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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries
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International: Eastern delights

Moving to a foreign country to work was something that I always wanted to do — I just always thought I would end up permanently in America and not Asia. But after six months contracting out in Des Moines, Iowa, my contract came to an end. I was at a loose end looking for jobs back in London when I received a call from a recruitment consultant talking about exciting opportunities in Hong Kong.

Having spent one day there four years previously, about which all I remember is going horse racing, dancing on a bar and flying out of Hong Kong, the thought of going back intrigued me. I therefore took the interviews, passed them and began researching Hong Kong before finally making my decision to move out here to work for the AXA Life Asia Regional office. Looking back seven months later, I have to say it is one of the best decisions I have made in my career.

Asia is an exciting area to work in because it is the one major area of the world that is growing in life insurance. If you look at most European firms’ balance sheets from a few years ago, the Asian exposure was small and often loss-making due to mainly small start-up operations, but now with growth markets in Indonesia, China and India, the potential for the Asian markets is huge.

I am currently in charge of a regional valuation team with responsibility for China and India. I have a team of six people and it is very enjoyable; the cultural aspect of the work is interesting and the working hours are very different. The office is dead at 09.00 but still thriving at 19.00 and everybody usually takes 90 minutes for lunch! Working with both China and India has its challenges but also rewards. We keep on top of the requirements of the European parent company and we also provide training, expertise and advice.

With my job there is also potential for travel — I have already been to Macau for a conference and a number of my colleagues have been to Singapore for training. I am currently planning a trip to India to see the team that I work with.

Hong Kong is an amazing city to live in — with over seven million people crammed into a roughly 1,000km2 area, it is very crowded, very busy but has a great vibe. It has one of the world’s best airports, one of the world’s best public transport systems and some of the world’s best foods. The nightlife is good and, upon first arrival, I felt like I was back at university; although, after the excitement of the first few months, the partying calmed down. I found myself at a Cantonese class trying to learn the language, taking up hiking with the goal of a 40km night hike and having met some awesome new friends with whom to spend weekends on the beach or on boat trips. The expat lifestyle is fun and the locals are a friendly bunch.

There is something for everyone in Hong Kong and, with its small size, you really are never more than an hour away from anything. Hong Kong is also an excellent destination from which to explore the rest of Asia — so far I have already been to Korea, Thailand, Singapore and Australia.

The weather during the summer can be hot and sticky but you do get some great rain storms, and I have been told about the typhoons that come with an automatic day off, although I’ve not seen one yet. Other than the summer, the weather during the rest of the year is pleasant, although some of the locals say winter is cold — that’s if you call 12°C cold...

The Asian insurance markets are growing fast, but my view is Hong Kong will be a very challenging and interesting place to work, as well as a great place to live.

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HONG KONG stats and facts
Land mass
1,104 square kilometres
Population
7,055,071 (July 2010)
Labour force
3.66 million (Apr-Jun 2010); 5.9% work in financial services sector
Unemployment
4.6% (Apr-Jun 2010)
GDP
£135.5 billion (2009)
Real growth
-2.8% (2009)
Life expectancy
Male 79 years; female 85 years

Source: Census and Statistics Dept, Govt of Hong Kong; CIA

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Matthew Houghton is valuation and analysis manager for China and India at AXA APH in Hong Kong