In industries where professional qualifications are not an issue, Hong Kongers may fare better. For the past eight years, fashion designer Cheung Mei-yi has taken up short-term consulting projects in Guangzhou. For Cheung, it is not only natural to look for jobs in the Mainland, it is inevitable. “Hong Kong is a city, not a country,” says Cheung. “It is just like in America where people move from one state to another for jobs.”
Cheung says Hong Kong fashion designers have a competitive edge over their Western counterparts when working with mainland clients because they share elements of language and culture. Cheung recalls a French designer who drew very thin ties and shirts to create a slimmer silhouette for his mainland clients, only to have his designs rejected. Little did the Frenchman know that a middle-aged belly bulge should be flaunted in China as a symbol of wealth and prosperity.
Although Hong Kong designers may find it easier to adapt to the mainland environment, there are still cultural differences. Cheung has to oversee the design teams of mainland companies and she has noticed the concepts of originality and copyright are very weak in China. For instance, modifying the colour of a collar on an existing garment would be considered a new creation in China. Cheung admits she often gets frustrated when mainland designers show her “new designs” that are nothing more than designer replicas.
On the upside, she thinks the “anything goes” mentality, resources and budget also create the space to pursue ideas that would be impossible in Hong Kong. Cheung recalls that she once suggested bringing an elephant into an Indian-themed fashion show. She never expected her client would actually be able to find an elephant, let alone get it onto the catwalk. “You may say there are no rules and order in China, but it is only because of such loopholes that a lot can be done,” says Cheung.
The same loopholes and lack of adherence to rules that brought Cheung her pleasant surprise can also bring some nasty surprises too. Tang Tsz-kin, who owns a supermarket chain known as Ecosway in Hong Kong and “Wei Mai” (唯賣) in China, is cautious of arbitrary mainland justice after his factory owner friend lost millions of dollars. The man had to close his business after a client ran off without paying. Tang says there is an unwritten rule in China ‒ “the moment you lose your millions, you lose them forever”. It has made him think twice, conduct extensive research and seek legal advice before signing any business contracts.
Such cautionary tales do not bother 20 something Pete, who does not want to disclose his real name. After graduating from a North American university with a Science degree, he was quickly hired by a biotechnology company in a mainland city last year. His job as a sales manager involves selling medical devices and reagents to hospitals.
As the Chinese medical market is big and relatively untapped, with hospitals in lower-tier towns still using outdated instruments, biotechnology is a profitable industry in China. “People in our industry always say that we cannot sell one device per year in Hong Kong while dozens are sold in China per day,” says Pete.
Pete works in the foreign sales department and he believes he has an advantage because he speaks good English. The majority of his mainland colleagues are afraid to speak in English since they did not have much practice at school. However, he says they may have a bigger English vocabulary and have good writing skills.
While things are going well with his job, the same cannot be said about Pete’s life outside work. He has to put up with acute air pollution and wears a N95 facemask to prevent inhaling airborne particles. Sometimes it is so bad he gets a sore throat from just breathing.
In addition, Pete finds the corruption in the Mainland hard to stomach. He says corruption runs so deep that he thinks people sometimes do not even realise it is a problem. For instance, he was shocked to find that his colleagues all paid the invigilator 200-300Rmb when they took their driving exams.