In frictionless Hong Kong, things just work.
“I’m normally a die-hard ‘don’t-believe-the-hype’ kind of person, but when it comes to Hong Kong touting itself as one of the world’s smoothest & slickest cities, even I’ve got to admit it’s true,” writes Sarah Williams.
Everything in this city just works. Trust me. It was my home for 5 years.
From the minute you touch down, everything’s a breeze. Grab your luggage and a free cart and roll right onto the Airport Express – the megacity’s super-comfy, Wi-Fi-enabled train that zips you straight into the Central district in just 23-minutes and costs only £7.50.
Contrast this to arriving in New York or London. New York’s JFK: Don’t have any greenbacks in your pocket? Sorry, no $5 luggage cart for you. Make your way through immigration and enjoy that one-hour-plus wait for a taxi to NYC. Oh yeah, and that flat fee of $52 into Midtown? Forget it. Add the New York State Tax Surcharge (OK, that’s just 50¢) plus tolls and tip and you’re pushing $70. Take the Air Train you say? Yeah, good luck figuring that out.
London’s Heathrow: hoist your bag onto the Heathrow Express for a whopping £17 for cattle class and whaddaya know, you’re most probably still a very long way from your destination. Sure, the Piccadilly Line is an excellent option, and nearly free, but unless your final stop is the fancy shmancy Lanesborough Hotel at Hyde Park Corner, where you can roll your case up the ramp and the butler will take it from there, we hope you’ve been putting in the hours at the gym to lug your bag up loads of stairs.
OK, ease of transport is just one tiny factor, but it’s actually a fantastic metaphor for how easy it is to do just about everything in HK. And this everything-is-doable attitude seeps into nearly every aspect of life there, including doing business.
Sure, it helps to have 24-hour, six-days-a week household help so you can get on with hammering out that business plan, but the city’s number one position as the ‘World’s Freest Economy’, according to the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal coupled with the top spot in Ernst & Young and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s ‘Globalization Index 2012’ gives it pretty much unparalleled street cred. OK, you already know it’s got a proper legal system, has an extremely appealing 15% flat tax and has no foreign ownership restrictions, but if you want the full rundown of its virtues, InvestHK does a great job of flaunting them here.
‘Frictionless’ is the best word I’ve heard to describe the whole HK experience, and I first heard it from musician/photographer Fernando Gross. He’s lived and worked in Sydney, London, Delhi, Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo, and says ‘’Hong Kong is small and easy to get around so you can really cram in a lot of meetings and also serendipitously bump into people around town’. Because it’s so easy to meet up with colleagues, he says, ‘working relationships deepen much faster, so there’s more of a lets-do-it-now attitude’.
And everything happens fast. ‘Hong Kong people naturally think and move faster,’ says local film director, actress, author and radio host Crystal Kwok. ‘The quicker they make a deal, the quicker they’ll make money. It’s still all about money here.’ And it’s true; trying to keep up with her as she weaves and dodges her way through the crowded streets leaves me breathless – and several dumpling shops behind!
Even getting set up here is easy. Incorporate your business: just a few hours. Internet connection: installed the same day (and the workers take their shoes off before traipsing through your property). I’d personally like to thank Sky for driving me to the brink of a nervous breakdown when it took them six weeks to install my broadband connection after I first moved to London. If I’d had Wi-Fi, I surely would have booked myself on the first flight back to Hong Kong.
In fact, entrepreneur extraordinaire David Ketchum says the city has made a point of removing just about every obstacle to conducting business. And he should know; he launched marketing and communications company Upstream Asia as a solo act from his laptop in 2001, grew it into a six-office-cross-Asia firm and sold it to the global marketing services firm, Bite, in 2009. ‘You can set up a Hong Kong Limited business with virtually no capital and zero hassle,’ says Ketchum. ‘Myriad business brokers can provide you with shell companies in days.’ Ok, your startup might be christened something tacky like ‘Excellent Wealth Dynasty’ or ‘Ultimate Next Limited’, but swap out the name and you’re open for business.
Even better, Hong Kong doesn’t mess around with complicated or unnecessary rules and regulations and filing your taxes is a breeze. ‘There are ‘no capital gains taxes, and it’s easy to compute corporate profits and income taxes,’ says Ketchum. ‘Other than the need to file tax returns and audited accounts, there’s not a lot of hassle required between setting up a business and doing business.’ And then with no prompting at all, he adds, “The conduct of business is virtually frictionless.”
I’m not saying it’s all smooth sailing. David Ketchum points out that prices for office space here are among the highest in the world. And Fernando Gros admits, ‘There’s a flip side: the aggressive, noncommittal hustle of the place. People can be manically self-absorbed and fickle, or as I might put it in the Australian vernacular, “full of shit”’.
But overall, I’d take the Hong Kong can-do simplicity over insanely paralyzing red tape any day. It’s no wonder that when I think of Hong Kong, the phrase that pops into my mind is the often-heard ‘mou man tai’ – Cantonese for ‘no problem’.
Sarah Williams is a TransferWise revolutionary, globe-trotting journalist and battle-hardened expat. An expert on life in the world’s most expensive cities, she grew up in New York before doing tours of duty in Hong Kong and London.