The 50 things we love about Hong Kong
By Gary Hadler and Sue Smith
My wife and I moved to Hong Kong in 2001 from our native Australia when she accepted a job as a native English teacher at a local school here. What started out as a short-term contract soon became a more permanent affair.
2. Subways and sky bridges
The traffic on the roads might look a bit
daunting but if you want to get across the
streets, chances are there’s a
pedestrian-friendly way to do it. Hong Kong
is a city of pedestrian subways and sky
bridges, helping its large number of
pedestrians to cross the traffic-filled
roads in safety and comfort. The subways
are wide, clean and well-lit and the sky
bridges give you a bird’s eye view of all
that traffic down below.
Hong Kong feels like it is in the tropics for 9 months of the year and the arctic for the other 3. On the whole, with the exceptions of red or black rain warnings or the occasional typhoon, most Hong Kong storms are quite tame. But, when mother nature lets rip, she does it with a bang. The sound of the torrential rain, the mini rivers cascading down the slopes, the dead umbrellas sticking out of rubbish bins. What a treat! Rainstorms in Hong Kong also mean we all get a holiday.
6. Tiny living spaces
In Australia we call these spaces
cupboards. Here they are referred to as
spacious 3 bedroom apartments. Climbing
into one’s bed from the doorway is a common occurrence for Hong Kongers.
Floor space includes the calculation of your
share of the lift and the lobby, even the
mail-box! The average Hong Kong home measures only 450
square feet. IKEA was made for Hong Kong as
multi purpose furniture is a must.
In Hong Kong owning a dog is a status symbol. Owing a big dog more so. Hong Kongers love dogs. These dogs live in the 450 square foot apartments with their owners as a member of the family. It is always quite a surprise to see how many dogs live here. Hong Kong people are extremely clean though, you will almost never see doggie do left behind on the street. Owning a dog also opens up a whole new line in consumer possibilities. Check out the dog “fashions”, especially when the weather starts to cool down and any self-respecting dog wouldn’t be seen out without its coat!
This city is probably one of the safest in the world. Violent crime against people on the street happens so rarely that it makes front pages news for days if it does occur. I have never seen a fight in a bar here. There are security guards everywhere. These people are often very old. Still they are the city’s unsung heroes. These guards, present in almost every commercial or residential building, are an effective, non aggressive form of crime deterrent. Their role in Hong Kongers’ sense of security is great. On the whole these people are also extremely friendly. No need for a “reclaim the night” movement here – Hong Kong is safe enough for anyone to move around in, at all times of the day and night, with no need to worry about personal safety.
When it comes to living in a place that has no democratically elected government, Hong Kong is one of the freest places I have been. If it’s not illegal than you can do almost anything. For example you can walk up to a policeman on any street in Hong Kong drinking a beer and it’s legal…
12. Hong Kong airport
In the words of Douglas Adams “It’s no coincidence that in no known language does the phrase ‘As pretty as an airport’ appear”. Hong Kong airport is about as close as it comes. In-town check in service, a fast, clean and convenient express train, mini TV screens, onboard uniformed baggage carriers, seasonal cool architecture, thumb print scanning immigration counters, almost unlimited places to eat and shop. Hong Kong airport rocks. It is efficient, clean and very user friendly. I travel a lot and no other airport even gets close.
13. Mainland tourists
Hong Kong’s tourism growth focus is mainland China. And it is working… more than 500,000 mainland Chinese tourists crossed the border into Hong Kong over the last Lunar New Year alone. That means over ½ a million tourists descending on Hong Kong’s retail stores, armed to the teeth with money. These people do not march behind the Chinese national flag, but the tiny brightly coloured flag of a tour guide, carefully shepherding the little flock to the next mall or outlet. Watch out for the Mainland tour groups touring Lan Kwai Fong too – not for a drink but to photograph its largely foreign clientele relaxing with a beer!
This is probably the single biggest positive step in public transport since the steam engine. One card that you can use to pay for all your public transport with. Hong Kong might be the land of crowds and queues but there is never the need to queue for public transport tickets. The octopus card tentacles are everywhere now. You can buy a Big Mac at McDonald’s or a beer from a 7-11 with this card. This is truly a Hong Kong technological breakthrough.
Hong Kong is a city of energy. The people here do not complain - they DO. Even during SARS, when nightly news stories seemed to brand Hong Kong as a place suffering a modern-day plague, the Hong Kong people just went about dealing with the issues: Not complaining, not avoiding - just doing. The city moves at a million miles per hour. The energy is infectious. People work long hours in Hong Kong but that’s what people here expect.
These superb convenience stores are everywhere. At last count there were more than six hundred 7-11s in Hong Kong and if you do not visit an area for a while, do not be surprised if, when you return, a new 7-11 has opened up. In Hong Kong these stores also sell cheap alcohol. You are never more than a block away from a cold beer or ice cream.
The only thing more full than the stalls are the aisles. This is an experience that must be tried to be understood.
21. Full mobile phone reception
In this city, mobile phones work everywhere. There is no dropping out simply because you walk into a car park or go through a tunnel. If you are going to have a mobile phone, it’s a pleasure to have one that always works. You never see the 'no carrier' signal in Hong Kong.
23. Air-conditioned walkways
If you know the route you can get almost anywhere in Hong Kong’s Central Business district via the inter connected system of walkways. Most of these are even air-conditioned. This is great - no rain, no heat and no smog and a lot less pedestrian traffic than there would be at street level. This city is so, so easy to get around.
24. Street vendors
In a place where space is certainly at a premium, these small-business men and women are incredible. Tucked away in tiny nooks and crannies, in little structures, often smaller than the average garden shed, businesses are carrying on, selling goods, providing services. Just round the corner from our flat there’s a whole strip of little shanties, selling electrical wires and fittings, sewing accessories, even newspapers. And then there are the mobile vendors – often not strictly legal – who appear with a laden cart, which is spirited away at the first sign that there might be an inspector or a police officer nearby. What a way to make a living.
26. Shopping malls
Shopping malls are not just places for shopping in Hong Kong, although it is true that plenty of that goes on in malls too. Malls are somehow part of the community. As well as often housing cinemas, shopping malls also may have sporting facilities – a least two have ice rinks! There are of course restaurants and cafes, carnival rides, pianists playing baby grand pianos, string quartets, there’s even a university attached to a shopping mall!
29. The country parks
First time visitors to Hong Kong expect a concrete jungle, perhaps a cross between downtown Manhattan and downtown Tokyo. And there’s no denying that there is that aspect to Hong Kong. But there are also the hills and the open spaces. Hong Kong is about 70% open spaces and a lot of that area is country park. Hong Kong people love the country parks, with their hiking paths, barbecue pits, “fresh” air. And you can take a bus to most of them, and buy the supplies you need for your barbecue when you get there. Or go on a hike. This might not be bush-bashing, as an Australian would say, but it’s pleasant, open space, which is not crowded and very peaceful.
30. The ‘amah’ bagThese red, white and blue bags are everywhere. If these bags were ever to disappear from Hong Kong a great loss would be suffered by all. In many ways they are reminiscent of Dr Who’s TARDIS. They are definitely much bigger on the inside then the out. The sight of old ladies struggling up the side of Hong Kong’s steep hills with these multi purpose, super duper strong carry all bags in the small arms is an everyday occurrence here. But always a marvel.
31. The smell
Hong Kong has the most unique smells. There is a particular smell in districts such as Wan Chai and Causeway Bay. It is not the smoky coc=nut smell of Bangkok with the underlying smell of sewers, nor that polluted and slightly sweet smell of Shanghai. But it is distinct and instantly recognizable. It consists of a combination of fish balls and char siu (barbecued pork), exhaust fumes, cigarette smoke and perfume. It’s the stink of my adopted home and it is really great.
32. Cute toys
Hong Kong people love cute, kitsch soft toys. From Disney favourites to that well-known cat with no mouth, young and old alike seem to have a soft spot for these cuddly toys. People hang them from their bags, even from their mobile phones. People queue outside fast food restaurants to collect different ones on offer and you often see whole armies of them being transported around on dashboards!
Wet markets sell food and be warned, they are wet. Locals still do have a preference for food which is ‘fresh’ (read “live”) when purchased so poultry and fish are found in these markets. There’s also lots of fruit and vegetables, some of which you won’t even be able to identify.
34. Alcohol licensing laws
As many Australians do, I like a beer. But unfortunately in Australia nowadays, alcohol is controlled very strictly by a series of laws making it quite difficult to enjoy yourself. Of course there’s a history behind these laws – drink driving, underage drinking, over-exuberance at sporting events – but Hong Kong is different. Beer is available almost anywhere. Supermarkets and 7-11s sell it at any time of the day or night. You can buy it at Ocean Park, it’s available at big and crowded events, it’s even available at little take-away sandwich bars. One of the reasons for its easy availability is that alcohol has not caused the problems here that it has in other places. But it certainly makes me happy to know I can get a drink.
35. Access to things
In other countries, it always seems much more difficult to access sporting and cultural events. Here in Hong Kong, there’s an excellent world-class Literary festival, a top-notch Arts festival, the Rugby Sevens, singers, concerts and theatre. International tennis stars and football players grace the city. There’s even the odd international-class art exhibition. Anyone who thinks living in an Asian city means turning your back on familiar cultural activities or sporting events is wrong. There’s also a great symphony orchestra and for those of you more interested in Asian art forms, the choice is endless.
You can find them everywhere and not just during the rainy season. Hong Kong people aren’t that keen to have the sun on them so umbrellas are just as often used as a sunshade. Folding umbrellas might be handy for popping in your bag in case of a shower or to protect from the sun, but during the rainy season, when there’s often strong winds as well, proper, long, heavy-duty brollies are what you need. Funniest umbrella sight? A middle-aged Chinese woman, jogging slowly around the local park, being trailed by a domestic helper carefully shading her boss from the sun with an umbrella.
Another example of the brilliant use of a limited commodity – space! Basements in Hong Kong often house supermarkets or bars. You tentatively head down those rickety or steep stairs but at the bottom, you find yourself in bright, open, welcoming space.
40. Dim Sum
Apparently the literal translation of ‘dim sum’ is “touch the heart”. These tiny morsels of food do indeed endear themselves to you. Everyone’s got their own favourites – delicate prawn dumplings, spring rolls, turnip and taro cake – the range of dim sum available is vast. One of the drawbacks of eating dim sum is that dim sum restaurants are often huge, incredibly noisy places – all part of the experience though!
42. Public libraries
Hong Kong has great public library facilities with an excellent range of English books (probably the collection of Chinese books is even better but I’m in no position to judge). And the libraries are pretty well used. Public libraries are dotted around the city. They have study rooms for students, they’re open 7 days a week, even quite late in the evening and the catalogue is searchable online. You can even reserve books and renew them on the internet. It’s an excellent public service.
43. Sleeping people
Hong Kong is a place of long working hours and long commutes. It is very common to see slumbering passengers on buses and trains, and colleagues catching up on their sleep with a lunch time nap on their desks. But I think this says something about the safety of the city – people dream away their commuting time, knowing they are quite safe sleeping on public transport. Probably better not to let the boss catch you though.
45. Basic Law
The Basic Law acts as both Hong Kong’s constitution and its Bill of Rights. This place might not be a democracy but the people are very keen on the Basic Law and the entitlements it does embody. There was recently a government competition encouraging the putting of sections of the Basic Law to music – like song lyrics. Only in Hong Kong….!
Often, when inviting others to eat with you, in Chinese, you ask them to “drink tea”. Tea is an important part of this society. And, while it’s usually Chinese tea, it doesn’t have to be. Iced Lemon tea is such a favourite among Hong Kong people that it’s available in bottles and boxes for easy and convenient consumption. The first time I went to a Chinese restaurant with colleagues I was shocked to see them pouring tea over all the dishes to sterilise them. I don’t imagine there’s anyone in the city who knows just how many types of tea there are – probably most of them available in Hong Kong! When ordering “English” tea it’s necessary to also specify the temperature you want it – “milk tea” as the locals call it can be served hot or cold, not automatically hot, as it would be in most parts of the world.
Christmas and Chinese New Year are huge – Hong Kong people feel Christmas is a particularly “romantic” festival – I must confess to having never thought of Christmas in that light till I came here. In truth, I think Hong Kongers like Western festivals which demand little of them except the “fun” aspect. And Chinese traditions command respect.
48. Roast meat
Most Hong Kong people don’t have an oven – let’s face it, quite a lot of them barely have a kitchen – so there are shops, market stalls and supermarket counters which sell roast meat. The meat is usually pork or duck (with head and beak still attached) but also sometimes chicken. It’s the best tasting fast food around. I’ve seen vans stacked high with the glistening bodies of whole roasted pigs, which are then hoisted onto a shoulder and delivered to a stall early in the morning. And the guy behind the counter with the cleaver can chop a duck or a slab of pork quicker than you can say “char siu”.
49. Free gifts and promotions
In Hong Kong, the free gift or the special offer is often as important as the product itself. People sign up for new credit cards or longer cable TV contracts on the basis of the gift or “deal” or discount being offered. Quite often, at the supermarket checkout, the cashier packs something unknown into the shopping bag, saying ”for free” – I find myself wondering what I’d bought to qualify for the gift and I marvel at being given it even though I didn’t have a clue it was coming. Stores with sales often have a cash coupon deal, and once we got three small kitchen appliances with three office coolers we bought.
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