not like Hong Kongers at all! (laughs) But they really are very nice. Hong Kong people are actually, I would have to say, very nice, they’re very helpful. And they’ve done a lot for us, and we like to do a lot for them too, so.
Carlie: Is there anything you found easier than expected coming back to Hong Kong?
Ben: Yes, actually, to be honest it’s the way we were able to come back, and we could just walk in as if we hadn’t been away. And, there’s a lot of, I wouldn’t say anger in the community, but there is a lot of anti-China sentiment. There’s a lot of people trying to promote Hong Kong independence, trying to get more autonomy for Hong Kong, more democracy.
To be honest we thought having been away quite a period of time, well, 10 years, that they would’ve sort of not really liked the Brits any more, or wouldn’t be so welcoming of us, they might not want us to come back. But it seemed quite the reverse, they were really very happy to see you, and, and people don’t seem to be at all angry about the history of Britain coming here, colonising and maybe in some ways making life difficult for locals at the time. This seems to be all forgotten, it’s like ‘come back, all is forgiven’. In a way we’re sort of regarded at a slightly higher level than the mainland Chinese are.
Carlie: And obviously Hong Kong having that history as a British colony, do you find it easy to get the things you’re missing from home, or are there aspects of UK life that you can’t really replicate in Hong Kong, or that you do kind of yearn for sometimes?
Ben: Well, you’re gonna laugh about this, but the one thing we did miss were pork pies (laughs). And we’ve just realised, well, the funny thing is, we’ve just found out you can buy them here. Because we have a few branches of Marks and Spencers, and they do sell pork pies, so now we can get them! So now there’s really nothing that we miss at all!
Carlie: That’s brilliant, you’ve got everything you need, it’s like you’re back home!
Ben: Well you could say that, yes, and of course you know, because the great thing is, with the colonial past that English is an official language here, so that’s a very convenient thing, let’s not, you know, mess around on that one, it’s great. And also there’s still aspects of the British way of life that carry on here. You know, the people are well-mannered, they queue, the bus services are very efficient, the civil service is based on the English system. The roads have the English, the British system, it’s a good help, so it’s a little bit like Nottingham, but about 20 degrees warmer! (laughs)
Carlie: Which wouldn’t be too unpleasant at all!
Ben: No, not at all!
Carlie: Ben, obviously you had this familiarity coming back to Hong Kong, somewhere you’d lived before, you’d tackled challenges in the past. But what would be your top pieces of advice for people looking to move, who may be moving to Hong Kong for the very first time?
Ben: Well, I would say, to be honest, just get ready for the adventure of a lifetime! Because that’s how it is.
You know, anybody coming to Hong Kong, yes it’s got a reputation for being expensive, but you know, when you factor the other stuff in like I said earlier, together with some items that, you know, some restaurants and cafes can be quite cheap, you know it’s not as frighteningly or as horrendously expensive as you’re really led to believe.
You know, like with any city, whether it’s London or Tokyo, you find your cheap places, because even the local people, they’re not all on big pay packets or this sort of thing, they have to save money too, so you’ll find the cheap places.
It’s one of those cities that will just grab you by the whatevers, and just take you in, and you’ll love it, you know. Some people come here and they hate it, OK, but it’s a minority. And I think most people, they will come here, even if they didn’t want to come here at first, maybe their company sends them or something. But they end up liking it, you know, and I know a lot of people here, not a lot, but most of the people I know who are foreigners, they came for maybe a year or two, and they just stayed on.
In fact even after the handover, a lot of the police, the senior civil servants, even some government officials, they all stayed. Very few of them left. OK, maybe Chris Patten left, well, that was the job, he had to go, as the Governor, in ’97. But a lot of people, you know, not really that high up the ladder, they are still here, you know. You meet a lot of people who, they’ve been here well, probably more than half a lifetime, you know, some were even born here. They have that sort of affection for the place.
Even going back to the war time, and a lot of the people that were put in prison by the Japanese, children at the time, but they are still here, a lot of them might have gone to live back in England or Australia or Canada, but they always come back, you know, and it sort of, it does that to you, it gets to you, it gets under your skin, you know (laughs).
And I’ve often said that, you can’t live in Hong Kong, and you can’t not live in Hong Kong. So it gets to you, and you really have to be here (laughs).
Carlie: So in saying that, there’s no plans to have another stint in the UK?
Ben: No, no, I think for the moment I can’t see that happening. Of course we must never say never, but in our current mood I would say there’s very little chance of that. You know, we don’t know, we don’t know what the future’s going to hold for us. There may be reasons to go back, we may have health problems, you know, we’re both in our 60s now, you never know. But, again, you know, living out here, you know, it’s stress-free, you’ve got the temperature, you’ve got a good health service here, a lot of good facilities, you know it does sort of keep us going, you know, and maybe it’s good for our health.
Carlie: Well that’s it for today. You can read more about Ben’s Hong Kong expat experiences in his regular column for Expat Focus. And if you have any questions, head to expatfocus.com and follow the links to our forums and Facebook groups. You can listen to more of our podcast episodes on the website as well, or through your favourite podcasting app. And I’ll catch you next time.