Words of warning to “safe and secure, prestigious” job seekers

My friend Tracy’s first hand experience and warning is at the bottom.

Or read a publicized  account of another overworked PwC associate here, who died from working 18 hour days. Chinese language here.

To the detriment of  startups, and human existence in general, we all know Asian parents expect their kids to get those “safe and secure, prestigious” jobs at large, well known companies. Their kid gets a steady paycheck while the parents get to tell all their friends that their kid works for *insert big prestigious name here* company. The kids even get convinced that working for a large company is prestigious and fancy.


Both the parents and the kids mistakenly associate the security of the company with the security of the job. They mistakenly associate the prestige of the company with the prestige of the job. The know that China is the developed world’s low cost blue collar labour source, but do not realize that Hong Kong is the developed world’s low cost white collar labour source. The kids do not realize that they will all be wearing identical black suits from G2000, avoiding contact with any of their associates while eating McDonalds with a can of 7-11 Starbucks for dinner at 2am, and sharing a tiny apartment with someone in Sheung Wan.


Saturday 2am: My manager just Whatsapp’d me. I have to stop working on this work and work on some other work.

This is a real problem. Both for the kids and for society. For the kids, they get trapped in a low paying, high stress, low mobility job. For many people this would be OK. Same job every day, same paycheck, same life, day in day out. Many people prefer the faithfulness and predictability of a rat wheel.  Until they get fired or laid off. Surprise!

But for many people, often those who may have something significant to contribute to the world, this kind of job sucks. But they are conditioned to take the jobs anyway, and they do. And this is why the risk adverse illusions of prestige mindset is detrimental to society: the best and brightest are shoved into the corporate world where their brains and creativity will be sucked away. In other cultures a few of these kids would follow their ideas, take the risks, be supported (or at least left alone) by parents, nurtured by universities (until they drop out and startup), join a startup community, meet venture investors, accelerators, co-working spaces, entrepreneurial societies, etc., and eventually some would create new companies, invent new technologies, create more jobs, make life easier, more enjoyable, and all around better for everyone. Even those that fail would have a huge competitive advantage over those that remained in the “safe and secure’ route. In Hong Kong all of these ideas, innovations, jobs, and happiness that would have been invented by entrepreneurial and creative people are instead lost to the corporate black hole.

Things are improving, though. Startlab.HK is a bootcamp for design, engineering and science students (that Xingergy will be involved in). Though it’s only 5 days long and is limited to 50 students. Forbes thinks Hong Kong is the #1 startup scene behind Silicon Valley and New York (and Austin). The American Chamber of Commerce thinks Hong Kong is ready to become a startup hub. But if my non scientific observations are anywhere near correct, the Hong Kong startup scene seems to be almost entirely expat driven. Either the university kids are not getting into the startup scene, or they are creating their own separate scene. Either way, the only way Hong Kong will truly become a startup scene is for the universities to get involved on an actionable level and for the existing and developing startup scene infrastructure (investors, entrepreneurial organizations, etc.) to welcome and support the graduates who do take the leap. And parents will have to stop telling their kids what to do, especially stop convincing them that corporate jobs are safe, secure and prestigious. At least at a startup you’ll know if it’s going badly and will have some time to prepare your resume. Corporate jobs tend to fire you on a Friday afternoon so “there aren’t any incidents”.

Don’t believe me? Believe my friend Tracy. She is from Shanghai. She went to Chinese University Hong Kong. She got a job at PwC. Her parents love it. She hates every moment of it. In her free time she has published a travel book or two. On a side note, her parents made her study study study and didn’t allow her to date while growing up. Now she works 80 hours a week, has no social life, and they can’t understand why she doesn’t magically have a husband prospect. Anyway, here’s the facts straight from Tracy:

Many people are dreaming of working for a fancy accounting firm who is the leader of the world, dressing nice and fit black suit, working in those gorgeous buildings in Central, went to cocktail parties, talk to famous client, being a professional, and everyone will regard you as a successful businessman.
Yes, that is the dream of my mum, having a daughter working as a professional accountant, working for the big four accounting firms. That’s why she refused me to study literature and language, which is something my true love lies in, I studied professional accountancy when I was in university, but I found it boring on the first class. That’s why I didn’t pay much attention in accounting classes, I worked as an research assistant for education department, I studied all the French classes, I attended many public speaking competitions and I began to open my own column in my final year.
But I still went into PwC, the world’s largest accounting firm when I graduated. I want to get my license as CPA, I want to know how to apply my knowledge learned during school, yes, I graduated with a good academic result, so I think maybe I can easily survive in PwC.
Yes, now I am working in Central, wearing suits everyday, passed my professional exams, I didn’t fail even a single module, I did work for some famous clients, and I even got the chance to talk to the COO of the client. But here is my daily life.
I got up at 7:30, went to the client office, then, work work work, in the previous week, I didn’t even have time to have a proper lunch, so just take away lunch boxes from starbucks or supermarket. I back to my office at 10pm, when the client have to leave, then have a taken-away dinner. Yes, we have 50HKD as meal allowance, which means the only choice left in Central is Mcdonalds.
Then I work until God knows when, maybe 1am, yes that is very lucky and rare, 2am or 3am is normal, for me, my record is 5am, which happens several times. As an associate, my monthly pay is HKD12000 in my first year, then HKD15100 right now, normally, no overtime payment. Some kind manager will give you like a hundred bucks. But the labor cost incurred during the job engagement is called the expense, the audit fee from the client is called the revenue, expense/revenue is called the recover rate in my firm, it is related to the bonus of managers and partners, so manager tend to cut the labor hours to increase the recover rate. The worse case I ever encounter is the manager forced me to take sick leave, so I didn’t incur any labor cost to that job engagement, but I worked like normal, until 2am, yes, this can help the manager, but of course, it makes my very depressed.
Calculated by hourly rate, I am not sure if my hourly salary is higher then the minimum amount required by the law, some weeks, I have to say, it’s even less than HKD30 per hour.
What can I get from the firm, yes, a big fancy name, and no more. Many managers/partners treat us as some machines to earn money, there are very good ones, like managers are  even willing to lower the recover rate to give us overtime payments, but, I have only met one during my entire stay in PwC, and I guess I am very lucky.
We all suffer from health problem, yes, if you work till 5am, sleep 10 hours in one week and dont eat regularly, it is. Some of my seniors have to take medicine everyday, because her whole digestion system is damaged, and insomnia, when you are under great pressure, even if you only have 2 hours of sleep, you will keep on thinking about all the difficulties we are going to meet tomorrow. Feel dizzy and low blood sugar, this is very very normal, everyone has this, as well as a very weak body.
I tried to complain, but many people are saying I am already lucky, yes, the seniors sleep at 4am everyday and they consider this as normal, and they can work 36 hours without stop, everyone is comparing their own record, and compare to them, I would feel that I am lucky.
So, this is what you will suffer and what you will get in working for PwC.
Good luck if you still want to apply for it.


So there you have it. You are your own person, with your own abilities, knowledge, and desires. What do you want to do with your life?
HKSEC09_12Listening to Tracy lament for years has given me insight into this subject matter (Left: Hong Kong Social Enterprise Challenge 2009; Right, Hong Kong Social Enterprise Challenge 2012). That’s Tracy.




  1. […] this, so I did it later. Story of the startup. Salaries are generally lower in Hong Kong while the hours are longer. Might as well work for a startup, at least you get the equity upside. Below I’ve listed out […]

  2. Barry Mernin · · Reply

    Reblogged this on Expat Teacher Man and commented:
    I had a feeling that Hong Kong was tough. I had no idea. Dickensian comes to mind.

  3. […] up with Kaiqi to launch Innov8tia along with Tracy and […]

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