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Freelancing can be lonely in Hong Kong, but with more coworking spaces blossoming and an increasing number of Hong Kongers embracing the concept eagerly, this isolation is slowly finding a release into something expansive and enterprising.
By Christina Ng - Thursday, 24 January 2013

For freelance web developer Kwong Sham, 24, convincing his parents to let him go into freelancing fully was a hard-won task. Ever since he graduated with an Information Engineering degree from university, they had preferred him to go down the path more well trodden – like investment banking, an area that he excelled in. Yet, Kwong’s heart was not there. He yearns to strike out on his own, loving the idea of a stylish home office combined with flexible working hours.

“I prefer to have a job that I can easily explain what I am doing and contributing to. I desire the respect from others based on my work, knowledge, experience, and not built upon the company that I am working for or the salary that I earn.” He explained.

Kwong finally found a fit with coworking space, The Good Lab, which gave him the right environment to begin the web-developing career that his heart aches for.

He said: “Joining The Good Lab helps me in getting a bigger network, and actually, one of the founding members was my client. I would say that it is a platform for freelancers to maximize their full potentials. 

The Good Lab, a 10,000 square feet coworking space established in Hong Kong’s highly accessible West Kowloon last September, was inspired by The Hub, a global social enterprise providing coworking spaces for people who want to tackle the world’s pressing social, cultural and environmental challenges. With that ideal in mind, The Good Lab aims to become part of a greater ecosystem to help local social entrepreneurs in Hong Kong, hoping to bring change to the entrepreneurial scene in the bustling Chinese city by providing more possibilities, especially when social entrepreneurship has raised its head in Hong Kong in recent years.

“Many young people are beginning to see this as an alternative career path as opposed to the mainstream choices (which is usually finance). Some braver souls are actually starting their social enterprises, and Good Lab hopes that it could become a place where these change-makers could connect with each other and get their projects amplified through our support system. “ Said Tony Yet, 27, community curator of Good Lab.

It is no wonder then that The Good Lab was founded by four different social enterprises in Hong Kong, namely Dialogue in the Dark Hong Kong, Social Venture Hong Kong, Hong Kong Social Enterprise Forum and Make a Difference. Its founding sponsor – a real estate developer – provides its cosy, ample space which offers mentoring, connections, and visibility with interesting activities such as stress management and innovation workshops for its members. 

“Coworking gives one more opportunities to get exposed to new ideas, which is good for innovation, something that's very needed in today's world, but rarely found in conventional office.” Said Yet.

For the major population in Hong Kong, conventional offices and the traditional working style are still highly regarded. According to Kwong, who has been freelancing as a web designer since graduation, working in Information Technology itself has its stigma, where the general thinking of Hong Kongers warrants the expertise as a career path of little development or money, not secured enough and requires too much risk.

Coworking is thus, still a relatively new concept that has not won much favour, mainly because Hong Kongers find it far-fetched and unrealistic. Most graduates like Kwong end up in conventional high paying jobs in finance because of the lure of the safety and comforts that come with it. That, combined with family pressure, has created a tough climate for entrepreneurs in Hong Kong.

Little support from the Hong Kong government is also not helping.

According to a newspaper article analysis by thehousenews.com - a Hong Kong news website, content aggregator and blog with a news concept similar to the Huffington Post in America - the Hong Kong government’s attempt at funding projects in innovation or information technology has not been very successful. There is an over emphasis on research projects and a short-sighted focus on profits, as well as an overarching impatience in wanting money to roll in fast, thereby closing funding that do not bring in immediate results. This has not been very encouraging in propelling the information technology industry to expand or fire up the entrepreneurial spirit in Hong Kongers. 

Jonathan Buford, 37, one of the founders of BootHK, another coworking space in Hong Kong that is presently co-located with the HKCommons space in the hip neighbourhoods of  Sheung Wan and Lai Chi Kok, says: “Maybe it won't be technology that forms the core of the startup community. Hong Kong has made it clear that it wants to focus on propelling its creative industries and Beijing has made it clear that Shanghai is to become the finance capital.”

Originally from America, Buford still finds the startup culture in Hong Kong a little slow on the uptake, but sees much potential in the island for starting new businesses. In the case of BootHK - a community that aims to create a network of spaces throughout the country by providing different environments such as hackerspaces, workshops, and social meetups for artists, entrepreneurs, and technologists - Buford had bootstrapped it with a small seed investment from the community. In total it costs around USD $15K for him to set up the place.

“ I saw a need for early stage startups to have a place to work and meet. There was also a secondary need to have a hackerspace, but I couldn't see how to make that sustainable as quickly as a coworking space.” Buford tells us how BootHK was established last year.

He continued:“Most of the users at BootHK have been either expatriates or Chinese that have been abroad. That was probably mostly due to location and the primary language being English. I expect we will get more local participants in the new Lai Chi Kok location.” BootHK now has a new home in Hong Kong’s Lai Chi Kok - a quieter suburban housing area; previously it was at the Wan Chai commercial district.

Nevertheless, lack of belief in the mainstream society has not deterred other enterprising individuals to risk and venture. According to Yet from The Good Lab, there was no coworking space in Hong Kong before 2012. The coworking phenomenon emerged as part of the internet startup movement, which is still gaining momentum. It has given people some alternative possibilities other than just following the social norm.

>> Next page: More coworking spaces in Hongkong: Cocoon & The Hive

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