TAIPEI – Squeezed by soaring rents, cramped living conditions and unease over their city’s political future, increasing numbers of Hong Kongers are leaving to seek a better life in neighboring Taiwan.
The island, which is a 90-minute flight away, offers lower costs and an abundance of space — a rarity in Hong Kong, one of the world’s most densely populated cities.
Carlos Cheung, 28, moved to Taiwan’s central Taichung City last year to run a noodle shop there.
He says being a food vendor in Hong Kong would have been impossible, with a closet-sized space costing ten times his current monthly rent of 10,000 Hong Kong dollars ($1,300).
“How many skewers of fish balls or ‘fried three treasures’ would I have had to sell?” said Cheung, referring to common Hong Kong street snacks.
The former luxury watch salesman was able to emigrate as a spouse of his Taiwanese wife.
“Sales here haven’t been that bad, so I’m not under much pressure,” he said of his shop, Toi Heung Traditional Snacks.
Hong Kongers without family ties can apply for residency through investor programs, as technical professionals in designated industries, or as entrepreneurs.
Last year a record 7,498 people from Hong Kong and neighboring Macau obtained residency in Taiwan — the majority from Hong Kong.
Residents are increasingly worried that China is tightening its grasp on the semi-autonomous city, with tensions sparking mass protests for full democracy at the end of last year.
Some see Taiwan, a self-governing democracy, as offering respite from China’s grip.
Fears over China’s influence are not new — an estimated 40,300 Hong Kongers left the year before the handover by Britain in 1997, but the numbers jumping ship to previously popular destinations like Canada and Australia have fallen.
Taiwan has its own difficult relationship with the mainland — since it broke away at the end of a civil war in 1949, Beijing still views the island as a part of its territory that awaits reunification.
Undeterred, Dicken Yeung, 38, moved to the island over what he saw as the increasing influence of China on Hong Kong and a deterioration of the city’s autonomy.
“It’s getting more and more communist,” said Yeung, who worked as a schoolteacher in Hong Kong and recently moved to Yilan county, on Taiwan’s east coast.
“Law enforcement is becoming more like the Chinese public security and the judiciary, while not yet interfered with, is also going in that direction.”
Yeung entered under a program that gave residency to those who had 5 million New Taiwan dollars ($155,000) deposited in a local bank, though the scheme was later scrapped.
He says the pace of life in Taiwan is a pleasant contrast to frenzied Hong Kong.
“Life here isn’t as stressful and people are kinder and very happy to help,” said Yeung.
“Living costs are so low. I also really like the environment here. In Taiwan, places are designed with people in mind, unlike in Hong Kong, where everything is fenced in.”
Hong Kong applicants who enter Taiwan under its investor immigration program need to make an investment of NT$6 million — real estate does not count.
That is much lower than the thresholds for similar programs in Canada, Australia and Britain, according to Hong Kong-based Uni Immigration Consultancy.
“Some who want to move overseas but don’t have the money are considering Taiwan,” said Tyson Ho, who advises clients at the agency.
“It’s also much closer. Many of them go into food and beverage because it’s relatively easy, even if they may not have experience running their own businesses in Hong Kong.”
‘Business isn’t so good’
For those chasing profits, a move to Taiwan may not be easy — this year the economy is set for its weakest growth since 2009.
Snack vendor Ah Tong, 53, moved his business from Hong Kong to Taiwan last year, and has lived on the island in the past, as his wife is Taiwanese.
But he is feeling the pinch of the stagnating economy.
“Business isn’t so good right now, for all the shops here in Shilin,” he said, referring to the popular night market where he opened his store.
Ah Tong sells “ngau chap,” braised beef offal, a Hong Kong street food beloved by the city.
“‘Ngau chap’ is something new for Taiwanese. It’s not something they would eat every day,” he says.
But while turnover may be slower than in Hong Kong, lower rent and labor costs mean he can afford to take his time to build his business.
What matters more is adapting the taste of his street snacks to a new market.
Ah Tong says he conducted a questionnaire to test taste buds in Taiwan and found he had to add 40 percent more sugar to his recipe.
“They all thought it was too salty,” he said. “The Taiwanese have a sweeter palate.”