Being a computer scientist in Hong Kong

I spent two years in Hong Kong, 1992-1993, as a professor at The University of Hong Kong (my official title was ``Lecturer,'' which is British for ``Assistant Professor''). I've written these notes to paint a picture of what is like to be a young academic in Computer Science living and working in Hong Kong, and to give some idea of what the opportunities are like at the various universities in the Crown Colony. If you are considering seeking a position in the Far East you might find this to be of some utility.

To save you the trouble of reading all the way through this note, the bottom line is that HK is a great place to be a Computer Science professor. I had a ball. I only left to start a position at MIT, and I still miss my colleagues and my life in the East.

It goes without saying that these observations are colored by my personal biases and peculiarities. I will make a claim to some degree of impartiality: I no longer work in Hong Kong, and it is truly irrelevant to my career whether or not I upset people at the various institutions in HK, so I am free to say what I please. If I tend to favor HKU in my reviews, that's not accidental. In 1991, when I was seeking an academic position in the Far East, all of the HK universities were short-handed. I was lucky enough to have my choice of all three, and I have no reason, looking back on things, to wish I had chosen differently. (On the other hand, I will also say I would have enjoyed time at either of the two institutions I didn't attend. By the time I left Hong Kong, I had friends at all three schools.)

If you are considering moving to HK, you might also want to read a companion piece I wrote, ``Notes on Hong Kong,'' which discusses general lifestyle issues in Hong Kong: restaurants, taxis, shopping, that kind of thing.

There are currently three universities in Hong Kong:
  • The University of Hong Kong,
  • Chinese University of Hong Kong,
  • Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
  • They were founded in the order listed.

    The University of Hong Kong (HKU)

    HKU is the oldest and generally most prestigious university in Hong Kong. It is where I worked. I gather that ten years ago, a degree from HKU was a ticket to guaranteed success in a HK career, more so than a US Ivy League diploma. That has changed; wealthy families now frequently send their children to US and British institutions. I noticed when I was at HKU that many of my students were smart and poor. Smart enough to get through a very selective admissions process; poor enough to be unable to afford harvard.

    The CS faculties at all of the HK schools are small. I liked this: At HKU, most of the department would have lunch together, being able to fit into two tables. The HKU department is a friendly environment, and people work together to handle department issues.

    My teaching load was light: I taught a class a semester. I taught a large service course on C programming one semester, and was encouraged to teach the courses I enjoyed most my other semesters. Teaching C is easy; the others courses were as time-consuming as I wanted to make them.

    In 1993, the department had real strength in parallel processing, theory, and operating systems. Like all Far Eastern CS departments, there was serious attention paid to character recognition and speech understanding. There was a collection of other topics represented by the faculty: programming languages and formal methods, simulation, graphics, and computer music were some of the other areas in which my colleagues worked. No networking, AI, or architecture.

    The department was in no sense short on computational resources. In 1992, we were on the Internet, had multiprocessor servers for serious processing (e.g., speech recognition and 3D rendering), and had a flock of Sparcstations and SGI machines for the CS undergraduates to hack on. There were full-time employees, not graduate students, who tended the machines, retrieved your lost files from backup tapes, installed the latest copies of gnu-emacs, and generally kept things running.

    The structure of the department is very horizontal. One king; all others equal. It is run by an insanely energetic and extremely intelligent theorist. The rest of the profs are just ``the guys.'' Our king, or rather department chairman, tended towards consensus rule at department meetings -- he would postpone decisions until the rest of us had talked ourselves around to a fairly uniform position. It was all pretty reasonable; no really evil politics.

    Like any CS department in Hong Kong, HKU suffered from the problem that when professors would find a really brilliant student, they'd try to ship him off to Stanford. However, not all of them go. The graduate students I knew at HKU were very smart and a pleasure to work with. The professors understand what good research is; they publish in good journals; they know how to train graduate students to be scholars.

    I was not well-paid by US standards... but wait. As a HK resident, I paid HK income taxes (15%). I also had housing as a benefit: I lived in an apartment that was owned by HKU, and rented to me for a few hundred dollars a month. In fact, its actual market value was worth more than my entire salary. In effect, my salary was less than half of my real income. As a result, almost all of my salary was disposable income.

    HKU apartments are quite a fringe benefit. My apartment had a wall of glass in the livingroom and bedroom. When I woke up in the morning, I had only to turn my head to see the South China sea, the island of Lamma, and the hills of Mainland China rising into the mist. It was beautiful. My apartment was enormous: families of five comfortably stayed in the other units. This is particularly remarkable in HK, where real estate prices are sky-high and space is the ultimate luxury. My Chinese friends would goggle when they visited my place; people who made a lot more money than I did were still jammed into much smaller places. In Hong Kong, a US million-dollar apartment is not very fancy. This is why most HK-yan live with their parents until they marry: they are saving like crazy so they can afford a down payment on an apartment.

    Cheap domestic labor was another unexpected perq of living in Hong Kong. I had a full-time, live-in maid, who had a three-room suite to herself behind the kitchen. When I was working under deadline pressure, I would call my maid, have her cook dinner, pack it up, and bring it to school. She would wait while I ate dinner, and then take the dishes home. At home, my dirty clothes would vanish, only to reappear washed and folded. I had clean sheets on my bed every day. My apartment was spotless. Fresh-squeezed orange juice for breakfast. You can sleep an extra fifteen minutes while your tub is being filled. When I had a date over for dinner, I could say after dessert, ``Don't worry; the maid will get the dishes.'' This is apparently an extremely romantic thing to say.

    Here at MIT, I scrub my own bathtub, buy my own groceries, take out my own garbage, and wash my own dishes. When I'm under deadline pressure, which is always, I eat delivery pizza, not curried shrimp and mangoes.

    HKU housing is close to HKU, and convenient to the island of Hong Kong. This last is important. HKU is the only university in Hong Kong that is actually on the island. That means it is in the center of things. Chinese U is way out in the New Territories; beyond the reach of the subway (you have to take a commuter train). HKUST is in a beautiful, but remote bay in Kowloon; it is even more difficult to reach by public transport.

    To make an American analogy, living on the island of Hong Kong is like living in Manhattan instead of Queens or Brooklyn. This made a great difference to my lifestyle. It was a ten-minute bus or cab ride to Central, where I could have incredible lunches, hook up with friends for dinner, go dancing or see movies. From Central, I could use Hong Kong's great subway system to go anywhere else I wanted.

    Hemingway said that if you are fortunate enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast. I would say that to be a young man in Hong Kong counts for a close second. If you are going to live in Hong Kong, you want to be in the center of things.

    But I digress. HKU is not without its problems. Its principal problem is that it is a hidebound British bureaucracy that is coasting on its reputation. The students are noticeably worse than they were ten years ago. It is very difficult to buck the system or to make any kind of a change. This is not helped by the fact that within the University, the CS department counts for very little. Seniority rules within the faculty; since the CS department is a very young department, it has little weight at the university level.

    Chinese University of Hong Kong

    In the '60s, some wealthy Chinese decided that HK desperately needed another university. With their support, a bunch of smaller schools were unified, creating CUHK. CUHK is a well-respected institution, one that perhaps is somewhat more Chinese in orientation than HKU's British structure. (However, that is not to imply a difference in racial makeup. At HKU, there were only two other non-Chinese in my department, and all of our students, both undergraduate and graduate, were Chinese.)

    CUHK's CS department went through a bad patch, due to bad leadership. I'm euphemising wildly here. One result was that they hemorrhaged a lot of people over to the competition, HKU. A lot of our smartest guys were CUHK refugees, including our department chairman. Lunchtime at HKU would occasionally involve CUHK CS dept horror stories; it was illuminating.

    However, this is good if you are looking for a job in HK. After the old department chairman left, CUHK brought in a sharp new dean for their entire School of Engineering, and he also serves as the chairman of the CS department. The new chairman has been energetically rebuilding the department, which means that (1) they are in a growth phase, and (2) they have a lot of new, fresh professors on board. You didn't want to be there then; you might enjoy it there now.

    You will still, however, be stuck out in the middle of nowhere.

    Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

    This is the new school. The Hong Kong leaders decided Hong Kong was still desperately short of tertiary education seats, so they spent an enormous sum of money building a brand-new university from scratch, HKUST. HKUST is a tech school, like MIT or Georgia Tech. CUHK and HKU, in contrast, are general universities, e.g. Duke or harvard. HKUST admitted its first freshman class in 1990 or 1991. The campus is out in Clear Water Bay, a beautiful location in Kowloon next to the movie studio where they make Jacky Chan movies (so your hacking can occasionally be interrupted by enormous on-set explosions from some firefight in a forthcoming action adventure epic). The HKUST campus is wild. It was designed by a very adventurous, modernistic architect. Fun to look at; not clear you would want to live with it every day.

    HKUST is a very aggressive school. They are the only university that actually flies people out for an interview/job talk (HKU gave me a job offer before I ever set foot in HK; HKUST flew me out). HKUST pays more. (They are not officially allowed to do this, says every other professor I know in HK, but they do. So they frequently beat out HKU.) In structure and culture, they have more of an American flavor than a British one. Because their student pipeline was not full, they were aggressively expanding when I was there. In 1993, some friends of mine at HKUST told me they planned to hire twelve people that year, and another ten or twelve the next year -- just in the CS department!

    In technical circles, HKUST was clearly the energetic challenger. They had a large faculty and big resources. They brought in Nobel prize winners for guest lectures. It was obviously an exciting school that is going places.

    HKUST has some down sides. The campus is nice, but you are still out in the middle of nowhere. It's pretentious. The school had been around under two years when I was there, and they talked very seriously about being/becoming (the distinction was always a little blurry) the top science institution in the Far East. Not Hong Kong; the whole half of the planet. I had the feeling the large department was more hierarchical than my friendly group of colleagues at HKU. I do not believe you can hire 10 computer scientists a year and make every decision a good one. In general, the university had a reputation for having a revolving-door faculty, who would take visiting positions for nice salaries and then return to their US posts.

    On the other hand, if it was a revolving door, they had top-flight guys rotating through it. I also expect this phenomenon is a transient, and will fade as the school matures.

    The graduate students and professors I knew at HKUST were sharp cookies.

    Three new U's

    There are now three universities in Hong Kong. It's still not enough. So the Hong Kong government is upgrading three more colleges and polytechs to university status: City Polytech of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Polytech, and Baptist College. They should be coming on line as universities starting this year or next year. (I believe CPHK becomes the City University in November 1994, a month from now.) This means that they have to hire new professors. Newly-minted PhD's might keep that in mind.

    Hong Kong schools in general

    Several of my observations about Hong Kong universities are not specific to any one school. First, the schools tend to operate on the British model of tenure (aka, ``superannuation''). You can become unfireable without too much difficulty. Instead of denying you tenure and booting you out after seven years, you stay on at a particular grade/salary level, and never move up again. The frantic US tenure hustle isn't there. This is good and bad.

    It's good: If you aren't lazy, and like to solve problems, you can hang out, think about things that interest you, write them up, then loop. It's a pleasant life. You aren't going to have megabuck ARPA grants, but your grant proposals are going to have a much easier time getting through the government organisation that doles out grant money. If you can do good research without a big-dollar empire, you'll be fine. You'll have the time and leisure to be a scholar. This is not always true in the US. US professors frequently live vicariously through their grad students; they themselves are busy being entrepreneurs and managers.

    It's bad: guys that are lazy hang out and do nothing but occupy slots. It is hard to flush them. As long as you do your minimum teaching requirement, and don't care too much about promotion or your non-consulting salary, you can roll along doing nothing for an entire career. There are profs that do this.

    Fortunately, most of the professors I knew in Hong Kong were working scholars, so the British system worked just fine. HKUST seemed to have the least of this sort of culture; they had performance reviews every few years, and were willing to let people go if their publications lists weren't up to spec. That's good. And bad.

    Another influence of the British university system is that instead of taking classes for four years in a variety of fields (as an American student would), HK students take classes for three years in a single subject. (They go to high school for an extra year, so they come out even.)

    This is just plain bad. At HKU, students were not allowed to take classes outside of their major. (Strangely enough, this rule is suspended for CS students, who may take up to half of their courses outside the department.) Further, I do not believe three years is enough time to train good computer scientists and engineers. Four years is a minimum. My students were immature as hackers; I feel the three year program is somewhat at fault.

    I was not overwhelmed by HK college students. Blinded by stereotype, my naive expectation was a crew of hard-working, super-diligent Chinese nerds, being whipped to new levels of dedication by education-crazed parents at home. I could throw anything at them; they'd do the work.

    No way.

    Allow me to overstate the case: something about the Hong Kong secondary education system manages to grind any vestige of intellectual curiosity out of kids. They come to university for a degree, not an education. The culture is that after working like dogs to actually get into a good school, they are entitled to a three-year vacation, before they have to go back to the grind of making a living.

    My students cheated like crazy. On one occasion, I caught 35 out of 100 students cheating on a programming assignment. This is not specific to HKU. My friends at HKUST had problems of a similar magnitude. I believe this is partially due to the dark side of HK culture. Hong Kong is not about intellectual achievement. It is about profit; making money; success in the material world. Half of the shelf-space in HK bookstores is devoted to books on business, marketing, negotiation, and so forth. Cheating is in some sense a profitable activity: maximum return for minimum outlay.

    On the other hand, you will consistently find in your class a core of kids that take your material and run with it. The ideas go into their minds, and they light up. This is the great pleasure of teaching, and if it only came to me via a few of my students, that has also been the case for me at CMU and MIT.


    My general assessment of the three HK universities is that they are all good. They are also all understaffed and were looking to hire when I left Hong Kong. Plus Hong Kong is starting up three new universities! Hong Kong is one of the few places on the planet that is hiring new professors in Computer Science. And it is a really fun place to live. To put it mildly.

    Olin Shivers (shivers at ccs dot neu dot edu)
    Cambridge, 1994

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