(This is my debut article published on The Guardian on 3 Dec 2015, following a QS University Ranking survey that ranked Hong Kong the eighth best student city in the world.)
The pearl of the orient boasts a unique cultural blend and some of Asia’s top universities – but life doesn’t come cheap.
Proudly branding itself as Asia’s world city, Hong Kong is famous for many things – from its savoury cuisine and efficient transport system to its modern city skyline, just to name a few. Under the glamorous billboards and ubiquitous skyscrapers of this fast-paced metropolis, the city is home to nine – soon to be 10 – universities, attended by hundreds of thousands of pupils.
“I chose Hong Kong because it’s a global city,” says Anastasia, an Indonesian undergraduate student at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). “There are a lot of people from different backgrounds and many of them can speak English. That’s why it is easier for foreigners to live here.”
The cosmopolitan city has been rated as the eighth best city for students in the world by the higher education data experts QS. But what sets it apart from the pack?
Strong academic reputation
Hong Kong is home to some of the best universities in Asia. The top three tertiary institutions in the city; HKU, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) – are among the best on the continent, according to QS. These university rankings attract talent from all over the world.
A blending of east and west
Hong Kong is also renowned for its unique cultural blend. Henry Zhao, a second-year Australian student at CUHK, describes Hong Kong as “the melting point of western and Asian cultures”. He says the city has an advantage because of its close proximity to mainland China, and the fact that it remains largely free from the level of government censorship seen in the mainland.
“Hong Kong is like a huge hinge where you may get access to many other parts of the world,” adds Liu Zehui, a mainland Chinese student at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU). Having studied in China for 17 years, she decided to further her studies in Hong Kong because she was fascinated by the city’s cosmopolitanism.
Even though over 90% of the population is ethnically Chinese, the autonomous city still inherits influences from its colonial past. All universities in Hong Kong use English as the primary medium of instruction, and English is an official language in the territory, alongside Cantonese.
Hong Kong’s cultural diversity is visible on the streets. Traditional Cantonese cuisine, such as siu mei (roasted meat) and dim sum, is available alongside western food like hamburgers, pasta, steak and pizza in almost every corner.
Student mix and student activities
Universities in Hong Kong are famous for their countless student activities. There is a popular saying among students that undergraduates should accomplish five “objectives” before graduation: study well, live in a student dorm, become an executive member of a student society at university, get into a relationship and work part-time. This highlights the vibrant lives students lead in the city.
Executive members of student societies have the fun – and pain – of organising activities for their members. This may include orientation camps for new students, annual dinner events, and games for students to mingle with one another.
Some students consider this a good opportunity to build up their social network. Wong Joey Noelle, a local student at HKU and an executive member of the sociology society, says it was “a worthwhile experience that can nurture students’ interpersonal as well as leadership skills”. She also says she has made many new friends through the society.
But not everyone is satisfied with the way students engage with one another at university. Some international students say they find it difficult to mingle with locals.
“I found it a bit hard to feel accepted in the local community because of the language barrier,” says Anastasia. “When I want to participate in some activities, they’re organised in Cantonese so I am unable to join.” Nevertheless, she says students are generally welcoming.
An expensive city with relatively low unemployment
The main downside to studying in Asia’s world city, however, is that it’s far from cheap. Earlier this year, Mercer awarded Hong Kong second place in its annual ranking of cities with the highest cost of living for expatriates. Depending on where you come from, you might find the city quite an expensive place to live in.
Nevertheless, Hong Kong remains a lively place in which to study. Whether you are initially fond of its cosmopolitan lifestyle, its international significance, or simply its crowdedness, you might be amazed by what the pearl of the orient has to offer.
An original version of this article appeared on The Guardian on 3 December 2015.