On Expats and the Literature of Hong Kong’s “Expat Bubble”

A woman in a luxurious backless gown stands alone in a nighttime commercial street in Hong Kong. The woman, with light hair and pale skin, is unmistakably white. (She’s Nicole Kidman). The street, wet from recent rain and lined with Chinese shop signs, is improbably empty: of Hongkongers, of locals. In this ad for Amazon Prime’s Expats, directed by Lulu Wang, who is absent and who is spotlit casts an uncanny shadow on the Kidman-produced, multi-million dollar Amazon project, centered on Asia and made for Western audiences.

Initially, the announcement of Amazon Prime’s production of Expats met widespread derision on the Hong Kong internet. “Nobody wanted or asked for this,” said a commenter on the South China Morning Post. “Hope it shows the privileged lives expats have compared to the average locals and the inequalities brought about by colonialism,” said another. Then, in the height of the pandemic, news broke that Kidman had entered Hong Kong for filming but bypassed mandatory quarantine rules, drawing public outcry about differential treatment.

Wang defended the show on Twitter, saying she was “doing the work” to honor cultural specificities of Hong Kong by hiring Janice Y.K. Lee, author of The Expatriates, the novel on which the show is based, as well as “two HK expat writers.” A Hongkonger on Twitter asked, deadpan: “In the context of Hong Kong protests… would you consider hiring/consulting local Hongkongers?”

The discourse raised the question of whether the show would poke holes in the “expat bubble” or operate squarely within it. Perhaps the online criticism influenced Lulu Wang’s choice to premiere on the festival circuit not with the pilot but with “Central,” a feature-length episode dedicated to spotlighting domestic workers and the 2014 Umbrella protests. In the opening shot, while relentless rain batters the city, groups of Filipina women are gathered under an underpass, gossiping and eating, some singing “Roar,” the Katy Perry anthem. Then, the camera cuts to a monied English-speaking Hongkongese family stuck in traffic, obviously feeling greatly inconvenienced by the Umbrella protests blocking the city’s main arteries.

Later, the same family is browsing online for a new domestic worker: “Our last one was Filipina… maybe we should try an Indonesian or a Malaysian this time.” In other scenes, expat women meet for martinis in velvety hotel booths to discuss divorce and affairs. But the episode’s tone struck me as more self-aware than expected, such as when, in a restaurant scene, Mercy, a Korean-American young woman, says: “I love the neon sign outside. So old school.” To which the waiter retorts: “Tell that to the government. Hong Kong is dying.”

If the entire show sustained the same close lens on the multicultural, politically charged Hong Kong society where the action is set, “Expats” could have made a true statement about nationalities and privilege in the metropolis. Sadly, the 97-minute episode is a curious outlier in the series. The other episodes largely take place within the luxurious interiors of residences on the Peak, at yacht parties and lavish birthday feasts, at rooftop restaurants with expansive views, where the vast majority of the Hongkongese characters onscreen are service staff.


Perhaps skewering expatriate attitudes was never an aim of “Expats”: the show is based on a book centered on the grief provoked by a sudden loss among a group of mostly wealthy expatriate women. However, The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee, does offer moments of nuance and satire: Lee writes of “the presumption of expatriates in Hong Kong…The idea, so firmly entrenched, that they could be louder, demand more, because they were somehow above—really, better than—the locals.” It’s a more discerning take than another novel about expats in Hong Kong, Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times (also set to be produced into a TV show by Amazon Prime), which largely neglects to turn a lens to what happens outside the sphere of expat drama.

As Xuan Juliana Wang wrote in her New York Times review of Exciting Times: “Absent the textures of a real city that is sharply divided along generational, ideological and class lines, Dolan’s novel could have taken place in any other major Asian metropolis. None of the English-speaking characters seek to venture beyond their established social circles… They barely notice the Chinese characters on street signs, let alone try to understand them.” This largely captured the attitudes of many expats I had witnessed growing up in China, attitudes I found echoed in the underlying make-up of Expats’ characters: a failure of interest in the daily existence, struggles, and aspirations of residents of their host societies, instead navel-gazing on the dramas of their very privileged, very “exciting” lives.


When I transferred to an international school in Shanghai in ninth grade after attending Chinese public schools, I began hearing the curious tint in many expats’ utterances of the word local. “But that’s a local bar.” “Only locals go there.” “Oh my god, he’s dating a local.” It was as if anything actually Chinese, attended by Chinese people, was immediately anointed unworthy or of lesser quality. The condescension with which some expats spoke that word left me deeply unsettled. In school, ironically, we were reading A Passage to India and Empire of the Sun. It struck me that the new, multicultural Shanghai I inhabited still retained many dynamics of these colonial novels.

Since the 2000s, multinational companies have frequently used the extensive privileges of “expat packages” to incentivise non-Chinese employees to relocate to China—tuition to the best international schools, chauffeurs, domestic workers, villas in expat enclaves. This can breed a sense of suspended reality. In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Janice Y.K. Lee described the worst part of being an expat as: “​​I always felt like my ‘real life’ was on hold. I never thought I was going to live in Hong Kong forever, so I always felt like I was waiting for real life to resume.” In the show, Nicole Kidman’s character, Margaret, echoes this sentiment to her husband Clark when they discuss the “help” (childcare, drivers) they receive in Hong Kong: “This isn’t real life.” To which Clark retorts: “There’s nothing wrong with spoiling ourselves a bit. We deserve it.”

Looking back, this was at the root of my shock after witnessing attitudes held in expatriate circles: perhaps it is hard to be respectful, interested, and invested in the lives of people among whom you live when their society, culture, and political and economic realities are not part of your “real life.”

“In the novel, there was this level of charmed, ignorant lifestyle that felt so detached from the Hong Kong that I know,” a Hongkonger told me, referring to The Expatriates and its adaptation. “Hong Kong has a relatively small voice compared to a Western audience. So this story that’s supposedly about Hong Kong is going to be out there, but may not be a fair reflection of Hong Kong and who we are.”

In school, ironically, we were reading A Passage to India and Empire of the Sun. It struck me that the new, multicultural Shanghai I inhabited still retained many dynamics of these colonial novels.

The question of stratification and representation is one to which Lulu Wang says she gave serious consideration before signing on for “Expats.” Wang told Vanity Fair: “I was so nervous about how I was going to be able to portray Hong Kong and making sure that the bubble of the expat world was intentional, that I was examining it as opposed to just indulging in it. How do you both be in that world without celebrating it, but also not judging it either?”

I would argue that, in fact, some judgment is warranted, and that the show—and the forthcoming adaptation of “Exciting Times”—offered great opportunities to finally encourage discussion and judgment of expat culture in China. Within that bubble, along with a suspension of “real life,” a suspension of judgment about the condescension and indifference rampant in expat communities has been the norm for far too long.

“Central” is one noteworthy episode, but it is hard not to feel it is a compartmentalized effort at social critique while the rest of the show revolves around tangled webs of familial losses and betrayals, against the backdrop of hotel pools and affairs. In this larger context of the show’s sleek expat world and its insouciance, “Central” seems like a glimpse to what the show could have been had Lulu Wang carried the same vision and upheld the same rigor of social commentary throughout the series. But perhaps one episode is better than nothing at all; it gave me hope when the camera cut to young people protesting in Hong Kong, bracing against the riot police, or the domestic workers waiting in line at Western Union to send wages home—they are the “real life” so many expats refuse to see.

To the extent that Expats does lightly satirize expat privilege, its message will require much amplification to reach those being critiqued. Will Hong Kong expats cringe at their portrayal, or simply throw champagne and caviar watch parties at the Mandarin Oriental? We’ll see. As another Hongkonger told me, exposing ill-behaved expats is a catch-22: “The people who should hear this don’t care, and the people who have been subjected to their bad behavior already know.”


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River East, River West by Aube Rey Lescure is available now via William Morrow.

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