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How 6 people in Hong Kong earn their dollars

More than 7 million people live in this Special Administrative Region of China.

As the fourth-most densely populated region in the world, Hong Kong offers visitors and inhabitants a compact city of startling contrasts. Hundreds of concentrated skyscrapers tower above Victoria Harbour — whose deep, sheltered waters are responsible for the city’s development as a trading center in the 1800s — while anachronistic double-decker trams trundle along the shore below. Traditional cha chaan tengs (“tea canteens”) serve affordable local meals beside glass-fronted global bank headquarters.  

Hong Kong, SAR China

  • Population: 7.4 million
  • 100 Hong Kong dollars (HKD) = $12.78
  • Official languages: English and Cantonese (Chinese)
  • Minimum hourly wage: HKD 40 ($5.11)
  • Median hourly wage: HKD 77.40 ($9.89)

Source: Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department

Hong Kong is the world’s fourth-ranked global financial center. Its unique trade agreements, stable exchange rates and low corporate taxes make the city a favorable business environment and financial gateway to China. 

Its distinct currency — the Hong Kong dollar (HKD) — is the ninth-most traded currency in the world. The currency’s separation from the Chinese yuan renminbi (CNY) stems from the “one country, two systems” agreement, which preserves Hong Kong’s capitalist economy as a special administrative region (SAR) of China for 50 years, until 2047. The city was a colony of the United Kingdom until 1997. 

At the beginning of 2023, Hong Kong became one of the last jurisdictions in the world to reopen after Covid-19. The ensuing economic recovery has been softer than expected: nine months after reopening, tourist arrivals were at just 65% of their 2018 level. 

Emigration has also shrunk Hong Kong’s labor force: 74% of participating companies in a 2023 Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce survey reported talent shortages. However, to cope with brain drain and an aging population, the government has encouraged workers to immigrate from mainland China — a scheme that has received more than 100,000 applications.

To gain insights into the ever-changing landscape of Hong Kong, we invited six people from diverse backgrounds to discuss their past, present and future relationships to their income. Their stories reflect the city’s transformations and the dynamic nature of its industries. 

Lyris Wong

Partner at global consulting firm

I studied business and accounting in Hong Kong. Once I finished my degree, I landed a job at a global consulting firm where I focused on digital transformation projects. My area of expertise is finance management and customer relationship management. 

The paychecks that truly make me feel special are usually tied to promotions or bonuses. What’s great about these paychecks is that they reward your performance. It’s amazing to see your hard work being recognized and appreciated. The moments when you feel like you’ve advanced in your career and overcome challenges are truly special.

At every stage, receiving a paycheck that reflects your progress and growth brings a sense of happiness. I still remember when I first entered the consulting world, my salary was around HKD 15,000 to 16,000 ($1,918 to $2,046). Consulting firms generally offer higher starting salaries compared to other industries, and the competition to get in is quite fierce. The company I joined after graduation only hired about 10 people throughout the entire city.

Within a consulting firm, we have different grades. As a member of staff, the highest rank you can achieve is director level. Beyond that, you become a partner, which means you become a shareholder in the company. I can’t provide an exact figure of my income for this year because it depends on how well the company performs.

In terms of the income range for staff members, it varies greatly based on individual expertise. Some people with unique skill sets can easily earn over HKD 1 million or HKD 2 million per year ($128,000 to $256,000). It’s actually quite common in our field.

Hong Kong is a place full of opportunities. Even now, I believe it’s a fair environment. It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a fresh graduate. Starting your career here provides you with exposure internationally and numerous chances in mainland China and Asia. If you work hard, you’ll eventually reap the rewards.

Kwong Nam Ng, 63


I make around HKD 20,000 per month, which is enough to cover my expenses since I don’t have heavy financial burdens.

I was born in Hong Kong. My first job was as a carpenter when I was about 12 years old. I was a carpentry apprentice for four years. However, by the time I finished my training, the industry had started to decline. The labor force and materials in Malaysia were cheaper, so after a few years, I had to switch to another job. In my generation, if you didn’t pursue higher education, your family would encourage you to learn a skilled trade.

That’s when I decided to pursue bone-setting, a type of traditional Chinese medicine. Back in those days, masters wouldn’t hire you as a full-time worker because there weren’t many customers — the only way into the industry was to be an apprentice. Nowadays young people have to go to a traditional Chinese medicine school if they want to enter the field. 

During my apprenticeship, I earned a monthly salary of HKD 120. I was allowed to sleep at the company, and they provided two meals a day. Prices were very low back then, so HKD 120 was enough. I didn’t really have to worry about food and shelter.

I was quite content during that time. Even with just HKD 120 a month, I would still send some money home. My parents were also satisfied. Sometimes I would even buy myself a new shirt as a reward.

After that, in the 1980s, I worked as a truck driver for many years. I earned around HKD 2,000 per month. Then, starting in 2002, I switched to driving minivans. During that time, I was earning around HKD 15,000 to 16,000 per month.

In the 2010s, when I returned to bone-setting, my salary remained around HKD 15,000. My salary increment didn’t really keep pace with the rising inflation rate. 

In the future, there may be fewer practitioners using traditional bone-setting methods. The graduates who study traditional Chinese medicine nowadays focus more on methods such as dry needling and cupping therapy. But people are more confident in bone-setting as a medicine these days, as bone-setting regulations have been tightened, so there are more customers.

Nova Cancino, 37

Domestic worker

I moved from the Philippines to Hong Kong a few years ago. My salary here is just minimum wage, which is HKD 4730 [per month]. Very, very little. So it’s difficult to manage my expenses as Hong Kong is so expensive. 

When I was small, my aunties all came to Hong Kong to work, so I thought one day I want to go to Hong Kong, too. I have kids, so I need to send money home to give them a good life, even though I’m so far from them. I need to be strong and focus on what I can give them as a mother. I send half of my salary home each month, around HKD 2,000.

Salaries in Hong Kong are higher. If I stayed in the Philippines, I could earn 500 pesos (about $9) a day. It’s not enough. If you know how to budget your income here in Hong Kong it’s okay. That’s why Filipinos choose to come. Aside from benefits, medication and statutory holidays, if you work for your employer for around five or six years, you can earn double pay for the last month of the year. That is very good.

I want to work until my son becomes a policeman. I told him, “If you don’t study hard, I have to stay here. If you study hard, then I can come home. If you have a good education, you can work and do better than me.”

Edward Leung, 28

Cafe manager

My very first job was during my secondary school days, back when I was 14 years old. I got the opportunity to work in the kitchen of a Michelin-starred French restaurant. At that time, my hourly rate was HKD 50. So, after wrapping up my classes for the day, I would head straight to work. I used the money I earned to cover my school meal fees and treated myself to some stationery and coffee. Funnily enough, my love for coffee started way back when I was 10 years old.

Since then, I’ve been pretty loyal to the cafe scene. I never really made any drastic career changes. At one point, I was unemployed for a short period of one or two months and tried my hand at a few other jobs. But in the end, I realized that my heart truly belonged to the cafe business, so I made my way back to it.

On average, a shop manager at a cafe can make about HKD 21,000 if you work in a small business. If you work in a larger shop, you may earn around HKD 26,000. 

After receiving my next paycheck, I will pay my rent first. It’s around HKD 6000. Transportation costs usually take up around HKD 1,500, and I also need to set aside about HKD 500 for my electricity and water bills.

As for the remaining money, I like to invest it in expanding my knowledge and skills. It really depends on my current interests and hobbies. Right now, I’m particularly intrigued by wine tasting. So I plan to use some of my next paycheck to enroll in wine-tasting classes, where I can learn the intricacies of the craft. It’s somewhat reminiscent of my journey with coffee — discovering the nuances and truly appreciating the flavors.

For me, saving money just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, considering how inflation can eat away at its value. Back when I was working in the kitchen, HKD 50 per hour was a decent amount of cash. It covered my school fees and then some. But fast forward to today, and what can you do with HKD 50? It’s barely enough to grab a quick meal at a fast food restaurant. It’s like trying to catch up with a runaway train. So, instead of watching my money lose its worth over time, I’d rather put it to good use by making some transactions right now.

Coffee is a craft that requires dedicated time and practice to master. Most people are not very patient. When I first started, I committed to working 10 hours a day, five days a week, and it took me six months to achieve proficiency in crafting commendable latte art. Nowadays, most youngsters entering this industry opt for part-time work.

Issac Yau, 26

HR assistant manager at a bank

I graduated from the Baptist University of Hong Kong, majoring in Human Resources Management. After graduating in 2019, I found a job that is related to human resources. That was in a property management company. At that time, as a recent graduate, my salary was around HKD 15,000. My second job was in HR in an engineering company. I got a raise to around HKD 25,000. 

Right now I am an assistant manager of human resources in a bank in Hong Kong, which has been a significant increase in salary. Am I satisfied with my income? You can hardly ever feel satisfied — you always want to aim higher — but it’s closer to what I am aiming for.

The major reason prompting my job changes has been the salary. Secondly, it’s also about self-development. When I jump into a new role, I can learn more, which leads to better career prospects.

I spend part of my income on essential daily expenditures. I would divide my spending into a few categories, such as entertainment and investment. Sometimes I also buy luxury products for myself if I have spare money. 

Nanna, 35

Yoga teacher

I am from Ukraine. I was traveling a lot, and then I met my husband and I got married. I moved to Hong Kong in 2019. Before that, I was in the hospitality industry, and I started to do yoga in 2019. I decided to switch to something that can support my mental and physical health more.

It doesn’t matter where you are, you have to love what you do. And you have to be passionate about it. Then you will thrive.

In Hong Kong, I probably don’t earn that much, but I work in a lot of different places. I work with different companies, with corporate employees, teaching them yoga and meditation through different types of workshops. I work with hotels and gyms, too, teaching yoga there. Sometimes I substitute teach at yoga studios, and sometimes I have private classes. Generally, how much I earn depends on the month, but roughly, it’s around HKD 20,000.

I love teaching in Hong Kong because people are very open, and people want to be fit. People care about their mental and physical wellbeing — they care about their health. It’s great. Hong Kong is very competitive and vibrant. 

My first paycheck in Hong Kong? It was so long ago, in 2019, when Covid started and I had to teach online. My first paycheck was super small, but it was such a great opportunity. I remember after receiving my first paycheck I bought myself a little piece of jewelry to remember it by. 

Vanesse Chan

Vanesse Chan is a multimedia journalist based in Hong Kong, with a focus on local politics and social issues. She earned her Bachelor degree of journalism at the University of Hong Kong. In 2019, she covered the Hong Kong protests for multiple news outlets, including CNN and Channel 4. In 2023, she worked as a freelance video producer at Reuters. Her work has also been published by ABC (Australia), Business Insider, TIME magazine and more.