expat

Life as a Westerner in Taiwan and Hong Kong

When I came to Hong Kong for the first time back in 2012 I had already lived in Taipei for about half a year. One of the first things that struck me was that people in Hong Kong seemed to have a different attitude towards foreigners than Taiwanese (generally speaking, of course). Even in Taipei, the largest and most international city of the island-state, I always felt as if I were an exotic creature. People talked to me because they were ‘curious’, or because they wanted to practice their English, or because they regarded me as a guest that they should treat with a politeness reserved for people from faraway lands.  

In Hong Kong, on the contrary, most people seemed to be indifferent to me. They didn’t look at me when I took the metro, when I went to public toilets, libraries or restaurants, as it was the case in Taiwan. Obviously, I wasn’t a local either in Taiwan or Hong Kong. But in the latter I felt more comfortable. I did not stand out. I was not perceived as an ‘alien’. I could just blend with the anonymous crowd. My friends and acquaintances, too, seemed to treat me with more ease. I was neither a superstar nor an attraction, I wasn’t a guest that should be impressed through particular gestures of kindness. I was just a person like anyone else.

One of the things that might be troublesome or, according to each one’s perspective, enjoyable, in Taiwan, is the fact that some people are not familiar with Western culture, or that they treat foreigners either with exaggerated interest and politeness, or, in some cases, with resentment. I often heard Taiwanese say, “We are nice to foreigners”, or “Taiwan is a paradise for foreigners”; I often saw Taiwanese using foreigners as status symbols; on the other hand, I also met Taiwanese who told me, “We are too nice to foreigners”, “We are not nice to each other but we are very nice to foreigners”. Of course, these two groups do not represent all Taiwanese, but they are examples of certain behaviours I have observed.

But why is it that Hongkongers and Taiwanese seem to have such a different attitude towards foreigners?

Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s bar and nightclub area

Westerners in Hong Kong and Taiwan


Hong Kong is a former British colony, a global financial hub, and a gateway to mainland China. While I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the people of Hong Kong are all ‘Westernised’ and speak English fluently, I would definitely argue that the city’s elites – that is, the well-educated citizens belonging to the upper and middle class – are likely to speak English more or less fluently, to be relatively familiar with Western and other foreign cultures and lifestyles, to have personal ties with foreigners due to job, studying abroad, or through other channels. As a result, although many Hongkongers maintain a distinctly Chinese or East Asian culture, they have knowledge of the West and understand its culture and lifestyle. 

Moreover, Hong Kong was a British colony for about 150 years. While it is true that for several decades, especially before World War II, the Chinese were mostly segregated from the Europeans, they nevertheless lived side by side and increasingly influenced each other. It was in Hong Kong that the first Han Chinese elites challenged assumptions of Western supremacy. Chinese merchants like the Eurasian Robert Hotung (Sir Robert Hotung after being knighted in 1915) and Kwok Acheong created economic empires. As Steve Tsang explains, “by 1855 there were already more Chinese than expatriates paying rates, which together with income from land leases formed the main sources of government revenue. In that year, among those who paid rates of £ 10 and above, 1,637 out of 1,999 were Chinese, while of those who paid £ 40 and above , 410 out of 772 were Chinese” (Steve Tsang: A Modern History of Hong Kong, 2011, p. 59; see also Wang Gungwu: Joining the Modern World, 2000, p. 77, and John M. Carroll: Edge of Empires: Chinese Elites and British Colonials in Hong Kong, 2005). 

Racist barriers between Chinese and Europeans began to decrease after World War II. Accounts such as that of Harold Ingrams, published in 1952, demonstrate a growing degree of mutual interest and integration between them.

Taiwan, on the contrary, had only a very small number of foreigners prior and during the Japanese colonial era. After 1945 and until 1987, Taiwan was a one-party dictatorship, and travel to and from the island was restricted for ‘security’ reasons. Taiwanese, even those belonging to the middle and upper classes, had relatively less chances to experience foreign cultures and live among Westerners than had Hongkongers.

Another reason why Hongkongers are more used to Westerners is the number of visitors and of expats living in the city.

According to the Hong Kong Digest of Statistics, in 2014 the total number of visitors in Hong Kong was 60.838.836; 1.679.083 from the Americas, 1.863.271 from Europe, and a staggering 47.247.675 from mainland China.

In 2014, the number of visitors entering Taiwan was 21.707.379, of whom 4.687.048 were listed as “foreigners” (i.e., not coming from China, Hong Kong, Macau).

94% of Hong Kong’s resident population is made up of Han Chinese, i.e. descendants either of ‘native Hongkongers’ who lived there before the British occupation in the 1840s, or of immigrants from mainland China who moved there in subsequent waves, most especially during the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949) and after the Communists seized power in 1949.

According to the 2011 census, the non-Chinese resident population of Hong Kong that year was about 451,000, or 6% of the total. The majority of them were Indonesians (133,377), Filipinos (133,018), ‘white’ (55,236), Indians (28,616), Pakistanis (16,518) and Japanese (12,580).

As we have seen, Hong Kong has around half a million foreign residents, of whom around 55,000 are ‘white’. In Taiwan, on the contrary, the total number of foreign residents (in 2015) is around 636,000. Merely 65,000 foreign residents live in Taipei City and circa 89,000 in New Taipei City. The majority of Taiwan’s foreign residents are Indonesian (225,139), Vietnamese (154,257), Filipino (119,591), Thai (74,058) and Japanese (13,713). Residents from Western Europe, Russia, Ukraine, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand are only 21,063. 

Since Hong Kong has a population of only around 7 million, while Taiwan has a population of around 23 million, it is obvious that Hong Kong has more Westerners in proportion to the Han Chinese population than Taiwan. Considering the fact that many foreigners are concentrated in certain areas, like Hong Kong island, Mong Kok, and parts of Kowloon, one easily understands why they are a quite common sight on the city’s streets. According to government statistics, around 53% of the ‘white’ population live on Hong Kong Island; 11.5% in Kowloon; 35% in the New Territories.

Furthermore, Hong Kong, as a city of banking and services, tends to attract skilled workers from Western countries alongside various other groups, such as domestic helpers, mainly from the Philippines and Indonesia. Over 45% of the white population are managers and administrators; around 44% are professionals or associate professionals.

Comparable statistics by ethnicity and occupation for Taiwan don’t seem to exist. In 2015, out of 616.870 foreign nationals, 4.995 were traders, 2.635 engineers, 7.066 teachers, 302 technicians, 514.981 were listed as ‘foreign labour’, i.e. employed as domestic helpers or workers.

These figures seem to suggest that Hong Kong tends to offer more job opportunities for high skill Western professionals, a phenomenon that has been fostered by the territory’s various employment schemes.

Although I don’t have statistics to prove this, it seems to me that Taiwanese companies tend to be more ‘local’ in terms of employees’ nationality and business culture, despite the fact that the island’s economy is extremely well connected with the global markets. This, as well as the use of Mandarin rather than English, might explain why professionals from Western countries find more opportunities in places like Singapore or Hong Kong, where English is more widely used and there are numerous foreign multinationals. To put it plainly, it is not uncommon in Hong Kong to see wealthy Western white-collar workers and entrepreneurs going to work wearing expensive suits, or chilling out with colleagues and friends after work in the city’s fashionable areas. In Taiwan, on the contrary, this is quite a rare sight. Different social standing and less opportunities to work side by side with locals may partly explain the different image Westerners enjoy in the two societies.

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