Van Hoang - Opening the door to China

“I no longer dare to say two years. It’s what I used to say, but it kept getting longer. So, maybe five years, we’ll see,” laughs Van Hoang when asked how long he will stay in Asia in his new job. He has just moved to Hong Kong to help Swedish companies enter the Chinese market.
We talk via Skype and Hoang shows me the view from his office window. Skyscraper after skyscraper. His office is on the 19th floor, about halfway up one of the skyscrapers.

“In other cities you can at least see trees or hills somewhere, but here the buildings have been constructed
incredibly close together,” he says and starts telling me about his new job as Country Manager for Hong Kong and South China at Business Sweden. His task is to help Swedish companies that want to enter the large and rapidly expanding market offered by Asia. Hong Kong is the way in for many companies.

A good starting point

“A hub between West and East, you could say. Here you’ll find the freest economy in the world,” explains Hoang. It is cheap and easy to set up a company in Hong Kong. As it is an old British colony, its legislation is reminiscent of that used in the West. You could say that it is the West in a Chinese context. This makes it a good place in which to start. Hong Kong is also a logistics hub. Considerable volumes of freight are transported via Hong Kong or Shanghai. But how did he, a Chalmerist, come to be there in a job that mostly consists of marketing?

“Largely by chance,” laughs Hoang.

Wanted to travel to China

“My parents have roots in China, and because I speak Cantonese and Hakka I thought that I’d go there someday.” 

So when many other Chalmers students applied for exchange programmes in the USA or France and similar countries during their fourth year of study, Hoang tried to find exchange programmes in English in China. It emerged that there weren’t any, but at that time Chalmers just happened to receive visitors from Taiwan.

“They didn’t really have any exchange programmes in English either but said that they could create one and offer it to me – but only in management.” 

And that’s how it started. Six months were followed by an extra year. Hoang learned Mandarin, which they speak in Taiwan, and took his Master’s degree and an MBA there. He was then asked whether he would consider staying for another six months to help Chalmers build a local office in Taiwan.

“By the end of those six months I had met my girlfriend and didn’t want to leave her. I received the opportunity to work at the Swedish Trade Council for two years. I took it and had the intention of returning to Gothenburg after that.” 

But the two years were followed by another two years. China still tempted him, so when he obtained the chance to work for the Swedish Trade Council in Shanghai, he naturally moved there.
“I became the director after a year, so I simply stayed; I’ve now lived here for nearly 15 years.”

More difficult with children 

In the meantime Hoang’s girlfriend became his wife and they have two daughters, who are now five and two years old. Of course, that makes their living situation more complicated.

“This time relocation was difficult. It’s totally different now that I have children.” 

Nonetheless, as of November the family will have completed their relocation to Hong Kong. They live in Discovery Bay, a car-free area that is far from the city centre and has beaches and a few parks – which is difficult to find elsewhere in the densely populated city of Hong Kong.

“It takes me an hour by ferry, bus and metro to get to work, but it has to be worth it.” 
The couple’s children go to an international Montessori school, but Hoang makes sure that he speaks Swedish to them at home.

“I want them to feel Swedish, like me, even though they have dual citizenship and speak Mandarin with their mum.” 

Contact with Sweden and Chalmers 

So as not to lose contact with friends, their friends’ children and, above all, his siblings and parents, Hoang and his family visit Sweden every summer.

“It’s easy to become uprooted. I have friends who are the children of expats and grew up all over the place, and I don’t want that for my children. For them I’d like to return to Sweden in the not too distant future. The Chalmers Alumni Network has been another important point of contact with Sweden.

“I joined the Alumni Network in China in 2009 and became its chairperson two years later. Chalmers is close to my heart. I try to promote Chalmers here and also help Chinese people in Gothenburg.”

He hopes to be able to start an alumni network in Hong Kong, too.
“I just need to check how many alumni there are here.”

Engineer still best

Despite the fact that Hoang mostly works with business and establishing companies, his professional identity as an engineer is strong. In his childhood he dreamt of becoming an engineer.

“I wanted to create something that you can be proud of. To build. As a resident of Gothenburg I saw the Chalmers Cortège each spring, and it was somehow an obvious ambition.” 

However, his current type of work doesn’t feel totally out of place. Hoang says that there are many advantages of having an engineering degree as a basis, and he points out that understanding how industry works is a way of thinking.

“Engineers are quick and direct. Well structured and organised.”

Hoang’s own education started in  Civil and Environmental Engineering, but after a year he switched to Mechanical Engineering, and he has also studied Industrial Engineering and Management.
“A professor said, ‘you engineers, you don’t know anything – you can build things, but you don’t know anything about the market’.”

That statement clearly became a turning point, and now no one can claim that Hoang knows nothing about the market – especially the Asian market.

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Text: Siri Reuterstrand
Taken from Chalmers magasin, No. 3 2016

Published: Mon 21 Nov 2016.