Learning to Love Hong Kong

by Steven K. Bailey, Dec 21, 2006 | Destinations: Hong Kong / China
Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Ask someone what they think of their visit to Hong Kong and you won't get an ambiguous answer.  Most likely you'll get a strongly worded response that's as black and white as an old made-in-Kowloon television set.  With few exceptions those who visit Hong Kong either love the place with a passion or hate it with unbridled disdain.

As for me, I've loved Hong Kong from the moment I first steamed into its island-studded waters nearly twenty years ago.  Hong Kong has been drawing me back ever since like some kind of gigantic Chinese magnet, so I'm always puzzled and a little disappointed whenever someone tells me they didn't like Hong Kong and couldn't wait to board their flight out.

More than one friend has spoken poorly of Hong Kong, and we're not talking culture-shocked neophytes on their first visit to the Far East, either.  We're talking friends who've lived overseas and traveled around the world, friends who've seen enough of the planet to make sophisticated comparisons between Hong Kong and other world-class cities.  One acquaintance of mine, a travel editor at a large American newspaper, offered this blunt assessment of his visit to the territory: "I didn't like Hong Kong."  In a similar vein, I once asked a Canadian traveler if he would be staying in Hong Kong and he said, and I quote, "Unfortunately, yes."

Now as much as I love Hong Kong, I'll be the first to admit that it's not the easiest place to fall in love with.  After all, while Hong Kong has many virtues, it also has some pretty significant downsides that could easily make a person dislike that pint-sized territory on the South China Sea.

Jetlag may well be the greatest of these downsides, given that so many Western visitors end up touring Hong Kong in a haze of 747-induced fatigue.  To be fair, this jetlag has more to do with the width of the Pacific Ocean or the breadth of Eurasia than with Hong Kong.  Nonetheless, after a fourteen-hour trans-Pacific flight that literally reverses night and day, nothing much looks good except a soft bed.  I'd wager that quite a few negative impressions of Hong Kong have stemmed from jetlagged exhaustion rather than anything intrinsic to the territory itself. 

And yet even the well rested sometimes fail to enjoy Hong Kong, which like many big cities can leave a visitor feeling isolated and alone.  After all, unless you've got a deal to offer, nobody really wants to meet you in Hong Kong.  The locals and their expatriate coworkers all have urgent business to attend to; they have their own lives and don't have time to waste on backpackers, tourists and other international riffraff.  The hard truth is that they couldn't care less about you. 

As a result, Hong Kong can feel less than welcoming, especially in comparison to more hospitable Asian cities.  In Hanoi, for example, I find that starting a conversation with complete strangers is as simple as walking into a café and saying hello.  Hanoi is a city where it's not uncommon to invite strangers to join your table and everyone has time for long conversations over coffee or beer. 

This is definitely not the case in Hong Kong, where merely finding a place to sit can become an epic search.  Hong Kong suffers from a striking absence of benches in subway stations and other public places.  Certainly the malls never provide places to sit -- seated shoppers aren't shopping, after all -- and the city's restaurants and cafes remain chronically overcrowded.  But even when you can find an open seat, you'll discover that the locals crammed in around you aren't particularly interested in meeting foreigners.  Their city is awash with them, so you can't really blame them for their lack of interest.

Nor can you blame the locals for their brusque demeanor, though many visitors do.  It's certainly true that the Cantonese can be gruff to the point of rude, even surly at times.  It would be a mistake to think this brisk manner reserved for foreigners, however, since the Cantonese are just as no-nonsense with each other.  No offense is offered or taken during their loud, rapid-fire exchanges.  Rather it's the snooty attitude of some of the expatriates that can grate on you.  To the extent that these expats acknowledge their visiting countrymen at all, it's only to register with disdain their transient, second-class status in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is just not wired to accommodate the solo traveler, which is perhaps no surprise, given that nobody does anything alone in Hong Kong.  Eating, drinking, exercising, working, shopping, commuting - it's all done together.  Ironically, however, this communal approach to life tends to exclude outsiders, so ideally you should get off the plane accompanied by your own portable social network.  Bring a wife, a lover, a sibling or a close friend.  Or visit the city when you have family or friends already living there.  Hong Kong's neon skyline always shines most brightly when you have someone to share it with.

Jetlag and loneliness aside, I've long suspected that Hong Kong's tropical weather has contributed to many unhappy visits.  After all, dehydrated, sunburned and sweat-soaked visitors make for very unhappy campers.  During the humid Hong Kong summer the sun can quickly melt you down into a heat-exhausted daze. 

The key, of course, is to avoid the meltdown.  I have a fairly high tolerance for heat and humidity, but I nonetheless find myself overheating with predictable regularity in Hong Kong.  Before I reach full boil, however, I duck into the nearest air-conditioned building, sit down on those lucky occasions where there is someplace to sit, and drink as much water as my belly can hold.  On the hottest days I like to take a ferry, as much for the chance to sit as to enjoy the cool ocean breezes.  I've learned to accept that I'll go through two or even three changes of clothing a day, an undertaking made possible by the fact that the local laundries offer same-day service for a fraction of the extortionate rates charged by the hotels.

I've learned to accept the rain as well, chiefly by carrying an umbrella at all times.  During the heaviest rains, however, umbrellas offer little or no protection.  At these times it's best to just stay inside all day, though this hardly restricts you to your hotel room.  The city's many movie theaters and world-class museums provide some excellent rainy-day options.  And if you want to stay completely dry, Hong Kong has pioneered the art of weatherproof shopping.  Many MTR subway stations sit beneath mega-malls, so you can travel between the city's major shopping complexes without ever going outside. 

Inside or outside, however, Hong Kong remains relentlessly commercial.  This can turn visitors off unless they can successfully tune it out.  To stay sane in Hong Kong you have to be able to filter out all the advertisements and commercials, since at times the city seems like one giant sales pitch.  Advertisements are literally inescapable and bombard everyone 24/7.  Televisions on the double-decker buses blare commercials at captive audiences.  Huge TV screens mounted on the sides of buildings tout everything from Finding Nemo to Haagen-Dazs.  Teenagers thrust fliers into the hands of passersby that promote lunch discounts and clothing sales.  Crowds waiting for the next MTR train face a gallery of brightly lit advertisements for English-language schools, lingerie and mobile-phone service.

All this sales hype can get under your skin fairly quickly unless you do as the locals do and simply ignore it.  Alternatively, you can view this commercial onslaught as a sort of free entertainment that can tell you a lot about local fads and tastes.  As for me, I've learned to appreciate commercialism's contribution to Hong Kong's urban landscape; after all, the giant neon advertisements mounted on high-rise buildings offer a world-famous nighttime display unrivaled anywhere else.  And more practically, I've learned I should always sit at the front of the bus where I can't see the TV and its never-ending roster of commercials.

Of course, this assumes I can get a seat at all.  In this jam-packed city of seven million souls space remains at a premium.  Those who can't handle crowds or who need a North American amount of personal space will find Hong Kong to be tough going, which may be another reason the territory sometimes gets such poor reviews.  Crowds are omnipresent, especially when taking public transit.  Riding the MTR subway during rush hour can be like joining a scrimmage between opposing teams, with one crowd pushing to get off the carriages and the other pushing just as hard to get on.  Even walking can be difficult, as the sidewalks often fill to capacity.  What should be a simple stroll can become a frustrating game of dodge and weave as you struggle to make your way down a crowded city block.  The locals deal with all of this by redefining their notions of personal space; they've simply grown to need less of it.  They didn't have a choice in this redefinition and neither will you, but there's a certain camaraderie in all being in it together. 

Severe pollution remains another frequent and quite justified complaint of disgruntled visitors.  It's true that over the years a brown haze has thickened above the skyscrapers like some kind of malignant gas cloud.  This pollution can't really be escaped, though you can avoid the worst of it by staying away from traffic-choked streets at rush hour and patroning smoke-free establishments.  If you are truly bothered by the smog, the South China Morning Post reports the pollution levels each day in its weather section, allowing you to avoid the most polluted districts.  Placing the pollution index in the weather section makes sense, given that like the weather, the pollution can be planned for but certainly not changed.  You can no more stop the rain in Hong Kong than stop the smog.

Noise pollution can also rattle visitors, for few cities are as cacophonous as Hong Kong.  The Cantonese have never been known as quiet people; you only have to go out for dim sum on a Sunday morning to figure that out.  This cultural proclivity towards shouted conversations needn't spoil your trip.  In fact, the high-decibel nature of Hong Kong can be liberating in the sense that you never have to worry about keeping your voice down.  As you eat your dim sum chicken feet and other tasty morsels you can be as loud as you like, secure in the knowledge that the diners at the surrounding tables are even louder.  When it comes to noise in Hong Kong, it's a clear-cut case of if you can't beat them, join them.

To truly understand the mind-numbing level of noise generated by the urban areas of Hong Kong, however, you have to ride the tram up to the 1,810-foot (552-meter) pinnacle of Victoria Peak.  There you can take in the stunning view and listen to the metropolis below roar like some kind of ravenous beast.  Jackhammers, pile-drivers, auto horns, air-conditioners, helicopters, airliners, ship's horns, cross-walk signals, ringing mobile phones, Canto pop songs, advertising jingles, police sirens  -- all the elements of daily life blend into one arrhythmic song.  Arrhythmic, but thrilling nonetheless.  To me the noise has always been the sound of excitement, a never-ending ballad of money and power, of sea captains and triad gang members, of poor immigrants and billionaire CEOs.

Nonetheless the noise level can exhaust even the most hardy visitor.  The only real antidote to the ceaseless racket is to flee Hong Kong's urban districts altogether.  In fact, swapping city streets for hiking trails counteracts pretty much any of the negative influences that could make you dislike Hong Kong, be it the crowds, the noise, or the pollution.  Unfortunately, few visitors realize that this green escape clause exists, for it's a common misconception that Hong Kong is 100-percent city.  In fact, 40 percent of the territory is protected parkland consisting of lush subtropical forest, craggy mountain highlands and picture-perfect sandy beaches.

Visiting Hong Kong's greener side will keep you sane as well as present you with a more fully rounded understanding of this mountainous and often overgrown territory.  Getting back to nature is as easy as catching the tram to the top of Victoria Peak and hiking down the forested southern slopes to the residential areas fringing the coast.  Another option involves taking a train or bus out to a Country Park in the New Territories, Hong Kong's green hinterland.  A midweek ferry ride out to the islands, however, may offer the best way to escape.  On a quiet outlying island an overheated and jetlagged visitor can sip a beer, sample some seafood and smell the cool salt air.  Instead of pile-drivers and jackhammers, he or she will hear waves lapping at the shore and sea breezes blowing through the banana leaves.

And in the process, even the most jaded traveler might come to a simple black-and-white conclusion: They love Hong Kong.

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