I was a Hong Kong expat for 18 years – the level of privilege was astounding

Amid the soaring skylines and neon-bathed streets of Hong Kong, Expats is a new six-part thriller starring Nicole Kidman which will resonate with many foreigners who have called the city home.

For 18 years I was one of those 600,000 expats, living in the city of 7.5 million – but not all expat lives were created equally, as the series, based on the 2016 book Expatriates by Janice K Lee, reveals.

My experience was almost wholly positive, a largely carefree, extremely privileged time where living life to its fullest was the mantra. It was a thrilling cultural and social ride. Every day was different.

I landed in 2005, ostensibly on an 18-month work contract, but like so many was quickly won over by Hong Kong’s “always-on” energy and the brilliant, no-nonsense Cantonese approach to life.

One word heard time and again among my peers – at least those fortunate to be earning above-average salaries – was “convenient”. Everything – more or less – worked.

Getting a Hong Kong ID card, a critical document, took about two hours. In a city which defines the mantra “time is money”, finding an apartment, utilities and settling in was a breeze.

That apartment was, admittedly, tiny. One thing you give up in Hong Kong – unless, like Kidman’s character Margaret, you’re lucky enough to live in the wealthiest enclave of The Peak – is space.

My first flat was so small that the kitchen floor area measured exactly one metre by one metre. It was equipped with two rusty rings and a counter-top toaster oven. With groceries so eye-wateringly expensive (today a look online shows me that just one inorganic yellow pepper costs £2.70) – explained why dining out quickly became so compelling.

Hong Kong’s dazzling food scene lay at every turn. Within two minutes’ walk of my flat in the Soho district, I’d have the choice of dozens of places to eat. At the time, a steaming bowl of plump prawn-filled dumplings atop noodles, swimming in a fragrant, long-cooked pork broth, cost all of £1.50. Street-side dai pai dong food stalls – now, sadly, an increasingly dying breed – were a riot of flavour, noise and colour, for similar prices.

Even world-class menus in elegant dining rooms were in relatively easy reach, thanks in part to the city’s income tax rate of just 15 per cent. Happily replete, a taxi – back in 2005 – would cost you under a pound to get home.

For many expats, however, it was more about drinking than eating. The nightlife scene was legendary – and occasionally notorious. Particularly for new arrivals, going out every night of the week was often the rule, rather than the exception.

People walk past McSorley's Ale House in the Soho nightlife area in Hong Kong, China, on Thursday, April 29, 2021. Hong Kong eased social-distancing restrictions by allowing bars, nightclubs and karaoke parlors to re-open and operate past midnight only for vaccinated residents starting today, as the government intensifies efforts to boost the city's lackluster inoculation drive. Photographer: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg via Getty Images
McSorley’s Ale House in the Soho nightlife area in Hong Kong (Photo: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg)

From legendary watering holes at The Mandarin Oriental hotel to local dive bars, booze-soaked weekend junk boat trips to the annual Rugby Sevens (a tournament which had almost nothing to do with rugby), it quickly became clear that expats were, more often than not, very well lubricated.

Life was also, happily, remarkably safe. You could go anywhere, at any time of night without worrying about being a victim of crime.

There were, naturally, drawbacks. Typhoons, black (dangerously heavy) rain and humidity quickly lost their tropical allure, while for a city whose name in Chinese translates as “Fragrant Harbour”, Hong Kong didn’t always live up to its billing.

Another was the almost constant light, noise and air pollution, often due to seemingly non-stop construction.

Escaping it was a joy, however – beyond the city’s more than 10,000 skyscrapers lies a beautiful and diverse territory set across 263 islands.

The money-no-object expat crowd would enjoy luxury yachts and their private clubs, while us mere mortals would make do with hundreds of miles of world-class hiking, remarkable flora and fauna, perfect beaches and weekend escapes to Tai Long Wan or Tai O that would truly feel like holidays.

Ultimately, however, outside of the extremely privileged expat bubble, there were far bigger and more important issues at play in Hong Kong.

In the show, director Lulu Wang navigates the complexities of life in the city at the time of the pro-democracy Umbrella Revolution protests. The movement irrevocably changed Hong Kong and led to the National Security Law, that has seen more than 150,000 Hongkongers move to the UK.

One episode also reminds viewers that most expats are Filipino and Indonesian foreign domestic workers. These remarkable 350,000 women, benignly called “helpers” by their employers, work six days a week, up to 18 hours a day, for just £490 per month.

They cook, clean, raise other people’s children – and also enable other expats to go out and party all night. As one Filipino domestic worker says in the show: “We know everything about these people – things their closest friends don’t even know.”

What these expats will never know, however, is the ultimate privilege that I and thousands of others enjoyed – being able to leave the city as and when we choose.

‘Expats’ is on Prime Video from Friday