An American Artist in Hong Kong

American expat Elizabeth is no newbie when it comes to the Asian way of life, having lived in Cambodia for some time before moving with her husband to Hong Kong, China. A writer-illustrator, she shares with us some of her expat experiences in Hong Kong, such as the survival skills she's learned, and her "cheap-and-cheerful" spending habits in her Hong Kong island home.
 
Elizabeth Briel
Elizabeth Briel

-Where were you born?

California, USA

-In which country and city are you living now?

Hong Kong, China

  A fishing boat from Aberdeen Harbor, Hong Kong Island

-Are you living alone or with your family?

With my husband, Roy McClean

-How long have you been living in Hong Kong?

2 years

-What is your age?

34

-When did you come up with the idea of living in Hong Kong?

It was Roy's idea. He'd found a Kung Fu master he wanted to study with in Kowloon (HK), and he'd always enjoyed the city, so decided to teach English here during the day and train in martial arts at night.

We haven't been on a post-colonial "expat posting" by any means; we've made our own way here, on our own terms. It's been a more difficult, but more flexible arrangement.

-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?

There are different ways to go about it: one needs to be sponsored by someone - an employer, or a permanent resident (by marrying them), or self-sponsoring via a business visa. I agreed to move here because I could remain here on a dependent visa, which would allow me to freelance for various employers.

HK has always been open to entrepreneurs. Technically I run my own art company, The Cyan Studio. Though I've closed the gallery/studio space to focus on other projects, I still work under my business name. Eventually this could be turned into an endeavor to sponsor my own visa.

-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?

As I've no chronic health problems and am under 40, I don't have private insurance yet. The public health system here is very efficient, and a good value - like most HK government services.

-How do you make your living in Hong Kong? Do you have any type of income generated?

I also teach painting 2 days a week to adults and children at an art center, and sell my artwork. My living costs are quite low due to the affordable island where I live, and my cheap-and-cheerful spending habits.

 Fisherman's house on the rarely-visited Park Island

For the teaching, I responded to an ad in the English-language South China Morning Post, but networking is of course the best way to get good jobs. The freelance projects originated from postings on my blog which were then turned into free essays for a book, then led to some paying work.

All the work I've gotten here has been once on the ground, but my field relies more on personal connections than most. Many executive expats come here via a transfer within their international company.

It's very industry-specific in HK. Finding my first job here took about 2 months, but this varies depending on your experience and industry. Traditionally, finance/banking are safe bets for jobs here, but naturally that's in flux right now.

For most of the "jobs" I've worked here, I've used recruiting sites like http://www.jobsdb.com, but I really found the HK edition of recruit.net gave me a great variety of possibilities not found elsewhere. I did searches for "native speakers", "art", "painting", etc.

Again, networking is by far the best way to get a job in HK, or anywhere.

-Do you speak the local language and do you think it's important to speak the local language? Please add your thoughts on local customs and whether it's important for expats to respect/observe local customs.

Ashamed to admit it but I don't speak much at all, just basic "market Cantonese" for greeting and haggling over prices. If you speak the local language it shows respect for where you're living. If we planned to stay here long-term, I would've taken a language course somewhere like the always entertaining Happy Jellyfish language bureau: http://www.happyjellyfish.com.

After 5 years in Asia, local customs in a new place are pretty straightforward. One skill to master here is the flexible walking patterns: people don't walk in a straight line, they wander in the general direction in which they're going, and react unconsciously to those around them. I think it's a survival skill in such a densely populated place.

-Do you miss home and family sometimes? Describe your favorite recreational activities there or those that are available.

Nope, home is wherever I am. My husband is British, we met in South Korea, and don't intend to live long-term in either of the countries where we were born; we're still looking for a place where we'd like to spend most of the year. It may be our next destination: Australia.

We've really enjoyed the island where we live, Lamma Island (http://www.lamma.com.hk). There are lots of hiking and swimming opportunities around the corner, but we're also happy to just split a bottle of wine on our balcony and enjoy our view of a lush green valley.

-Do you have other plans for the future?

Yes! We are in the process of moving to Sydney, where Roy has a job in the water industry, thanks to his previous experience in the UK. I've a 3-month project to research handmade SE Asian papermaking next spring for a new book with ThingsAsian Press, and have also been invited by my old sculpture teacher to stay at his art center in Tuscany over the summer. Hopefully I'll manage both endeavors next year, while keeping an eye out for art opportunities in Australia.

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?

We rent a 650-square foot flat on Lamma Island, a 30-minute ferry ride from the Central business district of Hong Kong. Our flat is a 15-minute walk from the ferry pier, which means it's cheaper than some: it's only around US$625/month. For the same space, one could pay anywhere from US$1000-10,000 or more in HK, depending on where you decide to live. We might have considered buying here, but buildings are designed with planned obsolescence in mind.

 View from the Star Ferry at night

-What is the cost of living in Hong Kong?

As mentioned above, it can vary enormously, though rents in some areas will probably go down next year. One can live well on US$1000/month, or twenty times that, it all depends on your spending habits and creativity.

-What do you think about the locals?

Aside from foreigner ghettos like the bar district of Lan Kwai Fong, HK is not "western" or "westernized", as is the popular perception elsewhere. It is Chinese but not quite "China". A unique place, and quite a contrast to neighboring Macau, though the Pearl River Delta is naturally beginning to become a more tightly-knit region.

I think HK is a fantastic introduction to Asia for a first-time visitor: it's "exotic" yet has familiar aspects and is built for the convenience of residents and travellers alike. Our airport is regularly voted as the best in the world, and I'd have to agree.  There's also the somewhat antipathetic legacy of colonialism. Some ambivalence about Mainland China, but it seems the prejudices towards "mainlanders" are growing more muted.

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Hong Kong?

Plus:

  • Convenience, convenience, convenience!! (HK's #1 priority)
  • Low taxes, especially if you're married, and virtually no VAT (sales tax). It's a great place to build your savings.
  • It's easy and affordable to get anywhere in Asia from HK. Oz/NZ are also accessible from here, Europe, India, and N. America are all manageable, too.

Minus:

  • Terrible air pollution, produced locally by idling cars and hyperactive air-conditioning habits, and by HK-owned factories just over the border. This may improve in coming years, with stricter labor laws in Guangzhou forcing factories to take their dodgy business to more accommodating provinces, and the economic downturn slowing production.
  • With a priority exclusively on business rather than culture, HK can seem soulless to creative types, but there are definitely opportunities here, if you hunt for them.

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Hong Kong?

Get out of your tiny apartment and get involved in something related to your interests. There will be lots of fascinating people to meet: some will have strong HK roots, others will be in the process of making their own. Either way, you won't forget this crazy metropolis.

-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Hong Kong?

  • Here's a blog with images from the bilingual children's book I've recently illustrated:

Cover of my new children's book

Your work is Beautiful!

Amyji's picture

I very much enjoyed reading your interview about Hong Kong. Your life sounds so exciting and I'm glad you're taking opportunities to further your artistic endeavors in Asia. Thank you for your fascinating interview.

Hi, thank you for the great

rbanova's picture

Hi, thank you for the great interview. I am a pianist, single, my husband just passed away. I am 35 and got offered a position in Yantai, China at Ludong University as a piano professor. They pay for my apartment and trip to and from China to the US where I live now. However, the monthly salary is 5000 yen (equal to less than $800) a month for 12 hours of teaching a week. Is that a salary that would allow me to live comfortably by myself? Any advice will be greatly appreciated. Thanks.