It’s literally the most densely populated place in the world.
It has been called the financial mecca of the 21st century; a shopper’s paradise, and food haven where East meets West.
It’s Hong Kong, and for many elsewhere, it’s Asia’s very own Land of Opportunity.
Everyone seems to want a piece of the action.
According to a survey conducted by the Taipei-based human resource and administration company, 1111 Human Resource Inc., 75 percent of working Taiwanese are dissatisfied with their current occupations.
Top reasons include low salaries, bureaucratic bosses, and the lack of future job advancement opportunities.
In the past decade, qualified yet dissatisfied Taiwanese professionals have been looking elsewhere to exercise their talents.
Due to the close proximity to home and the more than doubled – sometimes even tripled – salaries, disgruntled workers are increasingly looking to Hong Kong as a solution to their occupation woes.
Among those anticipating to migrate, there is a common belief that Hong Kong will give them what Taiwan cannot – that it’s a westernized city with an Asia-centric focus, and a laissez faire economy with more than enough money to go around.
While Taiwan’s culture derives primarily from its history of Japanese colonization from 1895 to 1945, Hong Kong gains its blend with the West from its 155 years of British colonization.
While English has just been introduced to Taiwanese primary school curriculums in the past decade, English-speaking missionaries and politicians have influenced Hong Kong schools since the 1840s.
And while Taiwanese are pondering their decision to move leave home, the question inevitably arises: Is the grass really greener on the other side?
Ingrid Sun, 32, is an investment banker.
At barely five feet, she looks more like a child in her mother’s heels than a hotshot businesswoman in her cuffed navy suit.
When she laughs, she sometimes forgets to cover her mouth as she was taught.
She calls herself an optimist.
Sun arrived in Hong Kong in the summer of 2007 after an unexpected promotion at her private equities firm in Taiwan just before the financial crisis.
She settled into a 330-square foot-apartment in the western end of Sai Wan for HK$8,000 (NT$31,200) a month.
A realtor friend would tell her that she had caught a break because the rent for the same neighborhood doubled in less than a year.
As a high-earning senior professional, Sun was less concerned about the rent than she was about the “embarrassingly small” size of the apartment, which she said contributed to a brief period of depression during her first few months in crowded Hong Kong.
“It’s 350 square-feet. That’s less than 10 ping!” she exclaimed, referring to the Taiwanese unit of area.
“Even my bathroom in Taiwan is larger than my room here.”
An expatriate forum calculates that an average middle-class household in Taipei is around 35 ping, or 1,076 square-feet.
An upper-class household could be triple the size of the latter, at 100 ping, or 3,557 square-feet).
Sun’s home in Taipei’s Eastern district is around 80 ping, or 2,845 square feet) – that’s more than twice the size of an apartment in the Belcher’s, an upscale private complex in Hong Kong’s Western district.
It’s also eight times the size of Sun’s Sai Wan condo.
And in today’s market, it would rent for about HK$43,076 (NT$168,000) per month, while a 1,409 square-feet (39 ping) apartment in the Belcher’s rents for HK$46,000 (NT$179,400).
Teresa Tseng, 34, is Sun’s college classmate from National Taiwan University.
In 2004, she and her husband, a Japanese bioinformatics analyst – someone who uses knowledge from computer science to manipulate and process complex research and medical data – decided to move to Hong Kong after they both received more generous job offers than they had in their previous positions.
Tseng’s parents are devoted academics, and she carried on the family tradition by becoming a college professor after getting a PhD at the University of California at Irvine.
She has taught at well-ranked universities in Taiwan and the United States, but says that Hong Kong’s universities have by far the most pragmatic and efficient students she has encountered.
In the first class of the semester, she asked her students if they had any questions.
One pimply second-year student raised his hand and demanded to know not the minimum, but the maximum number of hours required for the course.
“How can I give him a number? How can I put a limit to learning?” she asked, pushing up her thick-rimmed glasses.
“I’ve never heard that before.”
Hong Kong students are not only on top of their academic game, but they also seem to have their lives all figured out.
In Taiwan, she said, college students spend the bulk of their college careers partying with friends and pulling all-nighters, only scrambling to get whatever offer they can in their senior year.
But in Hong Kong, students are already looking for part-time jobs and internships during their freshman year.
“They don’t act like college students,” said Tseng, shaking her head.
Although she found no definite explanations, Tseng was able to develop empathy after teaching in Hong Kong for 3½ years.
The local culture is grounded in moneymaking, she said, and busyness gives people the impression that one is succeeding.
People always seem to be on the run, so it makes sense that these values are reflected in students who feel the need to maximize their efforts lest they lag behind in the mad race of money-making.
“Even when I walk on the streets, I can tell that the people are unhappy,” said Tseng. “They are constantly looking at their watches as if they’re afraid they’d miss the next opportunity.”
In fact, a survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong in 2008 reported that a majority of working people think they have too much work to do, and are unhappy about the amount of time they spend with their family and friends.
The survey found that 82.5 percent said they suffered from stress and 45.6 percent from exhaustion, while 12.9 percent said that they would consider leaving their jobs in the next 12 months.
Charles Fong, 20, is one of Tseng’s former students.
He was born in Taiwan to a Cantonese father and Taiwanese mother and lived in Hong Kong since 2006 after his parents relocated their business to expand opportunities in greater China.
As a Taipei American School-bred business kid with a sharp crew cut dyed gold and nonchalant demeanor, Chen is a stickler for good food, and more importantly, five-star service.
His favorite dish for the past three years has been the French roast duck with truffles at the Michelin three-starred Caprice restaurant in Hong Kong’s Four Seasons Hotel.
“Hong Kong is great because it has so much variety and ethnic cuisines are really authentic,” he said over pancetta.
“I’m really impressed with the selection of four and five-star restaurants compared to those in other countries. And the service is amazing,” he added, praising the efficiency of the English-speaking staff.
In Taiwan, his American friends sometimes struggle while ordering food without a local present, even in Taipei, because few staff speaks and understands English.
Nor is there authentic Egyptian or Greek cuisine like there is in Hong Kong, according to Fong, as many of the so-called Western restaurants in Taiwan actually serve fusion food – a mixture of Western cuisines cooked by local chefs with Taiwanese spices and techniques.
While Fong reckons that international cuisines in Taiwan don’t seem to compare with those in Hong Kong, what he does miss occasionally – especially when he’s pulling all-nighters to finish his essays on prototype theory – is the cheap food stalls in Taiwan’s night markets.
Sometimes, he wishes that Hong Kong’s restaurant owners were “more hardworking” and don’t all close at 9 pm.
“Whenever it’s the end of the semester and it’s 3am, I’m always like, give me my chicken steak, you know? And then I think, wow, people really don’t have that kind of luxury here,” he said, crinkling his nose.
It’s a common saying that nothing comes without a price, and Sun, Tseng and Fong would undoubtedly attest to such a statement.
After three, five, and six years of being on the other side, with a fair share of frustrations, the grass isn’t half as green as it used to appear.
But home is only 500 miles away, an hour and a half by plane.
“Whenever I need a break from Hong Kong, I make a phone call and tell my mom I’m coming home for dinner,” said Sun, touching the Buddhist bracelet her mother gave her as a good-luck charm when she left home.
“Then I forget about all the bad parts, and everything is okay again.”