How Hong Kong became a hedonistic playground for privately educated Brits
‘That segment of white graduate London is just there now – and a lot of them are wired on coke’
Speak to someone about life in Hong Kong, often they’ll start talking about buildings. And that would make sense if the island’s skyline sprawled like Sao Paulo, or contorted from the ground as it does in London. Distance lends perspective. The city’s architectural uniformity is monotonous. A series of skyscrapers, all 20 stories high and slightly stained. They fence the streets walked by young British lawyers and investment bankers. Immigrants lured by well paid the-one-after-your-grad-job grad jobs, who relish a frenetic lifestyle – and very occasionally murder prostitutes.
“You want to be able to look back when you’re 80 and say you’ve had a relatively interesting life,” Alex tells me. “And being more hard nosed, this is where the money is.” 24 years old, he works in consulting. I open our interview with a benign question. “So, why did you move to Hong Kong?” He admonishes me: “The world is bigger than London.”
The conversation wanders to Europe’s financial stagnation, China’s strength and Asian opportunities. Unlike others, Alex’s move to the autonomous territory isn’t motivated by the promise of returning to a uni lifestyle and readily available cocaine. He’s fairly atypical in that respect.
Jenna is 26, and works in finance. She tells me that the social weekend starts on Thursday and goes through to Sunday. It’s rigorous, although she clarifies, “not without stopping – but there’s always something going on.” In Hong Kong, drug use by young Brits is more polarised than in other cities. Cocaine is a mainstay, as are pills.
George and Rory both moved to London for work after university. Both have visited Hong Kong to see friends, on separate occasions. George told me: “To be honest I had no idea it was such a drug-fuelled expats’ playground until I arrived. I think I was expecting a sort of picturesque, East-meets-West, old-meets-new island of tasteful monuments linked together by incredibly clean, fast bullet trains. But yeah, it is actually Club 18-30 for privately educated Brits with jobs in banking.”
Rory was less poetic and more succinct: “That segment of white graduate London is just in Hong Kong, it’s all the same people. All of them are fucked the whole time. A lot of them are wired on coke, most of the time.” Before adding: “It’s just a little playground where you can get away with whatever the fuck you like.”
The evidence for a widespread cocaine culture is more than anecdotal. A Financial Action Task Force assessment identified illicit drug trafficking to be the criminal activity which generates the most lucrative illegitimate proceeds in Hong Kong. The financial climate of the city, as the eighth largest trading entity in the world and a case study for economic success, has in turn cultivated the ideal environment for domestic and international drug markets. The blanket 15 per cent tax rate, sophisticated banking facilities and absence of currency and exchange controls that make Hong Kong a financial centre also make it susceptible to the drug trade’s money laundering.
A good wedge of the city’s partying takes place on junk boats, traditional Chinese vessels that leave in the morning. Patrons pay the equivalent of £50 a head for all you can eat and drink. After sailing to an island or cove, floats are thrown into the sea and the drinking starts. People typically celebrate birthdays or similar occasions on the boats, some of the city’s law firms own their own for staff to book at the weekend.
I ask Alex about drug use on the boats. He tells me anything goes “away from eyes on the mainland” and that the parties are “very, very alcohol fuelled and very, very intense.” Jenna says people openly take cocaine over the course of the day.
The biggest party of the year, though, takes place annually when the World Rugby Sevens Series comes to town. 120,000 people visit the city to watch, and that number doesn’t factor in countless others without tickets, content to observe from fan zones and frequent the hotel pool parties that build up to the tournament weekend.
You can’t blame them. Throughout its course, the stadium’s South Stand turns into a Stella-soaked slaughterhouse, with few survivors left conscious at its climax. The drinking starts at 7am as fans queue to enter the ground – it ends with fully grown men napping in urinal troughs (or not, but the fact people thought he did is telling).
Hong Kong is a city of statistics and superlatives. The most expensive city in the world per square foot differs from list to list, but the former British colony is routinely in the top two. As a result accommodation is tiny. Seven million people have to fit into 1098 square kilometres. It’s unusual for an apartment to have a kitchen, which is significant. Residents do little more than sleep in their homes – they eat out for virtually every meal.
It doesn’t sound too bad initially, but Alex elaborates: “If you’ve had a long day and want to get home, you could in London. In Hong Kong the apartments are too small. You get a text from someone and you go ‘yes’, because anything is better, literally anything is better than staying in.” Instead of begrudgingly booking an Uber to carry you across London’s vast and underground-less southern landscape, in Hong Kong you walk down the street to meet your friends.
Your flat, your favourite bar and your favourite restaurant are all within a square mile. Shopping centres are linked by air conditioned tunnels that pass above the roads. In half an hour you can walk from the world’s largest Ralph Lauren to a Wan Chai brothel where working girls perch outside in leather swimsuits.
The red light district plays host to bars where the only customers are prostitutes. Their clients enter, choose a girl and head to a hotel. Their cost varies by nationality. Russian is the most expensive, local Chinese is the cheapest. This doesn’t put young Brits off living in the area, provided they can tolerate the badgering “mister, mister”s as they pass the sex houses. On a Wednesday night investment bankers and lawyers pile out of the Happy Valley Racecourse and into Wan Chai for Ladies Night, where girls drink for free after 10pm.
Another statistic: Hong Kong has the lowest murder rate in the world. It’s what makes Rurik Jutting’s brutal murder of two women in Wan Chai all the more harrowing. Violence features little in Hong Kong daily life. It occasionally erupts as it did in this case, on Braemar Hill or in the Hello Kitty murder. The rest of the time, life for Britain’s economic immigrants in China’s sovereign city is a glorified grad scheme.
The faces are the same, the offices are the same, but it’s the behaviour that makes Hong Kong so singular.