Welcome to the madhouse

I’m having serious doubts about my ability to survive the rest of the month in Hong Kong. The infamous heat and humidity haven’t caused me problems – that doesn’t seem much worse than Sydney in summer. It doesn’t seem to rain too heavily for too long at a time, so that aspect isn’t really any worse than Melbourne. I read online that Sheung Wan smells like fish, but in reality there are just a few shops selling dried fish – not very smelly, and not the whole suburb by any means. When I arrived on a Saturday, Sheung Wan was blanketed in the smog that sometimes blows across from the mainland. People say it can be hard to tell the difference between mist and pollution, but I know the smell of coal furnace exhaust and this was it. I really wasn’t looking forward to breathing this every day. It would just about rule out any chance of getting exercise by walking to our from work, as it would mean that what’s supposed to be good for my heart would just end up being bad for my lungs. Fortunately that cleared up when a storm blew in on the following Monday afternoon and it hasn’t come back yet (fingers crossed); unfortunately it proved to be the least of my issues.

Hong Kong is a city that ticks all the boxes but falls short on the implementation every time. Let’s start with the public transport. There’s a “fast” train from the airport to the city, but it has fixed seating (not reversible), and when it enters a tunnel the pressure change feels like someone slapping you over the ears. There’s a reason high-speed trains are often pressure-sealed, and it isn’t just for fun. The Octopus smart cards are actually pretty cool: you can buy lots of things besides just transportation with them (e.g. restaurants, cafés and convenience stores usually accept it), you really do just need to briefly tap it on a reader to complete a transaction (unlike Melbourne’s myki), and there are plenty of places where you can top up. But it’s very frustrating as a foreigner with limited cash to find out that the only way to top it up with a credit card is by making an automatic top-up agreement with a card issued by a local bank. Everyone else has to top up with cash. The maximum stored value of HK$1,000 is pretty low, too.

The metro train system is mystifying. Actually finding the train is your first challenge: you’ll typically have to walk up three steps, then down a winding flight of stairs, around through some twisty passages, down some more stairs, through the ticket turnstiles, through more twisty passages and down some escalators (never just one), and finally through a long tunnel that gets you to the platform. It’s like the designers wanted to maximise the time it takes to get from the entrances to the trains in the space they had available, and the three steps up at each entrance is just perverse. There are logical contradictions, like a sign telling you to keep left combined with a fence forcing you to keep right. The turnstiles are strange, too: they consume almost as much space as an automatic gate, but you can’t get through with any luggage at all. A station will usually have one wide gate, but it won’t be next to the assistant’s office, so good luck if you need a hand with a pram or something. Getting out is just as challenging. There are plenty of exit signs, but exits are only identified with letters – providing some indication of where it comes out would clearly be too expensive. There will be a couple of signs in the station that list where all the exits go, but good luck finding them. The train services are frequent but relatively slow and rough. Trains sometimes inexplicably stop for minutes in a tunnel; you’ll get a pre-recorded apology after a few minutes of this, but never any explanation. The trains have plenty of standing room, but few handholds. Maybe you’re just supposed to hope the person you fall into doesn’t fall over, too. Like Tokyo, there are markings on the platform showing you where to queue so you’ll be near the doors but not blocking them; unlike Tokyo, no one pays attention to them. People here are even worse for blocking people attempting to exit than Melbourners.

The trams feel old and unmaintained. I have no problem with the age – the narrow double-decker trams with pickup rollers are an iconic part of the city’s character. I just have a problem with how dilapidated they feel. Some bounce longitudinally like crazy, others suffer from severe bogie hunting, some even have alarms sounding and warning lights flashing every few blocks, and all of them have peeling paint everywhere. When they occasionally derail in the rain, people get them back on the track with massive crowbars. The trams are plagued with turnstiles too, so good luck if you’re travelling with baggage or a baby. But amazingly taking the old, slow trams are often faster than taking the subway because there’s no tunnel maze to negotiate on the way in and out – you’re right on the street. (I do recommend taking at least one tram trip even if you don’t need to. It’s cheap at just HK$2.30 for an adult no matter how far you go even if you stay on at the terminus and ride back the other way, you get to see plenty of Hong Kong out the big windows, and you can open them if you want to experience the smells too. Just make sure no one falls out from the upper deck. Choose an off-peak time if you want a good chance of getting a seat. It’s also a good place to sit and spend some time blogging.)

Oh yeah, the smells. Restaurants and open-air fruit markets often smell good, but plenty of places on the street smell really bad. Like sewage, decay or excrement. People don’t even clean up after their dogs on the footpaths. The whole city is dirty, and the frequent rain isn’t enough to clean it. Healthy Street feels anything but. There are signs telling you that all kinds of things are sterilised frequently (like elevator buttons and escalator handrails), but you get the feeling that it’s more a case of doing the bare minimum to avoid epidemics in the face of how dirty everything is than putting in extra effort to make sure everything’s clean and safe.

Being a pedestrian here is hard. Often you’ll come to an intersection or other logical place for crossing a road and be faced with an anti-jaywalking fence. There’s usually no alternative way of getting across (like an over- of underpass) so you just have to choose a direction and walk out of your way until you find somewhere deemed appropriate for crossing. This can happen several times in a row, making longer journeys than you plan for. When you actually cross at an intersection, it’s hard to know when it’s safe because so many drivers don’t indicate when turning left. Some anti-jaywalking fences have gaps, but there may not be a corresponding gap in the fence on the opposite side, so that’s a trap for the unwary, too. When there actually are pedestrian overpasses, they often make very confusing shapes and even have dead end paths to catch you out. Then there are the footpaths with occasional steps in them to trip up prams and wheelchairs. Apparently an incline is a bit too hard to engineer. But all this pales in comparison to the other pedestrians. First of all, some people seem to want to keep right at all costs (like China) while others want to keep left at all costs (like England). This alone leads to much confusion and chaos. People walk slowly, and randomly stop without getting out of the way. No matter how carefully you try to squeeze around them they get offended. But they definitely have no problem with pushing you: they’ll shove you, push you and walk into you, then insult you for your trouble. If you turn to face them in a way that says, “You just messed with the wrong guy,” they’ll become apologetic, but it always sounds insincere, like they’re just trying to avoid a fist to the face. I’m beginning to think that the best way to survive it is to pretend to be a total arsehole – angry facial expression, fists, push through people, don’t stand aside, and only be considerate of children, expecting mothers, the elderly, and the disabled. Trying to be better than that will just lead to insanity.

It’s clear that moving people efficiently isn’t Hong Kong’s strength. On top of the problems getting from place to place, you run into issues inside buildings. There are double-decker lifts where the deck spacing doesn’t match the floor spacing. This achieves the goal of reducing the number of people in each lift by having separate decks for odd and even floors, but you get twice the stops because it needs to stop at different positions to service each deck. There are buildings with separate call buttons for each lift, so you have to manually decide which lift to call rather than leaving it to a computer to choose efficiently (or you can be a bastard and call all of them so they’ll come one after another). Some buildings have escalators for lower floors and lifts for upper floors with no overlap, so even if you’re on the uppermost of the lower floors, you’ll still have to get all the way to ground floor by escalator before you can get a lift to an upper floor. People won’t even form orderly queues without being forced to, so buildings with popular restaurants have security guards policing the lift queues around lunch time.

Food here can be pretty bad. Most restaurant food is extremely greasy with poor quality meat. Beef is tough with bits of gristle around the edges, and chicken is a fatty mess. You occasionally find a place where the food isn’t so greasy, but they’re the exception, and there’s little correlation between price and quality. Don’t expect your food to look like the picture if the menu’s illustrated – they sometimes go so far as to add disclaimers like “photograph is for illustration purpose only”. Don’t eat at a franchise you recognise unless you want to be disappointed when you realise that it’s nothing like it is back home, and not in a good way. All the fruit is imported, and it’s not much good. The South African Packham pears have been particularly bad. What’s even harder to find than decent food is decent customer service. Most restaurants have rude waiters who make you feel unwanted from the moment you walk in, and they try to push you out the door the moment they have your money. A Thai restaurant on Jaffe Rd in Wan Chai even forgot to supply me with chopsticks or cutlery – they just don’t care. Supermarkets aren’t any better. At the Wellcome in Sheung Wan I told the cashier that my AmEx is ICC, but she still tried to process it by swiping, then when that inevitably failed she tried again with the chip but didn’t let me enter my PIN (just hit the green button) so it failed again. It took her three attempts to get a card payment to work! Isn’t it her job to be able to accept payments? I’m lucky my card didn’t get blocked for that. She was pretty rude the whole time, too. I’ve been to the street markets in Wan Chai. The quality is often poor, the prices vary from cheap to way overpriced, and most of the vendors treat customers as a nuisance. For the most part you get a vastly inferior product for a slightly lower price. It really isn’t worth the trouble of trying to force one’s way through the crowds for such a hit-and-miss experience.

I’ve been shocked at just how rude people generally are around here. Sydney locals generally at least try to help confused people from elsewhere when asked, and baka gaijin in Tokyo will be offered help at every turn whether they need it or not. In Hong Kong in general staff treat customers as a nuisance, strangers are rude on the street, and politely asking for help is likely to get you an angry response. But this all changes if you start throwing money around. The expensive, upmarket boutiques and restaurants in Causeway Bay will all treat you very well, and some of them have pretty good food, but you’ll be paying Sydney prices or more for the privilege. You’re also a king at a club as soon as you open a bar tab. This seems to tie in pretty well with people’s favourite pastime here: conspicuous spending. People seem to want to go out and shop at the most expensive place they can afford, or bet as much as they can on the horses, or to front-load at 7-Eleven and then buy just one of the most expensive drink at a club. Heaps of people come across from the mainland to show off how much they can spend, too. Times Square shopping centre is fat more full when it’s a public holiday in China. There are exceptions to this. Tom Lee Music in Causeway Bay has great staff and great prices. One of the 7-Elevens in Sheung Wan has a top bloke at the counter. The front desk staff at 60 West have been pretty cool and helpful, even when I got back drunk and unable to speak any language other than Japanese. Trusty Congee King in Wan Chai has friendly staff are (a waitress even helped me pick up some coins I dropped on the floor), the food is decent and the prices are low (but the portions are small, but I can’t complain about wonton soup and steamed choy sum for HK$52). Kimchi Garden on Jaffe Rd in Causeway Bay is run by a lovely Korean family and has good lunch sets for low prices. But these places are definitely out of the ordinary here.

Pretence is a big part of Hong Kong culture. Parsons sells over-priced second hand pianos in poor condition to people who really only want them as room ornaments. There’s a place called “American Restaurant” in Wan Chai, but in smaller letters underneath the main name it says “Shanghai Food”. Now it may just be me, but I would’ve thought an American restaurant would sell LA food, or Boston food, or food from some other city in the Americas – Shanghai food would be served at a Chinese restaurant in my reckoning. There are faux Japanese products, like Edo potato crisps. These really deserve elaboration. I saw someone with what looked like a Pringles tube that was branded Edo and had a couple of lines of Japanese text on it. I thought this was a bit odd, as I’ve never seen this snack in Japan. Later at a convenience store I had a look at a pack. There were about two lines of Japanese text that didn’t look like the work of a native speaker and, the rest of the text was Chinese. Turning the can around revealed that it’s made in Korea by a Korean company to sell to Hong Kong people. Implying that it’s somehow Japanese makes it more appealing to certain types of people. Lots of appliances from major Japanese brands are special Chinese market versions made in obscure corners of South-East Asia, too. They have Uniqlo stores here, but they’re more expensive than they are in Tokyo because it’s passed off as a desirable Japanese fashion brand. If you actually go to Japan you’ll see that there’s nothing exclusive about Uniqlo – it’s very much fashion on a budget. (I commented on this to a Frenchwoman working here, and she said she loves to shop at Uniqlo, because even though it may be at the budget end in Japan, the quality is so much higher than the local brands here that it feels like a high-end shopping experience.) Mannings sells the Japanese versions of Pantene shampoo, even though it’s a European brand, it’s made in Thailand, and they have to stick a label with product information and ingredients in Chinese on the back. The Japanese text on the front somehow makes it sell better. There are even more people driving cars that are completely impractical in the city here than there are in Australia.

Lots of little, niggling things are wrong too. None of them would be a huge issue alone, but they all add up. Use of English is just bizarre even though it’s an official language here. There are road signs that say “get in lane”, “blasting” and other seemingly incomprehensible fragments. The warning lights on the trams say “tram break down, please alarm”. To be fair, I don’t know if the Chinese on these signs makes any more sense, so it may not be use of English per se – Hong Kong signs may just be incomprehensible in general. The tap water here is pretty bad. It isn’t bad enough to make you sick if you drink a few glasses of it in a day, but it smells bad, tastes unpleasant, makes your hair dry, and messes with your skin. This creates a huge market for distilled water: every supermarket and convenience store has a big water section. (Claiming that this is a useful increase in productivity is a case of the broken window fallacy: if the tap water were better, people could spend the money freed up on other services, people employed by the distillers would be able to do something productive, and you wouldn’t have an underclass unable to afford decent water.) Beers here taste weaker than the same brand elsewhere – I’ve noticed this with Hoegaarden and Kirin in particular. Here at 60 West there are all sorts of little problems. Washing machines tokens are cheap, but the washing machine is small – a week’s worth of my clothes fills it completely. The washing machine has a scale showing you what temperature each program selection uses, but both hot and cold inlets are connected to the cold water supply, so it’s going to be cold no matter what. The dryer’s automatic cycle dried everything except my socks. There’s nowhere in the room to hang things that can’t be tumble-dried. There are only five coat hangers in the room, which isn’t really enough if you’re planning to stay a month. There’s no wired Internet and I get occasional stuttering on Australian VoIP over WiFi in my room. I couldn’t get WiFi to work in the common room while I waited for the laundry to finish. The toilet roll holder in my bathroom is located so as to be difficult to reach. The shower has a “massaging jet” setting, but the water pressure isn’t high enough for it to feel like much of a massage. If there’s a power outlet in the bathroom for use with the hair dryer or a shaver, I can’t find it. The room’s ironing board isn’t long enough to conveniently iron trousers, and it can’t be adjusted to be high enough for me to iron without bending my back. There’s a sink for washing dishes, but no drain board or rack where you can let them dry. Don’t get me wrong, over all it’s good place to stay. The room’s clean, the housekeeping staff do a good job, the front desk staff are always friendly and helpful, the location’s good, and the price isn’t bad considering how expensive accommodation is in Hong Kong in general. It’s just that like many things in Hong Kong, there are numerous little implementation issues that become irritating when added up.

There are definitely good things about Hong Kong. It’s so small that you’re never far from anything. Bus, tram and train fares are cheap, and taxis are easy to hail and just have a minimum fare rather than a flagfall. Electronic goods and musical instruments are cheap if you go to the right places. There are places where you can get good food cheap, but you’ll have to try a lot of bad and/or overpriced food while you’re searching for them. Alcohol is a lot cheaper than Australia, and Yanjing beer is pretty good (nice malty flavour with that extra alcoholic kick from the rice in the wort). Foreign domestic helpers (DHs) rock, and they party hard on their days off (Sundays and public holidays, and they usually start heading home around seven or eight to meet their curfews, so clubs and bars are open from early afternoon). There are nice locals here, even if they’re harder to notice than the arrogant ones. I’ve written this over the course of a week or so, and in retrospect I’ll really have no trouble surviving here for however long I end up working here. Lots of people like it here – I’ve heard people say they wouldn’t want to go back to places like London or Brisbane – but it’s definitely not the place for me and I don’t think I could ever call it “home”.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, 7 May, 2013 at 1:33 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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