I may have been a bit harsh on Hong Kong lately. First, I wrote about ten things I hate about this city and thought I had covered it all. But then, I kept thinking of more things that annoy me, so managed to squeeze out two more Hong Kong-bashing entries after that. Finally, I feel like I have gotten all of the negative stuff off my chest, so I can now talk about the things that make Hong Kong a great place for me.
#1: Xiao Long Bao. You can think of these beauties as “bizarro dumpling soup” because the liquid is inside, not outside the dumplings. No, they don’t inject them with soup, but rather pack a solid soup-cube along with the minced pork into the dumpling. When steamed, this cube turns into hot soup. There are different techniques to eating this dish, but the way I do it is to carefully bite off the top, suck out the soup and then eat the rest. The dish actually originates from the Shanghai region, but to me it is a “Hong Kong thing” because a) this is where I tried it first and b) because it is so ubiquitous in the city. One of the best places to have xiao long bao is the Michelin-starred, Taiwan-based dim sum chain Din Tai Fung, which has branches in several countries including the USA, Australia and Japan. My guess is the ones served in the U.S. come with warning signs because of the hot liquid inside (you know, Starbucks, old woman, lawsuit…). Even if you are not the litigious type you should be careful, as one careless bite into one of these things could leave you in need of medical attention. While Din Tai Fung is my wife’s favorite joint, I prefer Crystal Jade, another well-known chain, as their dumplings come in different colors and flavors, such as squid-ink, garlic and green tea.
#2: Octopus. No, not the animal/food (which isn’t very good in HK btw, very chewy), but the wallet-sized plastic card that’s your magic key to city-wide public transportation and so much more. Octopus is a pre-paid card and can be charged either at convenient stores such as 7-Eleven or Circle K, or at any MTR station, by using a self-service machine or by visiting the customer service counter. An interesting fact is that London’s Oyster card was based on the Octopus. With an Octopus card, not only can you pay your fare at all modes of public transport including the MTR, trams, buses and ferries, but you can also buy groceries at the supermarket, get a drink or snack (or an umbrella, this being Hong Kong) at a vending machine, buy a burger at McDonald’s, or have your picture taken at a photo booth, among other things. All you have to do is show your card to the electronic reader and you are done with your payment in a second, literally. According to the Wikipedia article some schools even use it to take attendance. Don’t you be giving any ideas to my employer now! The only obviously missing part of the equation for the time being is the taxi network. The day taxis started accepting Octopus would be a momentous day for Hong Kong indeed.
#3: Green Tea Ice Cream (from Haagen Dazs). This is something else that’s not native to Hong Kong (I think this one’s from Japan) that I associate with the city anyway. Being from Istanbul, Turkey, I’m no stranger to weird and wonderful ice cream flavors, but this distinctly Asian flavor has not yet reached the shores of the Bosphorus as far as I am aware. In this age of globalization, I think it’s only a matter of time before some entrepreneur introduces it. Now, not every green tea ice cream is delicious in my view. The more authentic versions tend to be a bit too bitter for my tastes. But Haagen Dazs have struck a perfect balance between flavor and sweetness. No, I don’t work for them, nor do I have any endorsement deal unfortunately, but in case any of their executives are reading, I wouldn’t mind a little “baksheesh” in exchange for my little ad spot!
#4: Nature. Everyone, even people who visit Hong Kong think it’s just a big city with lots of skyscrapers. While there’s obviously a lot of truth to that, those who end up living here discover that the city is just a small part of Hong Kong territory, which is actually bigger than countries like Bahrain or Seychelles. The subtropical climate makes for a very green countryside that’s teeming with wildlife. I have to mention the butterflies, which are easily the biggest and the most beautiful I have ever seen anywhere I’ve visited. There are many bird varieties across the territory, and even monkeys and crocodiles in some of the nature parks. We have yet to make our first encounter, but apparently the densely vegetated hills are home to many snake varieties, some poisonous, like the Asian cobra. Wild boars roam the forests and it’s not uncommon for hikers to cross paths with them. Speaking of hiking, there are many trails here, which are usually near the peaks of hills, so as you hike you are frequently treated to amazing panoramas of downtown, the harbor and the many islands dotting the waters around Hong Kong. “Dragon’s Back” on the main island is my favorite – maybe a bit long but provides just the right amount physical challenge and scenery. As far as beaches go, I wouldn’t say they are the most pristine in the world, but there are still some decent ones such as the one in Shek O. I think Hong Kong overall provides superior outdoors options, especially when compared to other expat hubs like Dubai or Singapore.
#5: It’s got cache, baby! I think one of the coolest things about living in Hong Kong is to be able to say you live in Hong Kong. It’s not the prettiest (yes, Victoria Harbour views are stunning but street level leaves a lot to be desired) or the most important city in the world, but I feel the name has so much cache that a lot of people envy those fortunate (or not, depending on one’s perspective) enough to live in Hong Kong. It’s great for one’s career as well, especially if they’re in financial services like me. Who could argue that someone who has worked here wouldn’t bring a “fresh new perspective” to a job in North America or Europe they might be interviewing for? This is not just any city, it’s the beating heart of the fastest growing continent in the world.
#6: Things work. Hong Kong is one of those rare islands (I meant that in a figurative sense, sorry about the pun) of efficiency in Asia. Things work pretty much as well as they do in the West. Public services are especially remarkable. The territory seems well prepared for anything, whether it’s an approaching storm, a political rally or a need for quarantine. When you go to a government office, be it a utilities provider, post office or the immigration department, you generally find that the office is air conditioned, not too busy, and there’s an automated numbering system so you won’t have to huddle around a window with twenty other people. Staff are courteous and – wait for it – they smile when they serve you. “Government clerk” and “smile” – an oxymoron in most parts of the world, but not here.
#7: People love babies. I could have cared less about this up until a year ago, but I have to admit that when people smile at our baby, wave at her, make faces and make her laugh, I get the satisfying feeling that humanity is not dead. That we have not yet all become selfish robots oblivious to others around us. A similar interaction with someone’s baby in certain Western countries could attract unfriendly looks by the parents at best, and outright confrontation or even legal action at worst. My wife and I don’t mind people’s interactions with our baby in Hong Kong at all and even enjoy them, except when the individual gets too friendly and touches her. Frankly that’s a little too much, but thankfully it doesn’t happen very often.
#8: There’s no need to tip. They rip you off in many different ways in HK, but forcing you to pay tips isn’t one of them. Whether you are in a restaurant or a taxi, you don’t need to pay any tip at all, and that’s perfectly ok. People generally only pay if they are really pleased with an exceptionally good level of service (but don’t worry, that doesn’t happen very often!). This aspect of Hong Kong is perhaps the only monetary consolation prize for a Scrooge like me. I should mention that there is a 10% service charge in restaurants, but I’ve been in countries where you have to pay the service charge AND tip your waiter/waitress. I still remember my U.S. years of paying the customary 15-20% for even average service, or risk getting a “death stare,” or worse, a confrontation from the waiter.
#9: People are fit. I have a feeling the average Wal-Mart shopper would feel quite jealous and depressed in Hong Kong because almost everybody is in great shape here. Unless they bury or in some other way dispose of their fat and obese, the Hong Kongese seem to have found the secret of maintaining the ideal BMI ratio. Not many beer guts here, or pear-shapes. Maybe it’s the long, sweaty walks to and from public transport every day, or the small set lunches that pack enough calories only to feed a twelve-year old – whatever it is, it’s working.
#10: Skywalks (officially called the “Central Elevated Walkway”). Fancy names for a network of footbridges between buildings. Minneapolis has them because it’s too cold, and Hong Kong has them because… it’s too hot? Too humid? Too rainy? I think it’s all of the above, but more than that, I think it goes back to “too many people” again. They have basically built another layer on top of the original city to accommodate the pedestrian masses. Large parts of Central and Admiralty consist of buildings connected to each other by these footbridges, so you can walk for kilometers in the comfort of A/C without ever setting foot on a street. Shopping malls, banks, hotels – all connected. There are even maps going around on the internet outlining this web of bridges. I notice that most new buildings being built these days are connected to the “grid,” so I expect Hong Kong to eventually develop a full additional layer of city on top of the current one. Maybe in the future the fancy, air conditioned top layer will belong to the wealthy people, and the street as we know it will be for “lower class” citizens – sort of like the people of New New York vs the mutants of (just) New York in Futurama.