You’d be hard pressed to imagine Rebecca Mason as someone who used to be shy. Having just celebrated her PR, we recently sat down to chat with her about life in Hong Kong, her career path in the lingerie industry and the changes she has seen over the past 7 years since she arrived straight out of university, a shy girl from the middle of the UK.
Name: Rebecca Mason
Occupation: Technical Manager for The Underwear Group, Far East Asia, PVH Corp
Hometown: Coventry, England
Current residence: Hong Kong, 7 years
Secret Skills: The art of untangling necklaces (no fails to-date) and I can do a cartwheel without my hands touching the floor.
Thanks for coming to chat. Can you give us a little background to how you came to work in Hong Kong?
I studied at De Montfort University in England and did a course in Contour Design. From a young age I wanted to design wedding dresses, then at one point I thought about Architecture and then I found out about this contour design course and decided to apply for that instead. I like how things are made and how things work and I love buildings, but I realised I was not up for the mathematics and the 9 years at university Architecture involved. I loved design so I decided to do something more niche that would mean I could get a job at the end. Contour Design was the only course I applied for out of college and luckily I got in.
My first role out of university was working for a garment manufacturer called Clover Group International Limited here in Hong Kong. I got an email one day at university saying “apply for a position here in Hong Kong, 2 years with Clover Group International Limited” and I just thought ok, why not? I knew nothing about the company so I googled them, figured they were manufacturers and put together a CV. A CV at that stage was hard because I didn’t really knew what to include - sketches, design, pages of measurements from university works? The next thing I know, I got an email saying I’d been picked with a few others from my course and we had to meet this woman. The woman we met with as the head of the company and she ended up taking all four of us who applied. I then moved to Hong Kong in the first batch of people they have hired annually from my university since.
You came to work for Clover Group International Limited, what was your first job with them?
I got a job in the technical team at Clover and yeah it was hard. At first they didn’t trust we knew anything or were any good, I had to get used to the Chinese culture, I’d attend meetings that often weren’t in english and I also got told off in a mid year review once for saying “I don’t know” which I think was perfectly acceptable considering I don’t speak Cantonese but it was the culture and there wasn’t a lot of room for us to grow. The company did push boundaries though which was great to learn from. There is a big team in Hong Kong, even though a lot is still done in China, they have a sewing team and pattern makers in Hong Kong that can turn around something in a day. They can have meetings and fitting with customers and tweak something within about 10 minutes to improve and sign off, whereas with companies with factories just in China, you fit something then it goes back to China to someone else to fix and it takes a lot of time to get back.
So you’ve since left Clover. What is your current role?
I moved from the manufacturing side to the brand side. I was at Clover for over 5 years and now I work for a company called PVH Corp which is an American Clothing Company. I got approached for the role, I didn’t apply and I wasn’t really looking but when it came around to it I knew I wanted to move to a brand. I’d learnt a lot in my other role and enjoyed it but I wanted to experience another side of the industry.
Originally PVH was a men's dress shirts designer and manufacturer in America and over the years they’ve bought other brands/companies and other sourcing offices. PVH essentially focus on brands and licences for garments and the majority of a company's products - everything except sunglasses, perfumes and watches because we don’t have the manufacturing for that and that’s currently not part of our vision. We own the majority of Calvin Klein including Platinum, Collection, Jeans, Underwear and Performance for Asia. The designers are separated by the individual brands themselves such as Calvin Klein, and our sourcing side of the business (which I fall into) support the multiple brands across our division.
My job title is Technical Manager for The Underwear Group (TUG), Far East Asia which covers China, Thailand, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Egypt. The group focuses on 5 underwear divisions, the biggest being Calvin Klein. So I manage CK Men’s & Women’s Underwear and Sleepwear, Warners, Olga , Tommy Hilfiger & Michael Kors North America Mens. Myself and my team support all developments through the production from fitting, pattern cutting, workmanship and testing.
And you’ve only been in this role for a year and a half now, how have you found the transition?
That’s right. I came in to a manager role and the Director who employed me left within a month of me starting. It was a little daunting at the time, however I've now released it's been a blessing in disguise. I've been able to re-organise my team quickly bringing in better people in place who could do the job, think for themselves and don’t just follow orders. I built it up so I can leave them to do what they do day in and day out without having to support them much but teach them when to notify me of risk because I can’t have eyes everywhere all the time. I've made sure my team is interchangeable, across different garments and departments so anyone could pick up any job required and that really helps when working together as a team it means they can all help each other. I want to improve the team rather than lose people and I want my team to be happy in what they do.
How do you find the working environment in Hong Kong and how do you go in managing the team when a lot of the work you do is with offices in New York and other countries including Sri Lanka?
I’ve never worked in this industry elsewhere so I don’t have anything to compare it to but you pick on up cultural things: they always come in late, always take their lunch (although I hear New Yorkers do to) whereas I will work through lunch if I have a deadline and need to increase the speed. They generally stay late though which is a cultural thing.
There are difficulties certainly in terms of the cross regional stuff. I think sometimes it’s the understanding that’s the hardest. There is Chinese culture, American culture and even Sri Lankan culture and they don’t always understand each other. I think it’s good for me being from a different culture altogether because I’m not necessarily aware of all the habits of these cultures so I don’t get so annoyed.
One thing I notice is that my team here think the American team is the customer rather than our partner and they won’t say no to them. They will talk and gossip amongst themselves here but won't be confrontational about anything with our partners. So a big cultural thing is they avoid confrontation and they also often say they can do something rather than asking for help. I’ve tried to train my team to ask for my help when it's necessary rather than waste time. I prefer to try and empower my team rather than jumping on in and doing it all myself which I think a lot of managers do but I really want them to think for themselves too. I don’t mind the culture here though, I’ve been here for seven years - I know what to take, what to ignore and when to speak my own mind.
How can you see things progressing and developing in HK for you?
I have a potential career 5 year plan but I think I’m in this limbo period at the moment figuring out what to do in my life more than my career right now. I had a career goal and I got there and now I’m at the point of “do I want to put down another 5 year goal?”. Everyone is getting married and having babies and I don’t know if I want that but I think maybe I do need to focus on myself and what I want. I could focus on my career and maybe it would work but if I focus on myself only I could be hindering a relationship and ruling other things out for myself. In my company yes I have a five year plan which my boss supports and career wise I think I could get there but I need to work out if I want to pin myself in Hong Kong for another 1-2 years and then move to America with the company in a more senior role or if I want something else altogether. I’m being approached for jobs with good money but I don’t care about the money, I like where I am, I still have so much to learn there. I was happy in that I am being approached but I’m not interested in other jobs.
You’ve been here now for 7 years, what are some of the changes you’ve noticed in general life here over that time?
Restaurants change constantly but friendship groups changing is probably the most obvious one. People generally have a 2 year time period and then they go. One thing you have to adjust to is friends leaving and it is really hard. Different parts of people's lives are moving at different stages, relationships are tricky, you have to be conscious of each other because if you’re not, it probably wouldn’t work. People aren’t here permanently, it’s a stopping point really and most people aren’t on the same wave as you. I have had a few cycles of people come and go but I am still close friends with these two sisters I met back in the day on GeoExpat, back when you would meet friends ‘online’. They arrived in HK 6 months before I did and had an online post on saying “Two sisters trying to find friends” - we met at Staunton's and have been friends ever since.
The other big thing I’ve noticed is the increase of Mainland Chinese here. You hear them ALL the time now whereas 7 years ago, when I first moved here, there were very few Mandarin speakers. Maybe at first I didn’t realise but after I understood the Cantonese sound, I picked up the difference in Mandarin and I hear it much more often now than back then. It’s not just on the street, it’s in apartment blocks too - there are a lot more Chinese living here now than just travelling.
(Rebecca in SoHo)
What are some of your favourite stomping grounds?
SoHo would be my stomping ground. I’ve lived in my own flat in the area since I moved in 7 years ago. I put myself there because it was a good central area and friends have really grown around me which is nice. It’s quite comfortable to walk around alone and it’s a great area to spend weekends; I get up, get a coffee, wander around the nick nack shops, there are cool independent stores and designer shops and then I’d go and eat lunch in a cafe somewhere. I have my favourite coffee at Peel Street, it opens early which I love and it has a good laid back vibe with good, cheap Australian coffee.
The last restaurant that blew your socks off?
Rhoda in Sai Ying Pun, the food is so good, I just really love it there! I’m really keen to head back with a big group of people to try the sharing dishes.
Electric Avenue Burger is also pretty damn good! An english guy and his wife own it in Sai Ying Pun in a little alley between Queens Road West and First Street. Just two burgers on the menu and bone marrow fries (to die for). You have to go on an empty stomach - you must go because it was so amazing!!!!!!
Go to bar on a Friday night?
I love leaving working on a Friday night, wandering through soho and having some drinks with friends but I sadly don’t do it enough. I love the spontaneity of a Friday night; have a little drink, get a little carried away... but I don’t really have a regular spot. Vaga Lounge would be the go-to when I catch up with my girlfriends for an event like someone’s birthday. The staff there are so lovely and so friendly and they’ve put up with a lot from us over the years...
The last Hong Kong life hack you learnt?
Might not be a life hack but one thing I have learnt is that being 'Gwelio', you never get approached by people outside the MTR to fill out surveys or sign up to anything. It’s the one novelty of being a westerner I hacked onto. It’s brilliant, I don’t ever feel guilty about having to say no to surveys.
Prizemart is not a new one but that’s also a good tip. They do some good things that are cheaper than supermarkets but you have to search and there are always lines out the door - you get sandwiched around the store before getting to the counter but you can make some good savings.
What have been some of the highlights living here and how have you found Hong Kong has changed you?
Highlights about living here- I live in a city where I never feel alone even when I am alone but then I can also easily escape so easily. I can walk up to the peak, go to the zoological or botanical gardens and read a book and be out of it all. I love going to the beach (although I haven't utilised it much in the last year) but coming from middle of the UK where there was no beach in sight it’s nice. I can escape the beeping of the cars and the sirens just a few minutes out of my area but then can be in SoHo and hear everyone around and be busy and not feel so alone. I like how it’s so diverse but convenient.
Being here, I think Hong Kong has made me more confident and independent. I was quite shy as a child and as a teenager I certainly wasn’t the loudest in my group of friends, but Hong Kong’s given me the chance to be more independent. I’m sometimes looked at as the 'mother hen' here, not in a clingy way, but I think it’s because I’ve been here the longest of my group of friends. I like helping people and that support network here is great. I’m also more confident in putting my hand up in restaurant and asking for something or giving an opinion if someone asks for it. If someone asks me how a meal is and I don’t like it I will say something. I don’t mind that. I’m not being rude or offensive, I’m just giving feedback which they asked for but I probably wouldn’t have done that years ago. In saying that, I won’t say anything unless they ask.
If you were to go anywhere else where do you think it would be and what would you miss about this city?
I’ve talked about New York, maybe Australia. I’d be comfortable in going to Amsterdam at some point or I’d even go back to London but Europe won’t be the next step. I’m quite open really.
I think Hong Kong is neverland and when I leave one day I will miss that. We get stuck here in these bubbles driven by careers. People come here for careers mainly whether their own or their partners and nowhere else I think I would feel ok about spending HK$800 on a junk boat for a day of drinking every few weekends in Summer or spending nearly HK$2000 on a dinner with my boyfriend for no reason other than to try a restaurant. People are stupid with money here! What you would spend here you just wouldn’t spend elsewhere. If I was anywhere else though my career would probably be mediocre and I’d be saving for a house. The only outgoing expenses here really are rent and electricity, everything else is for life. On top of that tax here is much lower than what I’d be paying in England.
I think people leave because they get to a point they want to move on with their life, whether that’s starting a family or buying a house and settling down. Hong Kong is not a long term solution for the majority of people. I know this isn’t where I will be permanently, I may come back again but I know it’s not my forever home but not really sure where to next - we’ll see.
This interview has been shortened and edited.
Tell us what your best HK life hack is in the comments below!