A Bad ESL Story in Hong Kong

ESL Teaching in Hong Kong? Then beware of this!

I recently read of yet another ESL nightmare story of a Cape Town woman who went to China to teach English that went very pear-shaped. These experiences are risky, but it’s not uncommon if you have had zero experience finding work abroad.

Two years ago, I was going to return to Korea to save up some much needed cash while I completed studies. However, I had found an ad with a very appealing offering to teach ESL in Hong Kong. Now, from my previous posts I have learnt to NEVER trust agencies. I prefer to deal with the business or school directly. So, you would not have believed my shock of how this agency in Hong Kong had lied in their advertising to secure contracts with clients! Read on….

ESL in Hong Kong

Unless you have a working holiday visa, or years of experience to venture into the business world of Hong Kong, your other option to live and work there could be to teach English. I’ve heard lots of good things about teaching in Hong Kong, and the salaries offered are practically double to that of Korea.

Hong Kong Causeway bay escaltors
Prices around here can…..escalate.

However, you are required to pay for your own rent….and rent in Hong Kong is crazy. You’re looking at between 6000 -7000 HKD (R12000-R14000) per month for just a room in a shared flat. This apartment can house up to 8 people with just 1 or 2 bathrooms. This does depend on location, and if you want a nicer place with less people then you pay more. There are both private and public schools. However, most apply for private as it’s much easier. Public school applications can take months to process and the application only occurs once a year. All you need is a degree, be a native English speaker and the visa process can be sorted when you arrive. This applies for South Africans too.

Where I Applied

There are lots of ESL job sites to apply for HK jobs. You will find most schools prefer U.S accents over others. I applied through Dave’s ESL Café, and decided to try Hong Kong. I had nothing to lose. I applied at a place called American English Workshop (AEW)…and yes I’m going to call them out. Their ad stated they needed teachers and all you needed was experience, be native speaker and have a degree with a reference. I applied for tutoring adults.

I got a response within hours after forwarding my CV. The director, named Tim, said they have many branches around Hong Kong and I asked him all the right and regular questions. He told me what to do such as sending in a short introductory video, copies of my degree, references and should not book a flight until everything at the school was confirmed. This interview lasted 2 hours. I made sure I covered everything.

The Acceptance

After sending everything, checking out their website, which looked all f*ckin sunshine and smiles, ‘the director’ skyped me to say they would be glad to have me join them, in fact he said, “We would be happy to have you ASAP…it can be tomorrow if you want or whenever is convenient”. They asked if I would work an extra half day for a ridiculous amount and upped my salary further. I agreed and they asked me to start just 2 days after my arrival. They asked me to send my flight details asap. I booked a one-way flight a 3 days later and they said they’ll meet me at the airport.

In The Hong Kong Hype

At the airport I was met by Tim and another woman named Shannon. In the cab they made me sign the contract right away as their employee of AEW. They then suddenly said I won’t be starting in 2 days as agreed, but the following week. Great, I thought to myself, at least I can settle in and deal with jet lag.

The following day, his colleague named Shannon and another woman came to see me. They then said I won’t be starting until the following week! They also showed me this “branch of theirs” a few blocks away, but it was all locked up with no one inside and she said we can’t go in. I budgeted my arrival in a way that would allow me to survive the month with my 2 weeks of pay that was promised. I told Tim about the situation via message, and he said they could maybe give me an upfront payment of my mythological salary. They also said I can start looking for apartments.

Thing go wrong. Oh, so wrong….

hong kong hell no way

So the next day, I found a nice room to rent nearby the school. I messaged Tim, and he said he was on holiday so he said Shannon “can sort this out”. Bye Tim.


I contacted Shannon about me renting the room, and she drops the bomb that I’m not even employed! She said the school had not actually officially agreed to employ me. There was no binding contract. In fact, there was nothing. I said this is your school, you’re in charge. After all, I was hired by your company (AEW), signed the contract and they said I was employed by them! She replied saying that American English Workshop (AEW) is not a school, but a recruitment company!!!!!!!


The Reality

Hong kong no way

So there I was in China, unemployed with no promised job and hired on an assumption by a recruiting company. I showed Shannon the ads and their website and got no response. They then also said the school is not theirs and that the school was not interested in hiring me after all.

She showed me the supposed ads she assumed I responded to.

Below are the ads they posted on the job site that I replied to. Nowhere does it state they are a recruitment company and they definitely do not sell themselves as one.

hong kong esl fake ad


I noticed their website now clearly states they are a recruiting company and they have shut down, but they definitely didn’t state that 2 years ago. The info was threadbare and they listed themselves as a school.

So what to do?

Well, I had to go home. I had to be out of the dorm by the end of the week as that was the check-out date and I wasn’t going to pay for it. Shannon said I could go home or I could wait around till July and then maybe they could find something, but they were going to terminate my contract at the end of the week anyway.

LUCKILY, as I am experienced in this kind of thing I had kept every text conversation, email and a copy of the ad and its link in a file with me! I showed her the ad I had responded to and the messages between me and the guy who recruited me. She then apologised for the inconvenience and “miscommunication”. They offered to pay for my flights.

I had arrived on Monday in HK, and this was all unravelled by Wednesday after they failed to finalise the job for me. They messed up. I only booked the flight to HK, once they confirmed I could come. So before I left, I just did touristy stuff and went to places I missed on my last trip to Hong Kong. I took LOTS of pictures, and enjoyed Hong Kong at a slow pace.



Deciding to be calm and take the upper hand, I spoke very politely with Shannon and she apologised for the situation and said they would pay a total on only 6000HKD as flight reimbursement. I told her that that amount will not cover my costs in getting myself here, and 6000HKD only applied to the contract, and in this heinous case, the contract rules DO NOT apply. At this point it’s just a piece of paper binding me to nothing. I said I want full reimbursement for the flights and pointed out that I have every right to sue them.

They then agreed to pay the total cost of the flights, but were going to charge me $70USD for the dorm! I said no way, this business deal gone wrong is their fault and problem. Plus, they LIED by pretending to be a school and failing to say what they really were. At this point Tim the Tool, told me I should grateful and should accept this flight reimbursement as a gift without complaint! He said they are not responsible for housing. Well guess what? I’m not responsible for their unprofessional conduct, risks and dishonest practices.  He reckons according ‘the contract’ they owe me $0. Yeah right! If we are going to follow that contract, then they owe me an entire years’ worth of salary with a bonus!! They should be grateful! What a douche bag, and he never apologised.

Well none of it still makes sense to me. The contract I signed in the cab from the airport was between me and the American English Workshop, advertised on Dave’s ESL and from the website which showed a school. What happened to that? Where is this recruitment agency mentioned in any of this pre-arrival stuff? Who and what was this ‘school’ they showed me in the street but could not go in? Did we warp into alternate parallel universe maybe?

scifi gif

So take caution when applying in Hong Kong. I’m not sure how one can possibly avoid this. I was practically lied to, or they took a big chance and failed. I have done ESL for almost 4 years, so I know how to check and it all seemed clear. These kind of things really are on a he says, she says basis when you are not dealing with it in person.

I still say South Korea is the best for ESL jobs. The process is lengthy, but at least you are officially confirmed a job position when you arrive; as a checked and signed contract with all the legalised documents are a standard requirement to enter the country. It’s just better regulated in my opinion.

Read about living and working in Korea

Hong Kong’s still cool though. I’m still impressed by it even the second time around. Next time I’ll stick to being a tourist.