Hong Kong is dynamic, over-crowded and super-modern, with an extremely hard-working population obsessed with making money. It has some of the finest hotels in the world and an incredible range of eating experiences.
The rewards for working there can be high, but the environment – both work and lifestyle – is very different to the UK. Hong Kong is simultaneously exciting and exhausting.
Continental Europeans in the hotel and catering industry are easy to come across. The British are there, albeit in small numbers. Some are well-established, others are recent arrivals.
James Smith, general manager, Hong Kong Hilton and Hilton vice president, central Asia
Scottish-born James Smith made it to the top the hard way. He left school at the age of 16 and started work in a local hotel. After stints in Switzerland, the USA and other parts of Europe and Africa, he joined Hilton in 1963 as a sous chef in Rome. He worked his way up the management ladder and has been general manager at the 720-bedroom, 1,030-staff Hong Kong Hilton since 1984.
His regional responsibilities, which include the whole of China, result in regular travel throughout the region. Compared with the UK, Smith regards the Far East as “very, very different. The competition is hot – but so is the support I receive.”
Smith has a high regard for his largely Chinese staff and has trained them to be professionals. He is also appreciative of the Hong Kong property owners who take a longer view and do not skimp on repairs and maintenance. Smith has spent more than £30m on refurbishment to the Hong Kong Hilton during his 10-year tenure.
All this means that Smith still works 12-14 hours a day, six days a week. Nonetheless, he regards this period in his life as less demanding than his formative years when he went for months with no break at all.
There is a downside, however. After all his time in Asia, Smith still feels without roots. He has not invested in property in Hong Kong (he lives in the hotel with his wife) and talks fondly of a small hotel he already owns on the west coast of Scotland – poised to keep him occupied for his eventual retirement.
The rewards, however, are high. A general manager of a five-star hotel in Asia can expect to net between £35,000 and £50,000 per annum. Bonuses will bump up this figure by another £5,000 to £10,000 – possibly much more.
What’s more, this really is net after deduction of the maximum personal tax of 17%, which can be reduced to 15% on higher incomes. Accommodation is generally provided and all utilities paid for. Every year – or possibly every other year – flights are provided for all the family to go back to the UK. Many companies allow the allowance to be spent on going elsewhere – Hawaii is a popular destination. Full medical and dental cover is provided, as well as an education allowance for eligible children.
Smith is also in the company’s pension and provident fund schemes. This is the full, and much sought after, expatriate package.
And yet Smith will soon be a king without a castle. As new buildings have soared into the sky around the ageing hotel, taking rent levels with them, the building’s owners have been unable to resist the attraction of demolishing the Hilton and building a higher complex – despite the £30m spent on refurbishment.
The very attributes that Smith admires, of long-sighted property management with a willingness to invest, have resulted in Hilton International being given notice to quit at the end of January 1995. Such is the ever-changing, ruthless Hong Kong. But the resilient Smith is undaunted. He is pressing ahead with negotiations to take on the management of two existing hotels (either one would do, but he would happily take both), plus a new hotel that should be ready for occupation in five years’ time.
Smith is very much a realist, as well as an optimist and, at 60 years of age, an eternal enthusiast. He continues to exude energy. “I still love the buzz of Hong Kong, the hotel, the business – they’re magical ingredients.”
Louise Peartree, assistant housekeeper, the Peninsula hotel
Louise Peartree and James Smith are polar opposites. While Smith is at the top, Peartree is a recent arrival in Hong Kong and has struggled to survive.
At the age of 16, she attended the Oxford College of Further Education taking a BTec diploma in hotel, catering and management.
After a brief spell in food and beverage she moved to front of house with a spell on reception and then training. Regretting the absence of a social life she left the industry and tried teaching but, while the hours were much better, she missed the buzz of the hospitality trade. So she returned to Oxford as a housekeeper at the small Ruskin College.
As a child, Peartree had lived in various parts of the world, including Hong Kong, and was aware of the wider opportunities overseas. So, still in her 20s, she plucked up her courage, moved to Hong Kong in November 1993 and started job hunting. She was fortunate to be able to stay with friends as the cost of accommodation is prohibitive.
After four worrisome months (most of her application letters went unanswered) she was interviewed by the Peninsula hotel and was appointed assistant housekeeper. The housekeeping team has a total staff of about 100 with a mix of largely Asian nationalities.
Peartree does not shirk hard work but admits that Hong Kong is something else. She lost 10lbs in the first six weeks.
“The hotel operates to extremely high standards. We aim to be the best in Hong Kong – possibly the world. It makes big demands on the staff’s skills, time and loyalty,” she says.
The Peninsula suites have their own butlers and the hotel has the largest fleet of Rolls-Royces in the world.
She works, in theory, nine hours a day, six days a week. There is no overtime and she works weekends and public holidays. In practice, she works between 10 and 11 hours per day and, as she says, gets “no thanks for the overtime. Everybody else does it too.”
Her salary is about £14,500 per year, a 45% increase on her Oxford salary. She is on local terms so must pay for her own accommodation and even sharing with two friends results in half her monthly salary going towards rent. A modest flat for single occupation would be more than her total salary.
But she can expect annual bonuses equal to two months’ salary, has medical and dental benefits, and will be eligible for the pension scheme after five years’ service. She can also participate in the staff social activities organised by the company that are a feature of employment in Hong Kong. These include lavish staff parties and trips on the company’s junks, which may look old-fashioned but are ideal evening cruisers.
Peartree is quick to list the other advantages of Hong Kong: “This is excellent training. I’m getting multi-cultural experience and the Hong Kong people are so positive – they do not whinge.”
Russell Gish, executive chef and general manager, Jimmy’s Kitchen
Compared with Peartree, Russell Gish came to Hong Kong by the less nervy route: he was head-hunted in the UK.
Prior to this, his career had followed the classic progression of a competent chef. After completing Bournemouth College’s hotel and catering course he joined the Savoy Group at the Connaught. He held increasingly senior positions in the kitchens of various London hotels, culminating in sous chef at the Ritz. In June 1992 he was approached with an offer from Jimmy’s Kitchen of Hong Kong.
Jimmy’s is easily the longest established and best known of the few English restaurants in Hong Kong. Gish could not resist the challenge and two years later still clearly revels in his job and new home.
“You have the power and freedom of action but the risks are greater. Eyes are on you but recognition is there for a job well done,” he says. Gish has also grasped some of the opportunities for self promotion in Hong Kong and writes a regular recipe column entitled The Gish Dish for one of the Sunday supplements.
Being an expatriate in Hong Kong means it can be easier to become a star. Gish suggests that the salary he is receiving net in Hong Kong would be the gross figure for a similar position in the UK.
Importantly, he receives an additional housing allowance which is just about enough to provide housing for his wife and five-year-old daughter. Gish’s package also includes medical cover for the family, air fares for an annual vacation and membership of the company pension fund.
Gish warns against being tempted by lump sum deals. This is the trend, started in the Hong Kong advertising industry, where an apparently enormous salary is offered and nothing else. Thereafter, the employee fixes his own accommodation, medical insurance, pension plan and also decides where to go on holiday and then pays for that too.
Comparing his Hong Kong staff to those in the UK, Gish believes Brits understand discipline better and the tradesmen are generally more reliable. That said, he is impressed by the service ethic of his Chinese staff and their spread of abilities – although they can be set in their ways and difficult to change.