Working Abroad – Eastern Promise

Hong Kong

Despite Covid-19 lockdowns and China-backed crackdowns, Hong Kong still has much to offer the adventurous financial professional, business coach and rugby ambassador David Bruce CA tells Ryan Herman

In 2010 one of Scotland’s all-time great rugby players, Gavin Hastings, was in Hong Kong for the annual Rugby Sevens tournament, a highlight of the city’s sporting and social calendar that attracts fans and partygoers from around the world.

In his role as an ambassador for the tournament, Hastings met plenty of expats who had played rugby to a decent standard in the UK and had gone to Hong Kong in search of a well-paid job in one of the world’s most exciting places to live and work. He casually suggested to Robbie McRobbie, CEO of the Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU), that he should consider setting up Hong Kong Scottish as an affiliated offshoot of London Scottish, the long-standing exiles club based in Richmond, London.

At this point, David Bruce CA had already been living and working in Hong Kong for more than 20 years. He was the HKRU’s Finance Director in the 1990s (and remains one of its vice presidents, albeit under its new title of Hong Kong China Rugby). So McRobbie suggested Bruce may want to help others who were working to get Hong Kong Scottish off the ground.

“I thought, I’m not doing it on my own, I’ll put together a finance committee,” Bruce recalls. “I brought in three other Scottish CAs – one was chairman of an international accounting firm, one was finance director of an airline and the other was COO of an international investment bank. That was probably as experienced and knowledgeable as any finance committee you would expect to find in any major corporation.”

Since Hong Kong Scottish was founded in 2011 it has become much more than a rugby club. There are netball, football, golf and cricket teams, and social and charity events. It has become a magnet for CAs who come to live and work in the city. “It is a vehicle to attract itinerant Scots!” says Bruce, who is currently in his second stint as the club’s Chairman, now alongside Finance Director, Angela Lunn CA, who is also the ICAS Ambassador for Hong Kong.

Ticket to ride

While Bruce’s time in Hong Kong dates back to 1988, when he was in his early thirties, his ambition to become a CA began when he was a schoolboy.

“I would get the 41 bus with my dad on my way to school in Jock’s Lodge, via the West End [of Edinburgh],” he says. “[One day] we were picked up at the bus stop by the Sunday school teacher in a very smart car called a Wolseley and it had red leather upholstery. And I said ‘Dad? What does he do?’, and my dad replied, ‘Son, he’s a Scottish chartered accountant.’”

Bruce qualified as a CA in 1983. Four years later he took a job at Shell, having been approached by the oil and gas giant while doing an MBA in entrepreneurship at Cranfield. It took him just one day to realise he’d made a terrible mistake. He had no interest in climbing the corporate ladder and handed in his notice within a matter of days.

“If you come here as a young, single ICAS member, the experience would be much the same as it was when I first came”

His first day back on the job market was 19 October 1987, aka Black Monday, when stock markets crashed worldwide. Bruce soon realised, however, that even in testing times, having the letters CA after his name meant he could still pick and choose what he wanted to do next. He thought back to his days as an ICAS student and trainee accountant. “Many a trainee would get through the dark winter nights of studying and preparing for exams by flicking through the palm tree-laden adverts for jobs in exotic locations at the back of CA magazine,” he recalls.

A friend suggested they head east. Hong Kong was still a British colony in 1988 and a perfect destination for a single man looking to get away from the UK, which was heading towards a recession.

“Coming to Hong Kong, my life changed forever,” says Bruce. “I met my wife here – she is also a CA, and originally from London.” After a stint with EY in Hong Kong, Bruce would go on to set up his own coaching and teaching business, something he has done in tandem with a string of senior board positions.

He was there in 1997 to see the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, with an agreement that the city would remain largely autonomous under a framework known as “one country, two systems” – a concept first introduced in 1979, when China offered to allow Taiwan to keep its economic, political and social systems. (Taiwan rejected the proposal.)

The Rugby Sevens tournament has been one of the most striking examples of that autonomy. The event is a weekend-long party where the groups of fans turn up in fancy dress and the drinking starts early. McRobbie describes it as “Hong Kong’s Mardi Gras”, and it was the first major event to be held in the city after it emerged from one of the strictest pandemic lockdowns anywhere in the world.

That lockdown, coupled with the reports and images of China cracking down on protesters in 2020, has unquestionably shifted perceptions of the city. “If you live here you’ll see there are sectors that are doing very well. But there’s no denying it, the stock market volumes are down and Covid has been a key factor,” says Bruce.

But, he suggests, the introduction of the Hong Kong national security law in 2020 has made no noticeable change to how a CA lives and works in the city. (Since we spoke, Hong Kong has also passed a further national security law, known as Article 23, which dissidents fear will be used to crack down even harder on political opposition.)

“The job market in Hong Kong is nothing like it was in the ’90s and ’00s,” says Bruce. “Back then you could simply turn up and find work. Now you need to have something lined up beforehand. There is no such thing as ‘social security’. If you don’t have a job, and you’re an expat, you probably have to leave.

“But I would still say, that if you come here as a young, single ICAS member, the experience would be much the same as it was when I first came. And, of course, you can expect the warmest of welcomes at Hong Kong Scottish. [The city] provides an ideal base from which to explore the rest of the Far East.” Bruce is also a member of the ICAS Hong Kong community, which numbers some 139 CAs across the city.

“For some, it’s too hot in July and August. But I love the climate. There was a cold weather warning when it went down to 10°C. They close schools when it gets to about 3°C because the buildings are not built for cold weather – but that only lasts about six weeks a year.”

Nobody can be entirely sure what the future holds with the amended security law, but Bruce concludes: “Hong Kong is full of optimistic people. When an opportunity arises, people go for it. And people want to make money here.”

This article was first published by ICAS at the following URL: