I live in Singapore but I also love spending time in Hong Kong and Shanghai. My business is global, and my fastest growing market is China and Hong Kong. I have found that people I visit and know tend to love one city over the others.
On a recent trip to Hong Kong and then Shanghai I met with several entrepreneurs, clients, partners, and business associates who all expressed a preference for Hong Kong or Shanghai. Even to the extent of never ever even considering Singapore.
Singapore to me seems like the natural business hub of Asia. They viewed Singapore the way that I view Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta, nice to visit occasionally but not live and work.
I also see Hong Kong and Shanghai in that context too, great for business but wouldn’t want to live there. Everyone has a personal choice for business.
So which one should you choose? Let’s look at various factors that entrepreneurs should look at when deciding on where to place their hub in Asia Pacific.
1) Internet connection
As my business is all about social media, myself and my team need to be using the Internet constantly. Therefore speed and reliability are key.
I was in Shanghai and Beijing for a week recently and what holds these two locations back for me are two things: 1) the Internet speed and 2) reliability.
Everyone I meet in Shanghai, for example, complains about the Internet speed with or without VPN. The Internet is the biggest thing that holds China back. If you can’t get high-speed Internet in the largest commercial city in the largest country in the world, imagine what it’s like for people in other giant cities in China. It is the biggest factor against putting your business here.
There is only so much that you can use WeChat for. The Internet is still essential for everything from research to email and communications. Without it and with it at such a slow rate, your productivity and ability to do any kind of white-collar job is effectively decreased.
Singapore has one of the fastest Internet connections and speeds in the world, allegedly, according to research. Even in Singapore it’s not perfect. I have 4G and, like most people who have 4G, I still complain about the speed. Nothing is ever perfect but when you experience China and then Singapore, you appreciate Singapore’s speeds.
Hong Kong is somewhere in between. Not as slow as Shanghai but not as fast as Singapore.
This taps into Internet also. When I was in Beijing, the Shangri-La, where I stayed, sent me a note with a list of all the Internet sites I couldn’t log on to as they were banned in China. They include Google where we have our entire business on the cloud.
I took a photo of this and shared it on my China LinkedIn. Within seconds it had vanished. My list of censored sites provided to me by my hotel had itself been censored!
I then of course switched on my VPN and shared it on my Singapore LinkedIn site. And it was not only fine; it trended for a week and gained hundreds of comments, likes, and helpful advice. Ironic.
Of course I know this happens in China and always connect via VPN as most people do in China who want access to these banned sites. Either that or there are actually hotels that have a VPN wall to enable all residents to use these censored sites (most American brands and not the Asian ones like Shangri-La, unfortunately, which appears to operate an increased censorship i.e. if I turn on my Shangri-La Wi-Fi, my Gmail doesn’t work, switch it off and bizarrely it does work).
Needing to use VPN all the time is a drag because the Chinese authorities have clearly got wise to this and have started blocking the VPNs too. I received non-stop complaints from people there that their VPN was being blocked, for example. Coupled with slow internet anyway it does make people think twice before being located there, but then if you’re not you do risk missing out on the largest market in the world.
Of course you can get Yahoo and Bing but if your business is on Google and you love Google, then you need Google. And for those of you who like their social Westernised, then you need Facebook and the like, which you can only get through VPN.
Since I started Black Marketing 2.5 years ago I have always worked at Jonathan O’Byrne’s amazing coworking (the lack of hyphen is for you, Jonathan) space Collective Works. Just last week we moved from his first place to his epic new space which is designed stunningly by Larissa Murphy’s Contrast and is five times larger than his previous space.
There is nothing like it in Singapore; it’s quite easily the best designed, best managed, most contemporary, most spacious, most entrepreneurial, most social, most business-focused coworking space in Singapore, if not Asia Pacific. More meeting rooms, more light, more glass, more views, more opportunities to connect and meet people – just extremely impressive all round. Our clients love coming here.
I have yet to see any space in Hong Kong that comes anywhere near it. Even the best spaces there like The Cage and The Garage are pale imitations and remind me of student hangouts more than productive working spaces for entrepreneurs. They might have started earlier with coworking in Hong Kong than Singapore but Singapore learnt about what entrepreneurs wanted faster and better.
Shanghai has some cool spaces; I especially like The Naked Hub. It’s a great place to hang out and speak at but I actually think it’s not the best place to work. Too casual and not enough emphasis on the working side, just the socialising side. The Naked Hub appears to be cool and a great place to hang out but I actually do need to work here!
4) Government support
Singapore: government support is vast and wide and amazing. Every week I receive cheques from the government for this scheme, that scheme, or some other scheme I didn’t even know that I was in. They literally throw money at entrepreneurs to innovate and employ locals. No one comes near matching them for investment and input.
Hong Kong: they would like to do what Singapore does but don’t and can’t, it seems. Too many vested family businesses who don’t want the status quo to be rocked or disrupted. They wouldn’t qualify, therefore they don’t want others to benefit, I get the feeling talking to entrepreneurs there.
Shanghai: free trade zones and enterprise grants abound here. There is a plethora of incentives and benefits if only you know where to look. Very much aimed at Chinese entrepreneurs more than expats. Of course the authorities do want Shanghai to be the financial and business hub of China and, in fact, Asia Pacific. There are also many schemes here for expat entrepreneurs if only you can find them.
5) The weather
Having moved from the dark, dismal, cold, wet, and miserable London to super sunny, hot, and humid Singapore, I’m in no mood to experience the other side again, which to me would rule out both Hong Kong and Shanghai. Seasons are overrated when three of them are cold, grey, and wet…
Shanghai and Hong Kong are lovely in the summer when there is no smog/pollution. The trouble is it’s always there. Sunny days, rainy days the smog is always there, more so in Shanghai than Hong Kong but it has a depressing effect on the city, its inhabitants, and people’s moods.
Give me sunny skies and warm weather every day and every night any time.
To be continued…
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Chris Reed has 25 years of senior marketing experience on both the client and agency side in the UK and now in Asia Pacific. He is the CEO and founder of Black Marketing.