Student Spotlight: Alex Hou

IR Junior Alex Hou talked to us about the IR major, things he loves to do at Stanford, and his fascinating summer internship in Hong Kong. 

Why did you choose to major in international relations?

I chose to major in international relations because I really love the department’s focus.  With our new age of technology and social media, borders are becoming obsolete, and globalization has accelerated.  To me, studying international relations, in this day and age, has become more and more imperative!! I also love of how interdisciplinary the major is.  I can take courses in political science, economics, public policy, anthropology, psychology, and MS&E (management science & engineering).  The major offers me flexibility that no other major at Stanford has.  Also, I really enjoy learning languages, and the international relations’s major’s two-year language requirement presents an amazing opportunity for me to not only learn, but develop a love of a language.  I am just finishing up my requirement by taking Second Year, Third Quarter French.  Finally, one of my goals coming to Stanford was to learn outside the classroom, and outside the campus, by studying abroad.  In IR, it is a requirement to do so, something that was incredibly appealing to me.

What kind of co-curricular activities, research, or projects do you participate in at Stanford?

At Stanford, besides taking classes and hanging out at the International Relations Department, I am the Financial Officer for the Stanford Axe Committee, our school spirit group on campus.  You will find me at every home football game, where we participate in the Walk, where the football players go from their clubhouse to the Stanford Stadium locker room.  During the game, you will also find me waving flags, blowing the train whistle or carbon dioxide guns after every touchdown, raising field goal nets, and/or generally hyping up the crowd.  The Axe Committee also runs events during the week before Big Game, including camping out in White Plaza for 122 hours STRAIGHT, blowing the train whistle at the top of every hour to count down the time until Big Game.  During the winter, we also wave flags and support the basketball team.

Also, if you don’t catch me there, you might see me hanging out at the Hoover Institution or the Freeman-Spogli Institute, where I love talking to professors and policy experts about current events and issues.  It’s great that professors like  Professor David Brady, General H.R. McMaster and former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury John Taylor are so willing to stop and chat with students like me.  And Professor Jeremy Weinstein is my IR advisor! I actively also try to attend as many outside speaker talks as possible.  In my time at Stanford, I have seen former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, former Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and former governor of Florida Jeb Bush speak.

Alex Hou overlooking Victoria Harbor

Tell us about your summer internship in Hong Kong. Where did you work, and why were you attracted to the position? What kind of work did you do and what skills were required? Describe a typical day-in-the-life for you during your internship. Is there something you did or accomplished that you are particularly proud of?

I worked for Phoenix Property Investor, a multibillion dollar real estate private equity firm based in Hong Kong.  I wanted to gain some experience in business since all of my previous experience was in government.  Also, I was eager to work internationally, so I jumped at the opportunity to work in Hong Kong.  For the first half of the summer, I worked in New York City, investigating a US business that Phoenix was considering entering in Hong Kong.  There, I researched the industry and market.  I conducted phone and face-to-face interviews with key players and potential customers, and I toured facilities.  For the second half of the summer, I worked in Phoenix’s Hong Kong office, where I continued the project I started in New York City.  I evaluated a site to make an investment.  I researched the potential competitiors in Hong Kong and identified key services, specifications, pricing, and a marketing strategy, as well as even outlining what are the key components necessary if Phoenix were to enter the industry itself.  I created an extensive financial model for the project to validate an investment in a potential site; I documented the findings and presented them all to the  senior management investment team.

Another project that I worked on for Phoenix while in Hong Kong was a specialized real estate asset in the “strata-like industrial market.”  Phoenix made an investment in an industrial site and they are looking to develop the building.  I did a competitive analysis of the comparable buildings in Hong Kong, calling brokers and visiting sites.  I presented  a marketing plan to senior management.  In my plan, I revised earlier pricing assumptions which were too conservative to reflect current market conditions. 

Left: Alex overlooking Victoria Harbor

What was it like for you to be in Hong Kong during the protests? How did your friends and family react?

It was a fascinating time to be an International Relations major while in Hong Kong.   Clearly, Hong Kong is in the midst of a turning point in its history with all of the protests.  Overall, it’s a very unfortunate situation.  While I was in Hong Kong, I spoke to a lot of people and tried to understand the reasons behind these protests.  While the outward catalyst of the protests was this extradition bill that would have forced Chinese fugitives in Hong Kong to be extradited back to China, I believe the cause of the unrest is much deeper: income disparity.  There is an acute shortage of affordable housing to satisfy demand.  The Hong Kong government manages housing supply by selling land to private developers and by constructing and providing a steady supply of affordable housing to keep land and rent prices down.  However, in the past two decades, the housing supply has not kept up with demand, which has made housing much less affordable increasing unrest and frustrations.  On top of that, there is a growing concern that China is exerting more influence in Hong Kong’s affairs, eroding Hong Kong people’s rights, and this concern is shared especially among the younger generation.  So this is why these protests have occurred.

This summer, the protests were surprisingly well planned, usually taking place in one specific area of the city each weekend, and that location changed each weekend.  While I was there, the protests were largely peaceful demonstrations, but unfortunately would turn violent at nightfall.  Police were firing expired tear gas into crowds, and the crowds were beating bystanders on the streets.  For me, what was really appalling was that violence and destruction of property committed by both the police and the protesters, and the inability of the government to address the issues.  Hong Kong used to be one of the safest cities in the world, and life has changed for the Hong Kongers.  There was no such thing as a peaceful weekend. It was sad to see the impact on businesses, especially small businesses, and the disruption to the way-of-life in general. 

My friends and family would read the foreign press reports and would call me every day to make sure I was okay.  I was surprised that what they were hearing was in fact very different from what was actually happening.  Contrary to popular belief, for the most part, the protests were very isolated, at least while I was there.  I planned my weekends around the protests, and as long as I avoided the area where the protests were, I was very safe.  In short, this it is a really unfortunate situation, and I hope it gets resolved peacefully soon.

What did you love most about your time in Hong Kong? What did you find particularly challenging?

Wow, I loved Hong Kong.  Honestly, I loved interacting with my fellow interns and overall experiencing the city.  My co-workers were from all over Asia, Australia and the UK, so learning about their diverse experiences was really interesting.  The food was amazing, and I could not stop eating!  I had also taken a full year of conversational Mandarin while at Stanford, so I loved using my Mandarin whenever I could.  Learning more about the Hong Kong and Chinese culture was fun and yet incredibly challenging at the same time.  The last thing I wanted to look like was a foreigner!  I was able to travel to Taiwan to visit a Stanford friend over a weekend, which was really cool too!  In Taiwan, I helped my friend plan a scavenger hunt at the Taiwan National Museum of Fine Arts in Taizhong, and I went kayaking on a big lake in Nantou, southeast of Taizhong.

Alex in Nantou, Taiwan

How have your experiences in Hong Kong changed your understanding of the world and prepared you for your next steps at Stanford and after graduation?

My experiences in Hong Kong have really changed my understanding of the world.  I definitely have a much more global perspective of the world, that each place has its own cultural and societal nuances.  I learned many of lessons about how even the smallest gestures and manners in Asia differ from the US.  I was impressed by how everyone in Hong Kong works really hard and works really long hours.  For example, when you order at a restaurant in Hong Kong, generally the food comes out within 2-5 minutes, as opposed to waiting up to 15-20 minutes back in the United States. I often worked late into the night, and restaurants were open until 11:30 PM at night! Most of all, I appreciate the freedoms and the opportunities I have living in the United States.  I feel that we in the United States should learn from what is happening in Hong Kong, especially how quickly and easily an orderly society can be disrupted and deteriorate.  The issues of income disparity and lack of affordable housing are ones we face here in the United States too, and these protests showed me how dangerous these problems can become if they are left unaddressed and unresolved.  Before my internship, Hong Kong really was not a place I thought I would live and work, but I truly loved the city and its people, and now I would definitely love to have the opportunity to return.

Right: Alex in Nantou, Taiwain