No Place Like Home

Thursday, June 15, 2017
Written By : 
Richard G. Watson

The back of a piece of tissue paper is hardly the place to write a business plan.  And certainly not while sitting in a hotel lobby at the airport in Brussels during a four-hour stopover while seriously jetlagged.

But that is exactly the reason why I left Australia and moved to Hong Kong in 1997, a mere two months after writing that business plan.

Hong Kong in those days was a very different place.   The Chinese had just taken back possession of Hong Kong from the British, many expats had left Hong Kong and moved back home, and hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong Chinese people had taken up Canadian passports; just in case.  The names of buildings were changed (no “Royal” anymore).  Even the RSPCA had become just the SPCA. The currency had changed.  And the PLA have quietly moved in. Perfect timing for me to move house from Sydney to Hong Kong … hmm.

I am still astounded at my own naivety then.  And I am equally astounded at the generosity of the people I met and worked with, both local and foreign, who helped me find my way.

Okay, so what had changed in Hong Kong after the handover to the Peoples Republic of China? From what I could see, nothing.  Everyone still worked hard, moved fast, spoke Cantonese and/or English, complained about the weather, focused on making money and had yum cha any chance they could.  Of course, my comprehensive business plan was no help whatsoever.  But I chose to stay and adapt and work at it until I got it right.

That was 20 years ago almost to the day.

In 1997, I was in total awe of Hong Kong.  I was frustrated that I didn’t know how or where to buy a hammer, or get a decent sandwich let alone a decent cup of coffee!  My apartment had a mattress on the floor, and the TV sat on the box it was delivered in until I could buy real furniture.  Going to the gym in the early hours of the morning I would pass the wet markets where my eyes watered at the distinct odour of smelly tofu, the sight of pigs’ ears in buckets and sounds of hundreds of live chickens in cages.  It was a humbling, frustrating and exciting place to be, it still is but it has evolved.  Hong Kong keeps evolving, changing, reinventing itself.  That is why a territory, a city really, of 7 million people is such a powerhouse.  In business, it just works.  You can feel the energy of a territory/city that is going somewhere.  And you either love it or hate it.

Four years ago, I set up my own company in Hong Kong.  And, again in my naivety, decided to set up an office in Manila Philippines at the same time.  No, I didn’t do the business plan on a piece of tissue paper this time, but in so many ways I took the same leap of faith and just worked hard. It seemed like a good idea at the time.  And it was.

I think what amazed me most in the Philippines and Hong Kong was again the generosity of the people I knew, met and worked with to again help me find my way.  I couldn’t have imagined I’d be sitting all these years later in my house a few hours’ drive out of Manila writing a blog at 5am.

So how does the Philippines compare to Hong Kong?  The streets here in the Philippines are insanely busy, people move with a purpose, and the traffic is crazy.  But I know where to buy a hammer here (and in Hong Kong too), can get a decent sandwich and good cup of coffee!  The people are young, smart, driven, educated and mostly ambitious.  It is a developing country with the second highest growth rate in Asia.  And it makes me wonder that perhaps this was what Hong Kong was like 50 years ago?  Foreign businesses are moving in in increasing numbers and making their home here.  You can feel the energy of a nation going somewhere.  No surprise, I am in total awe of this place too.

I often wonder that if that comprehensive tissue paper business plan had brought me to Singapore or Tokyo or Ho Chi Minh, would I have still been in awe of those cities, the people, the culture, the work ethic?  And importantly, could I have found a decent cup of coffee?  The answer would have categorically been yes.

While no two cities or countries in Asia are alike, there are similarities across Asian cities when it comes to the people.  Mostly they work hard, they like to succeed, they struggle, they value family and relationships above all else.  Sound familiar?  Not too different to any western country really.

So, making here (Asia) my home was really not that hard.  It was just a matter of priorities and working out what really mattered.  Setting up and growing an international business here was in many ways easier than doing so in Australia, USA or most western countries.  But not without risk of course.  Perhaps my view today is coloured because I have spent so many years doing what I do, helping entrepreneurs and foreign companies around this region, and making many new friends along the way.

Would I do it all again?  Again, categorically yes, although I would like to have made few mistakes than I did … Maybe I will do better over the next 20 years.



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