10 years in…Painting a portrait of the Chinese people who have graced my life in the UK so far.
In honour of Chinese New Year and the upcoming Lantern Festival, our CEO Qiaoija Li summarises her personal experience of Chinese people in the UK.
Qiaojia Li — CEO & Investment Advisor
My colleague assigned me the task of writing this piece, and specifically asked for some observations on the global immigration of Chinese people. At Rosecut, he has worked with many clients with a Chinese background and was fascinated by what he read from the media, that the largest migration in human history is the Spring Festival in China.
And I have been scratching my head in the face of such a grand subject. Where to start?
Here is my best attempt at painting a picture of the people I have come to know, in my line of work, and in my social circles. This won’t be comprehensive, but it is as truthful as possible.
Take a seat.
The dated stereotypes of Chinese are diligent owners of Chinese supermarkets, young married women away from home, or all kinds of illegal labourers. I don’t know any of them.
Instead, below are the types of people who have survived and thrived in this wonderful first tier city of London.
They can be identified with their elevated education, IQ, income, and tax rate.
They typically graduated from very top Chinese and Western schools. Among Chinese universities, Tsinghua and Peking are the only two most common, much less so from other schools, be it Fudan or Jiao Tong. Their alumni network is very active, from the annual alumni forum to the usual weekend gatherings. Before the pandemic, China based alumni would often make dinner appointments before arriving in the UK, people introduce themselves one by one around the table, and put the phones together to add everyone on WeChat, in a super-efficient manner.
Among the schools outside China, Oxbridge here in the UK account for the majority; of course, plenty of other impressive names, Imperial College, LSE. Chinese who manage to find a good job straight out of university are less likely to be from an average school. To make the cut in London‘s fiercely competitive job market, CVs without a prestigious name get screened out in the first round.
There are also a few groups of diversions from the United States, Japan and France.
This group of people has their own closely knitted and closed door clique, exchanging news and helping out each other. The rumoured Chinese ability of “fighting in the nest” seems lost.
IQ needs no explanation — winners produced by the Chinese education system got to be very smart.
They tend to work in finance, law, accountancy, or technology. Step by step from the entry level, steady promotion every couple of years, they rely on hard coded diligence and discipline above and beyond the locals (for example, they rarely get drunk with colleagues on Fridays). As first-generation immigrants, they have no family to help pull the strings. They focus on carving out their own professional path.
Many people are earning a substantial wage by their early thirties, forties at the latest. Bonuses or dividends, for some positions, such as the managing director of an investment bank, or the partner at a magic circle law firm, in a good year (very important!), can go over one million. Of course, most people rarely get that much; doubling the base is good enough.
The hardest moment for them may be the annual tax reporting. The after tax vs. before tax figure on the self-assessment form, is about 50%.
They are doing a great job looking after their clients then their children, striving for the upper hand in the “involution” that is no less than that of China. There is little time or energy to stop and think, where does all this hard work lead to; when do they get to take a break or retire.
Many stories about them in the market, most are inaccurate.
Around 2011, the British investor visa program went on the menu of a few major Chinese immigration agencies, as an addition to the other programs, for the US, Singapore, Canada and Australia.
Since then, every year, dozens of people, or hundreds, prepare substantial funding, hand over their jobs or businesses, and immigrate to the UK with their whole families. The young children and their mothers play forward, and the father arrives a step behind. Unlike the professionals above, most of them are not fluent enough in English to work here, so the parents typically semi-retire and spend time figuring out their children’s schooling.
Not all of them are as rich as people have imagined. Of course, there are people who used to earn millions per year and own tens of millions of assets. Others just managed to pull together 200k to 400k in cash, paid it to some questionable financial companies as interests, in order to borrow one or two million to invest for five years (this was not allowed after 2014). They often invested in British government bonds with ridiculously low returns, guided by those immigration agents.
They all have been successful back in China, as self-made business owners, or corporate executives. Halfway through their careers and life, they decided to immigrate to give their children the best education.
The days in the UK can be summed up as “beautiful landscape, and beautiful loneliness”. The upside? Their children get a lot of attention and dedicated company.
Similar immigrant families often bond together, to overcome cultural gaps and integrate into local life. They have to pick up the textbook again, in order to pass the English test within five years, before applying for permanent residency. These are examples of the sacrificing and dedicated Chinese parents.
Some other families have one parent commuting between the UK and China, hoping to find a balance between career and family. My UK colleagues don’t quite get this; they thought it was more important for a couple to be in the same place, especially if it could be over a decade.
Still, it is so rare to see families give up halfway through. Most of them plan to stay till their children get into university; the parents will then return to China and enjoy life.
Only a minority of them started a new chapter in the UK, in areas like international trade, technology, and art. Now that online collaboration has become the norm, perhaps it is also possible to remote control their businesses back home?
They wonder about the asset allocation between the UK and at home, and how to balance the opportunities on both sides. In the past ten years, the exchange rate between CNY and sterling has been going up and down like a yoyo; how to best strategise the living costs in the UK and the very expensive private tuition fees?
In a foreign land that is unfamiliar and difficult to get used to, many people are often cautious and perhaps too cautious, missing out the growth opportunities both in China and the UK.
The above-mentioned children from immigrant families, as well as young adults who came straight into British universities without bringing a parent, are our last category of people, the successors of assets.
When they turned 18, they obtained their freedom for the first time, and the world is their oyster.
Among them, there are enterprising straight-A students at prestigious schools; they will likely turn into our first type of people upon graduation, unless they are told to go back to China to take over their family businesses. There are also “social activists” who skip classes five times a week, sing karaoke all night, and have difficulty graduating from colleges and universities.
In addition to the traditionally popular business and science majors, as well as the enthusiasm to get a banking job, we start to see some students choosing to study less “pragmatic” art, history, or sociology in recent years. They are not necessarily motivated to optimise job search after graduation; 95% of them are not going to look for or find a job in the UK.
They don’t typically work during their study because parents are often generous with their living expenses and prefer them to focus on academics. Universities in Central London don’t offer dormitories, so they get to rent or buy a luxury new-build apartment nearby. I had been asked by certain clients to “educate” their child who spent their credit card like there is no tomorrow, I could only refuse with a polite smile.
You will find Chinese students burying their noses into a book in the school’s library till midnight, and in contrast you will find Chinese students each carrying a Chanel bag in Selfridges. The polarisation among this group is clear, leaving both stunning and negative impressions on the British public.
Their parents often hand over a sum of cash to them, in order to apply for an investor visa, or to test their attitude and ability to manage money, before deciding when and how to pass on their fortune, typically ahead of their passing. Those with ambition start to learn about various investment products and opportunities very early, eager to demonstrate their independence and capability to their parents. They are our ideal client profile.
Bonus mention, the uber rich
Unlike the Middle Eastern royals who bring in one or two hundred attendants, or the Russians who bid for football teams, the uber rich Chinese tend to be so low key that you can’t spot them in the crowd; except most of them come to the UK on their own private jets. — Not for showing off but just for efficiency; their itinerary is really packed.
They may have different cultural backgrounds, be it mainland China, Hong Kong, or Southeast Asia, but most of them have at least two or three nationalities, British, Canadian, New Zealander, and Kittitian, all over the place. Almost without exception, they own luxury houses in London, with a price tag from a few million pounds to tens of millions of pounds. But they may not stay in their house when they come into town, because it “feels a bit deserted” and the service is not as thoughtful as a hotel suite.
To them, the UK is not a permanent residence for the most part, but it certainly is a strategic hotspot, and ideally tax residence.
Many of their consultants are here; acquisition lawyers, tax consultants, in addition to wealth managers like myself. The first type of people above.
Their safety assets are here. In addition to luxury homes, some clients asked me to find acquisition targets — exclusive shopping malls, or the next PRADA.
Their offspring are studying here, very few of the third category above.
They drop by every quarter for meetings, occasional purchases at auction houses — an antique piece of jewellery or a “Chinese national treasure,” or Mayfair’s hidden casinos, instead of Chinatown for some fun.
They contributed their data to London, where the highest number of billionaires reside, and brought capital and legend to this city.