Home, sweet home

Home, sweet home


In Hong Kong, you are where you live


Friday • May 16, 2008




Topping my list of things to do the moment I touched down at Chek Lap Kok airport was to find a place to live.


Despite the dire warnings I had been given about how rents in Hong Kong are the highest in Asia, if not the world, I wasn’t too worried.


Unlike in Singapore, property agents have brick-and-mortar shops here.


There is no need to wade through the classifieds to find them — they are everywhere. If an area is very popular — such as the Mid-Levels — there are rows of such shops, all displaying enticing photos in their windows. All you have to do is pick one and pop in.


But I had reckoned without a few things. One was that owners don’t tie up exclusively with an agent here, which means there could be up to a dozen trying to rent you the same flat.


It may sound convenient — one agent can show you every flat available in the area if you wish — but it also means you don’t get a chance to bargain prices down.


With so many agents competing, the owner is likely to choose the one who comes up with the best offer. So, most agents try to get prospective tenants to go for the flat with the highest rent.


Having dealt with nightmarishrealtors in Singapore, aggressive sales tactics were the least of my worries. The real headache was trying to decide which area to live in. It was no use asking the locals.


Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that they don’t care. Hong Kongers are as obsessed about land as Singaporeans — perhaps more so, given how much of Hong Kong Island (the most desired piece of real estate in the Special Administrative Region) is made up of mountains so that the only build-able areas are along the coastline.


The problem is, if you ask a local where the good areas are, you never get a straight answer. Instead, he is more likely to profile you: “Hmm, you strike me as someone who likes to shop, has no children, so you don’t need to be close to schools … try Causeway Bay.”


Even strangers you have spoken to for about one second at a party will try their hand at this amateur personality profiling.


It was only after I arrived that I realised why the Hong Kong-based friends I had emailed before the move refused to commit themselves to which would be a good area to live in.


“It depends,” they had said. If pressed, they would reluctantly tell you where they are living but added quickly: “It suits me, but I don’t know about you.”


Eventually, someone spelt it out for me: “Where you live says something about who you are. If you pick The Peak or Repulse Bay, you are old money. If you plumb for the Mid-Levels, you are either a new expat or an upper-middle class local. If you live in the Outlying Islands, you are either a farmer or a hippie expat.”


It finally made sense. It wasn’t how much you could pay, but what sort of image you wanted to project.


I was shown flats in North Point — an area that had no recommendable qualities other than being an interchange station for even more ulu areas with flats costing as much as those in the Mid-Levels.


We have the same thing in Singapore too, don’t we? Katong for old money, Marine Parade for beach-loving family types, Toa Payoh for heartlanders, Orchard Road and Tanglin for the expats — every area has a personality.


My problem now was to pick a place that would suit a laidback Katong Girl who loves bargain shopping and a city-lover who wants to be within walking distance of Central, the equivalent of our CBD.


I wanted Wan Chai, the world of Suzie Wong, with its wet markets and dark alleys selling counterfeit goods. My husband wanted somewhere in the city, as close to his office as possible.


We settled for the Mid-Levels, wheremost first-time expats end up, because it’s only 10 minutes’ walk to Central. So, what does it say about us?


I don’t know and I don’t care because the flat has a roof terrace with a view of The Peak and that’s good enough for me.


Tabitha Wang loves her roof terrace, never mind that it’s grubby, hot and good only for hanging the laundry out to dry.


Source: Today Newspaper

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