As far as successful expats in Hong Kong go, Allan Zeman is undoubtedly among the leaders of the pack. Besides turning Lan Kwai Fong into one of Asia’s top nightlife districts, he has also made Ocean Park one of the world’s top theme parks.
He’s built a fortune and a formidable business reputation, but the 65-year-old has also impressed many with how well he has mingled with the local culture and community in his more than 40 years in Hong Kong. He was awarded the Gold Bauhinia Star in 2004 and the city’s highest official honor, the Grand Bauhinia Medal, in 2011 for significant contributions to society. And, in 2008, he made the city his official home, relinquishing his Canadian citizenship for a Hong Kong SAR passport and Home Return Permit.
In an interview with the Hong Kong Economic Journal’s EJ Insight, Zeman said that from his earliest days in the city he sought to be a part of the local fabric — and not just because he was in the garment industry. That approach gave him a strong feel for the mass market and local concerns.
“From the moment when I arrived in Hong Kong, I thought of myself as a local. I integrated into the local society. I didn’t just hang out in Central with the other expats. I was in factories in Kwun Tong and Tai Kok Tsui, Sam Po Kong,” he said.
“Many expats come and they just think, ‘oh my home is Canada, Australia, whatever’, and they are going back. They are just staying for a short period and go back. But not me.
“I think if you really want to integrate into the society, you need to become part of the society. You need to say that this is going to be my home.”
That’s why he encourages foreigners to contribute to society, not just come to “make money and send it home”.
Zeman first came to Hong Kong in the mid-1960s back when it was still a British colony. The then-Canadian thrived amid the trading opportunities but he said the post-handover city continues to offer foreigners good prospects for success.
“Hong Kong is still an international city. We haven’t lost that internationalism,” he said.
“I don’t really see the difference… Hong Kong is an international place. They hire based on experience, and usually get the best person for the job.
“The strength of Hong Kong is internationalism, that’s the edge that we still have over China at the moment. It’ll still take China years to catch up with that.”
One thing has changed though and that’s the decline of English standards in the city, something that could pose a challenge for foreigners in the city.
The issue came to the fore two weeks ago when Christopher Chung, a lawmaker who from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), tripped up in English in the Legislative Council by improperly pronouncing the word “shame” and confusing listeners with linguistic riddles like: “You are dreaming on your office or you are not attended at your office”.
Before Chung, another DAB lawmaker, Gary Chan, had also been the butt of jokes for pronouncing “try our best” as “try our breast” in 2008.
Zeman agreed that English skills in Hong Kong had worsened and the city has to make an effort to stay competitive.
“I think that definitely, there is deterioration in the English language in Hong Kong,” he said.
“This is sad, because it is important that we keep as much as possible the English language. That will make us stronger than our neighbors.”
Hong Kong is already slipping, by some indexes. It has dropped from third spot to fourth in global competitiveness, overtaken by regional rival Singapore in the latest report by the Swiss business school, the International Institute for Management Development. Zeman said one reason for the fall is the decline in English in the special administrative region.
“I think we really need to keep the English language, and more and more people need to be able to speak proper English,” he said.
We are an international city, and if we lose that, he said, we’ll just be another city in China.
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