By Chloe Kwan and Emily Man.
Hong Kong’s obsession with all things Korean in recent years has spawned Korean grocery stores and restaurants and turned a corner of Tsim Sha Tsui into a Little Korea.
One of the arrivals on the scene is Norayo K-café, an upstairs Korean-style café. Online reviews for the Tsim Sha Tsui eatery tend to rave about the friendly staff and note that many of them speak Korean. This is not surprising as many of them, like Simon Park Yong-gwang, are young Koreans on working holidays in Hong Kong.
Many young people in Hong Kong dream of spending a year abroad on a working holiday and stories from those who have spent months picking grapes and travelling around Europe or working as baristas in Bloomsbury and exploring hip London corners are eagerly shared and enjoyed. But we tend to forget that working holiday visa arrangements are reciprocal and there are young foreigners taking working holidays in Hong Kong.
Park, 27, has been in Hong Kong since last August. While browsing job-hunting websites, he discovered there were companies offering jobs to Koreans in Hong Kong, so he applied for a working holiday visa.
Like many young people, Park has always wanted to experience living abroad and the working holiday offers him a great opportunity.
“To work overseas before 30-years-old is my dream, I am now 27 so I have still two years left, and I want to have lots of [overseas] experience,” he says.
Park had been studying Chinese in mainland China for a year and a half before coming here. He had thought Hong Kong would be similar to the Mainland but that view has now changed. “People in the Mainland are a bit impolite, but everyone in Hong Kong is polite,” he says.
Living in Hong Kong is expensive, especially with the high cost of renting accommodation. Luckily for Park, his employer provides accommodation for the staff who are here on working holiday visas. With a monthly income of about HK$13,000, Park can cover his monthly expenditure of around HK$8,000.
Park does not need to worry about money, but he does struggle with loneliness.
“Because we keep working here, we don’t have chance to communicate with people outside and this is a bit lonely to us,” he says.
However, he has met some local friends through playing football in Kowloon Park when he gets off work and that has helped to beat off the loneliness.
He thinks Hong Kong is a friendly place and welcomes foreigners, which is different from his home country. He says people in Korea are weary of foreigners but Hong Kong people treat foreigners as good friends. Also, in Korean culture, age and seniority are important so younger people must always show respect for their elders. Park finds it more relaxed in Hong Kong and he feels comfortable working with his younger colleagues.
Park’s colleague, 24-year-old Kim Hae Ri, is also on a working holiday visa. Kim works as a chef in a restaurant that specialises in Korean barbeque which is owned by the same company as Norayo K-café.
Kim has been here for less than two months and finds the language barrier to be a challenge. Before coming to Hong Kong, she had thought Hong Kong people spoke both Putonghua and Cantonese, but then she discovered that most people in Hong Kong usually speak only Cantonese. Still, she is satisfied with her job because it provides her with language training as well as accommodation.
Kim is majoring in Italian cookery in Ulsan College in South Korea and her college helped her to apply for the working holiday visa and find a job. However, as the working holiday visa arrangement forbids Koreans from working for the same employer for more than six months, Kim will need to find another job. She would like to work in an Italian restaurant.
A starting monthly salary of HK$13,000 with free accommodation and language classes would seem quite attractive to many youngsters in Hong Kong. The restaurant chain is willing to provide such terms because they want to attract native Koreans to work for them.
Andrew Kang Gwan-mo, 31, is the strategic planning manager of the restaurant chain company that employs Park and Hyeri. He says it is difficult to cook authentic Korean cuisine and the chefs need to be familiar with the taste of real Korean food. Also, having Korean staff can help promote the image of a Korean restaurant.n
The number of Koreans coming to Hong Kong for working holidays has increased rapidly. The Hong Kong/Korea Working Holiday Scheme has been in place since 2011 with an annual quota of 500. In 2012, only 127 Koreans applied for the visa but last year, the quota was filled. The Hong Kong and Korean governments doubled the quota reciprocally this year.
Andrew Kang thinks young Koreans are not coming to Hong Kong because the city itself attracts them. He says that while Koreans of his generation admired and were influenced by Hong Kong movie stars like Chow Yun-fat and Andy Lau and thought Hong Kong must be fancy, rich and super-cool, today’s Korean youngsters see it differently.
Kang says the young generation of Koreans does not know where Hong Kong is and what its people are like because the cultural influence of Hong Kong is decreasing. “After Infernal Affairs, no one [in Korea] watch Hong Kong movies.”
He adds that the reason Koreans come to Hong Kong is to get to China. It is easy for them to go to mainland cities like Shenzhen any time. Also Hong Kong is just a three-hour flight away from Korea.
The employment opportunities in Hong Kong are also a major attraction. Some find it hard to find a job in Korea, with the youth unemployment rate at 9.4 per cent this year. Steve Chung Lok-wai, assistant professor in the Faculty of Social Science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and an expert in South Korean studies, says leaving the country to explore the outside world is a better prospect for young Koreans.
Chung explains that working abroad can increase a young person’s competitiveness and make it easier to find a job when they go back to Korea. Also, Hong Kong is a good place for Korean students to learn languages. He says that in Korea, the learning approach to English sticks to Korean phonics, which gives them less confidence in speaking, so they might want to enhance their speaking skills in Hong Kong.
Another language they can learn in Hong Kong is Chinese.
Knowing how to speak Chinese is “essential for this generation,” Chung says, as many Koreans want to work in China.
Besides Koreans, the number of working visa applications from French citizens is also increasing. According to the Consul General of France in Hong Kong and Macau, there were only 99 applications for working holiday visas in Hong Kong in 2013; the quota was increased to 200 in the following year and was filled. In 2015, the quota went up to 400 and this year, it increased to 500.
One of the reasons for the increasing number of applications is the flagging French economy since the European debt crisis in 2009. Alex Hiran, is a 30-year-old Frenchman who has been using working visa arrangements to work abroad for several years. In 2009, he had just finished his studies and received his diploma in environmental studies, but he was unable to find a job in France after searching for half a year. So he went first to New Zealand and then Australia for a working holiday.
Last February, Hiran came to Hong Kong as a tourist and then decided to apply for a working holiday visa. It was granted after two months and he now works in a non-government organisation that focuses on glass recycling, which he found out about in an article in the New York Times.
Hiran fell in love with Hong Kong after he first visited the city but it is the economic environment here that attracts him to come to work.
“There are more working opportunities in Hong Kong in general, [more opportunities] for work, to find a job, to have a business,” he says.
Hiran’s working holiday is more about working than holiday. Other than working in the glass recycling organisation, he also works from 9 pm till 11 pm at the hostel where he lives, in exchange for free accommodation. This gives little time to explore Hong Kong.
“I am very busy, I work from Monday to Saturday, and I work here [the hostel] on Sunday, I do the cleaning, and I work five nights a week. I have some time but I don’t have much,” says Hiran.
He is not planning to return to France. After his visa expires in April, he will go to the Mainland to look for other working opportunities.
Although some who come to Hong Kong on working holidays are mainly looking for job opportunities, others are still coming to travel and experience Hong Kong’s culture. Benjamin Chiu, the owner of a chess training centre has hired three working holiday visa holders, two of them are British and the other one is Canadian.
Chiu says as the working hours of a chess coach are short, the job suits people who are on working holidays. He says he does not specifically set out to recruit working holiday visa holders, in fact he did not know about the working holiday scheme, until he hired his first coach who had the visa.
Since then, whenever he advertises jobs, he states that he welcomes working holiday visa holders to apply. Chiu says being a chess tutor may not be an attractive long-term job for a local, but those who are on working holidays only work for a short period of time. It seems it may be a good move for a working holiday visa holder who wants to work and play.