Amy Spiegel’s apartment at the mid-levels is large, spacious and airy, with paintings hanging on every wall. Her shelves and tables are peppered with picture frames of her two sons, Austin and Luke, and souvenirs from their travels.
Spiegel’s family moved to Hong Kong more than eight years ago when her husband, who works in finance, took a job in the city. Previously, they left New York for Tokyo in 2001.
“I’m considered a ‘trailing spouse’, it’s when you’re not the person who’s holding the visa to work,” she says with a laugh, “I only started really working more when my second one was a junior or senior in high school.”
With both her sons working and studying in the US now, Spiegel works as a freelance interior designer, doing consulting work for residential and commercial projects.
Every morning, she wakes up between 530 to 6am and checks her email. Depending on whether she’s working on a project, sometimes she does some sketching, while the day’s still quiet, before she calls her children and family back in the States.
Spiegel works out five times a week, and goes to two different exercise classes, including a spinning studio. After her exercise, her day can vary from working – going to see vendors or clients – or meeting friends for lunch, going to play mahjong, or to The American Club for tennis or a swim in the pool.
“I want to be a tai, not a tai tai”, she says, using the colloquial Chinese term for a wealthy married woman who doesn’t have to work, “I think it’s so important to get back to work, because it’s not so much about making money, it’s also about what do you become after everybody leaves the house?”
She says she left her career to raise her children when they were just babies as she and her husband were travelling away for work too much and someone had to be with them. As an expat wife in Tokyo and Hong Kong, she found it difficult to have a full-time job because she wanted to see her children as much as she could.
Now Spiegel believes that doing freelance work that can later be intensified into a full-time job is the best position to be in.
“One of the reasons I think I’ve always been interested in working and keeping my foot out there is also so I could get away from the bubble of the expat community and get to know locals,” she says.
While she thinks there is and will always be a segregation of the society between expat and local, Spiegel feels that working has brought her closer to the local community, such that she has some local friends.
According to 2013 census data, expats account for around 4.6 percent of Hong Kong’s population, this amounts to over 301,000 expats, or 0.6 percent of the 50 million expats living worldwide. Hong Kong is also the fourth most popular destination for expats earning more than US$250,000 per year, after China, India and Switzerland.
Spiegel says raising children in the expat community in Hong Kong amidst the extreme wealth has been one of her greatest challenges here.
“When we got here, we were just very honest, and we’ve always been very honest that we’ve lived a very privileged life with our lifestyle,” she says, “But there’s just going to be so many people with so much more than you and so many people with so much less than you.”
“It’s difficult as a parent to say, ‘well that’s nice for them, that their parents are on the Forbes 500 list, and we’re very happy for them, but that’s just not us’. I’ll never forget when Luke came home and his friend rented a table at one of these clubs, and the starting price was HK$2000 a person and we were furious.”
This summer, Spiegel was “really starting to hate Hong Kong” and had to create a project to force herself to “fall in love with the city again”. She started an instagram account and forced herself to take one picture a day of something she liked, with the hashtag, #MyHongKongSummer.
“It rained all the time,” she says, “And the downside to an expat life is that you lose friends all the time. You make friends very quickly, the people you feel a connection to, you’re almost instantly family, and you spend all your time with them.”
“I have not many followers, but it was the one thing I did. Everyday, I got up and I got out,” she says, “I went to so many different parts of the city by myself, because all my friends were pretty much gone, and took pictures of places and things that I liked in HK and it renewed my love for this unique city that I live in.”
With her sons in the US, Spiegel thinks that her time in Hong Kong may be coming to an end.
“We’ll definitely be here for another year and a half or two years more until Luke graduates, she says, “But we’ll see where we end up. It started out as a huge adventure and everything was going to be perfect and super fun.”
“But this is my life, so 15 years of it can’t all be that big huge adventure or else it’s not reality and that’s what I’ve come to terms with.”