First of all, I DON’T hate Hong Kong. I actually quite like it. But it’s far from a perfect place and I’m frankly fed up with travel articles that pretend everything is always so great and exciting here, so after a couple of positive entries on my blog I’ve decided it’s time to give the straight dope about this simultaneously wonderful and annoying city. This first post is about the negatives – in no particular order:
#1: Zombies. Thankfully these are not the flesh-eating kind, but they manage to get on your nerves nevertheless. I’m talking about the slow-motion wanderers whose eyes are always fixated on their mobile phones no matter what they do. It’s the ultimate Asian stereotype (that replaced the “always taking pictures” one from the nineties) and it looks like people are fine with that (at least us Turks are trying to be polite to foreigners to discredit the “barbarian” stereotype). These people must have sonar or something because they somehow always make it to their destinations. Their proximity sensors usually work at the last second to avoid collisions, but I have witnessed a few “sensor fail” moments as well. Sometimes they get in front of you, moving slowly, even diagonally, for seemingly no other reason than to block your way and make you miss your ride. They don’t talk to anyone, not even their friends or family, who are sometimes zombies themselves. They don’t let little things like crossing a busy street or walking in a crowded mall deter them from their all-important mission of keeping their eyes glued to their fancy phones. They slowly but surely work on giving themselves stiff necks and slipped discs as they read away on their phones, heads leaning forward, day in, day out. I do want to end this section with an apology from any tourists who were just looking at the navigation on their phone to find their way.
#2: Foot shufflers. Cultural evolution is a funny thing. What is shunned in one society can be completely acceptable in another. While admittedly not as bad as public farting or burping, the sound of one’s shuffling their feet is sure to annoy the hell out of most people – me included. This way of walking is unfortunately very common in Hong Kong, and it’s not just the zombies either. I’m used to kids, or Havaianas-wearing beachgoers shuffling their feet sometimes, but how is it that smartly dressed, well educated professionals do it at the office? There must be a government policy against this behavior in public and in the work place.
#3: Crowds. This is of course one of the big clichés about Hong Kong, and like most clichés, it’s true. The city has way more people than it needs. Because there are so many people everywhere, in my view Hong Kong has essentially become “the city of letdowns.” What I mean is that it has become a place where nothing that’s nice can be properly enjoyed. For example you see a good looking restaurant, decide that’s where you will have lunch, and as soon as you enter realize there are no free tables so you just walk out to find another place. I don’t even get excited about restaurants anymore because of this. It’s a pleasant surprise when you find a table, but sometimes that also means the place is no good. And even if you found a seat because you happened to get lucky, they might still seat a random person across from you a few minutes into your meal. Sharing tables is so common that it’s not even considered strange if someone just pulls a chair and makes him/herself comfortable at your table without asking. The ultimate is when people share tables even when they don’t have to – now, to me that’s plain madness. So far this has happened to me twice, both times at my regular lunch hangout, Pret, when there were a few other, unoccupied tables. I should have told the person “Please don’t be such a lunatic and just sit at the free table over there,” but I couldn’t bring myself to say it. If you really want to eat at a particular restaurant in Hong Kong and to have a table all to yourself, like in normal places, you should make a reservation no matter how unworthy the venue might seem.
Crowds get on your nerves all the time in Hong Kong, not just when eating out. Say you look at the map, find a country trail for a weekend hike and picture a nice peaceful afternoon with your family in the great outdoors. But when you get to the trail, you might as well be on Oxford Street, moving at a turtle’s speed behind crowds. Pretty much the only difference is the presence of trees next to you as opposed to shops. Or, you decide to go to a bookstore to flip some pages and chill for a couple of hours, but you end up getting out after a couple of minutes because it feels like there is a political rally organizing inside. Wherever you go, elevators are jam packed and people’s heads, necks or chests are just inches away from your face (those poor children and very short people). It’s the closest one can get to someone else without actually having sex. And people always try to get in even if they see the elevator’s already full, like it’s the last one they will ever get on this earth.
On Sundays, it’s “maids, maids everywhere,” as it’s the only day off for the hard-working Indonesian and Filipino domestic helpers (in PC speak). Since there are no proper gathering places for them and not enough parks in the city, they huddle together in every corner and crevice, on the overpasses and sidewalks, under highway bridges and anywhere else you can imagine. You literally have to jump over them sometimes to walk, especially in popular areas like Victoria Park and Causeway Bay.
#4: Air pollution. This is another relatively well-known fact about Hong Kong. While the air quality is definitely not as bad as in Beijing or New Delhi, the city still frequently scores a “red” rating at the AQI website. The worst place is almost always Causeway Bay, which we unfortunately live very close to – information that could have been brought to our attention before we moved to this area! Because of the pollution, and especially because we have a baby, we run an air purifier inside our place 24/7. As discussed in a previous blog entry, most of the bad stuff gets carried downwind from the industrial zones in mainland China, but Hong Kong also produces its own fair share of pollution, thanks especially to the exhaust gases from the thousands of buses and 90’s model taxis that carry the masses around. It is a myth that “everyone gets around using the metro.” Sure, the MTR has a decent network, but it is not as densely weaved as the subway systems in cities like Tokyo or Seoul. It is in fact the buses that do the heavy work, which means there are always bus fumes in your face on any major street. Part of that has to do with the sidewalks being too narrow, which means you are generally very close to the road when you walk.
#5: Humidity. Another ridiculous device we constantly have to run inside our apartments is a dehumidifier. Hong Kong is so humid that your clothes and shoes get moldy if you don’t. We actually had mold develop on our curtains and inside our luggage bags before we started using the device. With the purifier, dehumidifier and A/C running around the clock, it’s no wonder our electricity bill never falls below HKD 1,000 a month. Despite our best efforts, the air is still not sufficiently dry so we also have to buy packets of Japanese dehumidifying bags and place them on our clothes, shoes and even in places where we keep our important documents. One day, to my horror, I realized that some important papers had gotten damp. That’s when I started placing bags along with important papers, on top of my external hard drives, and anything else I didn’t want ruined. I’ve lived in some humid cities before, like Istanbul and New Orleans, but I have never encountered something like this in my life.
#6: HSBC. This bank is not known for good service anywhere, but I guess since they were founded in Hong Kong, they’ve decided to be extra awful here. What took Citibank one day to do (open me a checking account and give me an ATM card), it took HSBC more than a month. And this was despite informing them that I was already their customer through my international (expat) account. They gave me a lame explanation that went something like “we are different companies even though we have the same brand name,” so they treated me like any random person and gave me the same horrible level of service. They also managed to send my credit card and my “secure key” (the electronic device you need to be able to use online banking) to my old address – in fact, they delivered the secure key to the wrong address TWICE. I lost patience with all of this and went to the branch to ask what the hell was going on. I listened to a bunch of stories about why it took them so long to deliver it, why they still had my old address on file, etc, but I didn’t budge, and maintained my “gravely upset” face. I asked the rep to call me his manager because “I couldn’t let this ridiculous charade go on.” I think I raised my voice a little, too. At this, the rep jumped to his feet, ran to the “staff only” section and came back a few minutes later not with his manager, but with a brand new secure key device still in its original packaging! He delivered it to me within five minutes after briefly explaining how it works and getting my signature to confirm I’d received it. I wonder why they couldn’t have done it that way in the first place.
#7: Tiny spaces. Not sure if this is an urban legend, but I have heard that every now and then someone jumps to their death in Hong Kong because they go slightly mad in their tiny living quarters. A friend was recently telling me that people even willingly work long hours because they just don’t want to go back to their tiny flat, filled with family members. In restaurants, in the rare event you get a place, there is usually only around 5-10 cm between your table and your neighbor’s. Of course the “tiny spaces” issue is an offshoot of the “too many people” problem. I could have probably just said Hong Kong has one big problem, and that is that it has too many people, and ended the post right there. It is all related to supply and demand for space of course. Most restaurants in Hong Kong are “hole in the walls” not because they are trying to be quaint, but because that’s the only space available to them within a reasonable budget. In Tai Hang, where we live, there are restaurants so small that they only have two tables and when there is a biggish group, they just can’t accept any more customers. There are no Carrefours or Wal-Marts in this town, only small to mid-size supermarkets, which often feel like labyrinths because two or three separate ground floor spaces in the same building were leased by a retail chain to create enough square footage, and the formerly separate units were then connected with narrow corridors from the inside. Hong Kong is definitely not for the claustrophobic!
#8: Public coughers and sneezers. Hong Kong seems to have two extremes: The very considerate people who wear face masks even when they have the slightest cold, and others who cough or sneeze without covering their mouth, even when they are sick and in a confined space like the inside of an elevator or an MTR car. Every now and then I feel like punching someone in the face when they let go a loud sneeze less than a meter away from where I am standing and continue to do whatever it is they are doing on their cell phones. They even put signs inside MTR stations for people to cover their mouths when coughing and sneezing, but not everyone seems to get the message. I wonder if some people are doing it on purpose, like those psychopaths in Tokyo (or was it New York?) subway stations who were injecting people with AIDS-infected blood.
#9: The (lack of a) rock music scene. For an “Alpha +” global city that is Westernized in so many ways, ridiculously little is going on here in terms of rock and heavy metal. I wish they took a page from Tokyo’s book as a rock-loving Asian city. Of course there are some local bands, just like there are bands in Asuncion, Ulan Bator or Baghdad, but when it comes to international acts playing live, the situation is pretty embarrassing. In the six months we’ve been here, the only international acts that visited were Steve Lukather (of Toto fame), Avenged Sevenfold and American death metallers Suffocation. We had a greater number of international bands playing shows even when we lived in Abu Dhabi. Instead of rock concerts, what you will see a lot of in Hong Kong are shows by “artists” such as Kenny G, Backstreet Boys and Pitbull (whatever that is).
#10: Long working hours. I’ll readily admit I am a bit of a lazy person and Hong Kong is probably one of the worst places for someone like me to be in. I got spoiled for years in Abu Dhabi, leaving work at around 4:30 PM (official work hours were until 4 PM), and it’s been tough to adjust to the Hong Kong schedule. I still start work around the same time as in Abu Dhabi, i.e. 8:30 AM, but I now leave at around 7 PM, with feelings of mild guilt, because most people are still busy at their desks as I quietly sneak out. I know “the man” exploits us on a daily basis and we shouldn’t feel guilty for leaving work on time, let alone if we have done overtime, as I do every day, but I have found that that’s easier said than done. I have mixed feelings of admiration, jealousy and pity towards my coworkers. I certainly wish them all the best in their careers and lives – what little of it they have left after the long working hours anyway. Not sure how long I can do this myself. It seems we should either move back to a more laid-back city in the next few years, or the time to act upon my fantasy of growing blueberries in Uruguay might arrive earlier than expected!