May is coming. If you live in Hong Kong, you may notice a set of events for Le French May in Hong Kong. In fact, Hong Kong is now the hottest spot for French expats. While Americans and Canadians, two of Hong Kong's largest expat populations have dropped more than 10% over past 4 years, the French community in Hong Kong grew at a rate of 5% annually. The French population in Hong Kong is estimated to be at least 25,000 people. Matthieu is a member of the community but he did not come to Hong Kong for an easy life. Instead, Matthieu came here to realize his goal.
Matthieu is a French native and spent most of his time in France until he moved with his family to attend high school in Beijing. Before officially moving to Hong Kong in 2012, he came to Hong Kong to intern in a consulting firm in 2009. Matthieu now helps organizing Startup Weekend on a regular basis, assists the setup of French Tech Hub in Hong Kong and runs a start-up he co-founded. All these initiatives were Matthieu's footprint in Hong Kong.
When I asked Matthieu why he wanted to move to Hong Kong at first, he said it was the good vibe in Hong Kong - everything is possible in Hong Kong. "People are open and willing to help. If you work hard, you will find someone who can help you or point you to the right direction or people." as Matthieu explained further.
What's more interesting about Matthieu's journey in Hong Kong is that he used to work as a salesperson for a luxury watch brand.
"I went through the high school in Beijing as a foreigner and went to an elite university in France. I felt like a king of the world when I was young. When I later read the biographies of successful people, many of them have gone through tough experience for at least 2 years. And this makes me realize I cannot assume everything works in the way I thought and I need the tough experience as well."
Matthieu thought being a salesperson for luxury watches would be good way to experience the tough situations. He accepted the job even though the hiring manager warned him the job would be extremely harsh. And as a foreigner, the job was even harder since some potential customers who avoid speaking in English would just turn away from Matthieu when they saw him. But Matthieu stayed feeling positive.
"But on the hand, there is a group of customers who prefer buying watches from me. They may assume I was sent from the headquarter and even took pictures with me after the purchase. People who buy luxury watch do not only buy it for the time, they also buy it for different reasons. Buying a watch from a foreigner is a special experience for them. And I was the only foreign salesperson in that mall. I went through hell but my colleagues were amazing. I have changed completely in the way I see the world after two years as a salesperson. It really makes you grow when you faced complaints from customers and seeing potential customers walking away from you. And the experience helped me a lot to be a more mature person. For example, I met a lot emotional people as a mentor in the Startup Weekend, I was able to help them to calm down and led them to the right direction."
Meanwhile, Matthieu started to involve in the startup scene in Hong Kong by helping organizing the Startup Weekend. He found the profile of Startup Weekend participants is changing over time.
"It used to be the case that the majority of participants are foreigners. In the past, 75-80% of them are foreigners, now 60% are locals and even 80% are locals for Startup Weekend university sessions. People become more aware of Startup Weekend. People are more cautious when something is new, but when they hear people say the program is good, they will join it. I would say Hong Kong locals are in general less risk-taking compared to foreigners."
And Matthieu found it quite rare for young local graduates to start their companies right after college. "I am not sure whether they are pressured by parents or social trend. Even though I understand the high living cost in Hong Kong, they can stay with their parents for two years and have a try. If it fails, they can move on but at least they have tried. "
Matthieu felt it is a pity for aspiring locals who had business ideas but decided not to pursue the entrepreneurship path, especially when the environment for startups is actually quite good in Hong Kong.
"Based on what I know, the process of setting up a company is much simplier in Hong Kong compared to in France. One big advantage in Hong Kong is that it is easy to find your first customer. If the sector is present in Hong Kong, it is not hard to find someone who can introduce you to people in the sector based on your alumni network or nationality. Given Hong Kong is so concentrated, it is quite likely that you can get to meet and pitch to your potential customers. When you compare to Paris, the city is quite spread out that you may not have the chance to do the same. "
What Matthieu mentioned so far about Hong Kong is a bit different from what I heard from other locals. He is more positive about things in Hong Kong. He later explained why this is the case.
"Probably it is more related to my personality. There is a lot of social influences nowadays. But I am not so influenced by social pressure, my parents and other friends. I think independently. In Hong Kong, if you are from a conservative family, and let's say you have a dream to become a professional dancer, you may face opposition from parents and you are against social norms too. It is quite common that you need to prove it works first before you can really work on it in Hong Kong. But proving one thing can work is already a big part to begin with. It is hard to pursue your dream if everyone around is telling you that you will fail"
After that, we also discussed why French would like to stay in Hong Kong. Matthieu mentioned there is a group of large French corporations with strong presence in Hong Kong, especially for retail and service sectors, for example, luxury goods, wines and hospitality. On the other hand, there are several factors encouraging young professionals to explore Hong Kong, including the student exchange program (schools requiring students to spend 6 months outside of France), working holiday visa that allows French to work in Hong Kong and more media coverage on successful French people in Asia.
When I asked Matthieu whether he would like to stay in Hong Kong for long-term, he is quite sure he want to do so but does not attribute the decision to a particular factor.
"Four years ago, it was about the opportunities that attract me to come to Hong Kong. Now it is the life that I enjoy and excites me. Some people would talk about convenience, the exposure to Chinese culture and few other factors to keep them stay in Hong Kong. But you can say it is very convenient in London and you can have more exposure to Chinese culture in other Chinese cities like Beijing. What keeps me stay in Hong Kong is the combination of everything offered in Hong Kong. Everything is possible here."
However, Matthieu also pointed out there may be some other personal reasons that would end his stay in Hong Kong, for example, if his girlfriend does not want to stay in Hong Kong anymore. The social and political disputes, on the other hand, are not unlikely to make Matthieu move away from Hong Kong in short-term.
"It is too complex for foreigners like me to understand the whole situation. But for the people that I care about , they feel deeply troubled by these disputes. Those disputes do not affect me directly but affect me indirectly. Whether those disputes will make me move, I am not sure. We probably will not see big changes shortly but there should be more and more disputes. The systematic changes will likely happen in few decades."
Having been in Hong Kong for 4 years, Matthieu understood there are more and more people planning to move out from Hong Kong. He supported the move and thought living abroad experience is a good thing for everyone.
"Everyone should have a chance to live abroad for a couple of years. That's the best way to understand yourself and what you want to do, and even get a closer tie to your country. It took me 4 years to do something for my country as I now help on the French Tech Hub in Hong Kong. Having 4 years living away from France, now I started to cherish my country again. You can also have the reflection of how different you are, in a positive way. Whenever my friends told me they are planning to move abroad, I will always say 'do it and go wherever you want'. Maybe you will or will not like the place but the experience will have a big impact in your life. "
As the last note, Matthieu encouraged everyone to try and go for their dream.
"My last note in one sentence: Go for your dream and live life to your fullest. In current societies, this may not be that simple. But once you have tried on pursuing your dream, it would make you a better person. Never give yourself too many excuses. That's what I am telling people I met in Startup Weekend. They may have a business idea for months but never put in enough to have a try. So let's do it today!"
Matthieu demonstrated the positive mindset that is rare to be seen in stories Hong Kong media these days. He has gone through the ups and downs in Hong Kong but did not give up on his goal. No matter Hong Kong or elsewhere is a better place for you to realize your dream, we should never stop trying.