Beauty and the Beast: comparing Hong Kong & and Singapore for expats

16 October 2018

This article was written by Rob Chipman, former President of FIDI, and CEO of Asian Tiger Mobility in Hong Kong. Rob is a global mobility expert with many years of experience under his belt. He has gotten to know the city of Hong Kong like no one else.

I live in Hong Kong, and I love Hong Kong. For 17 years, this has been my adopted home and there is nowhere else I would rather live, work, play and raise my children.

I travel to Singapore regularly, so I have the chance to compare these two great cities on an ongoing basis. And I’m not the only one.

The domesticated beauty of Singapore

When expats arrive in Singapore they will notice how well the general population speaks English, with a melodious lilt too. The 20-minute taxi ride to Orchard Road area takes you along highways that looks like they have been maintained with nail clippers, an emery board and a pair of tweezers.

If you should happen to arrive at night, you’ll notice the creative use of light. Singaporeans are experts at using up-lighting and down-lighting to show off majestic banyan trees and wonderfully restored colonial-era buildings.

As individuals, Singaporeans are, with very few exceptions, extraordinarily polite. It is not unusual for people to make eye contact, smile and perhaps offer a welcome greeting when you pass them on the street.

The exhilarating chaos of Hong Kong

Hong Kong is different. Very different. Both cities both English colonies for more than 150 years, yet Singaporean English is excellent, while Hong Kong English ranges from barely passable to incomprehensible.

Hong Kong is crowded, chaotic and dirty. The cleanest street in Hong Kong (after 17 years, I’m still looking for one) roughly equates to the dirtiest street in Singapore. But that’s not much of a contest since I haven’t yet found a dirty street in Singapore.

Sadly, there are very few colonial buildings left in Hong Kong. Instead, Hong Kong developers have been quick to build monotonous, glass curtain wall skyscrapers – impressive, yes, but giving very little character to the city.

Hong Kong people you pass in the street would rather undergo a root canal than look you in the eye. Smiling is taboo. A casual hello? Please, be serious. Hold a door open for you? Are you kidding?

Easily the most irritating feature of Hong Kong is the local elevator etiquette. Rules for using lifts in Hong Kong are actually quite simple and you’ll learn them quickly:

  1. Rush into the elevator as soon as the doors open. Do not allow people to exit first.
  2. Always speak as loudly as possible, no matter how close the other person is to you.
  3. Hacking, coughing, spitting, belching and breaking wind are all perfectly acceptable in a lift.
  4. If you want to take the lift down, always press the up and down button. Make the lift stop no matter what direction you are going.
  5. As soon as you get in the lift, locate and begin pressing the close button. If someone is racing to catch the lift, then press harder and faster.

Clean vs exciting? I choose …

I love Hong Kong. I have grown to admire the local Cantonese people in more ways than I can count. As much as I like Singapore, given the choice, I’d still opt for Hong Kong. Why? Well, sometimes clean and polite can morph into sterile and cold. Much the same way that seamy and crass can become exciting and intriguing.

In short? Thriving as an expat depends on you, on the location, and on the culture you’re in.

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