The true essence of a place does not exist without its people and the culture they create and perpetuate. When we travel, we usually only have the opportunity to experience a very small slice of this – then we craft our lasting impressions of that place and its people based on those sparse data points, filling in the gaps perhaps over time with repeat visits – but more likely just in our minds, with assumptions or romanticized (or negative) notions of what should fill those gaps. It is an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of brief visits.
If you have (or create) the opportunity to move abroad, however, you then have the distinct privilege of immersing yourself more fully and (hopefully) gaining a more complete understanding of a place and its people.
After living here in Hong Kong for just over a year or so now, I of course cannot claim that I have fully grasped everything about it, not even close. And since Cantonese unfortunately was not passed down through the generations of my family, and I am convinced it is the most complicated language on the planet (other than English, of course) – I, like most expats, can only engage in the most superficial of conversations with locals who cannot speak English.
That said, I have done my best to interact – and thus learn and absorb.
When most ‘outsiders’ consider Hong Kong, they envision its skyscrapers, glitzy shopping malls, and unabashed party scene. All of these still ring true as emblematic of this city. And its shopgirls (and boys), shoppers galore (although many are not locals), and partygoers are therefore, for better or worse, fundamental to the fabric of HK.
But of course, there is so much more!
The living remnants of its colorful history – the old traditional medicine shops, dried food shops, barber shops, and dai pai dongs (open-air food stalls) – are a key underpinning of HK. I have mixed feelings about the quality of the overall food scene here, but there is no question that HKers LOVE to eat. I also have very mixed feelings and admitted biases about traditional medicine. While I respect the idea of tradition, the scientist and animal protector in me struggle to accept many of its ingredients as either proven effective or even in the vicinity of ethically sourced (demand for traditional Chinese medicine is largely responsible for several species of animals now facing extinction). But again, for better or worse, these hallmarks of Hong Kong are unlikely to go anywhere for quite some time. Locals, especially of the older generation, are passionate about them.
Many HKers are also quite devout, with about half the population estimated to adhere to a religion – mostly Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism – or Christianity or Catholicism, which were more encouraged during British rule. Displays of devotion are especially apparent during important celebrations, such as Chinese New Year.
Lively markets will live in my memory for years to come as one of the absolute icons of Hong Kong. I try to steer clear of the more touristy ones. And we’re quite lucky that we happen to live directly adjacent to a pretty authentic one – the bustling Wan Chai Market. Whenever I need a little positive distraction, I wander through that market. With the distinct exception of the time I stumbled upon the back of a truck holding two (very recently) gutted carcasses of enormous pigs (I will spare you the photo), our neighborhood market is a key feature that makes me really love living where we do. With its daytime hustle-and-bustle, the sheer variety of goods on offer (some I’ll never get used to, like the pig faces and sheep heads), and the odd mix of hawkers who seem both slightly indifferent yet still eager to sell – its overall energy is contagious. The sights, sounds, and smells – intoxicating, slightly bizarre, always intriguing, almost always entertaining! Ambling through its atmospheric stalls reminds me that I do indeed live in Hong Kong – and that is a very good thing.
The same could be said about many of HK’s countless street markets, selling everything from fresh fruit to ridiculously inexpensive (and likely questionable) clothing, trinkets, and home goods. If you come here and never walk through one, you are missing out!
And don’t be shy about bargaining – it is a source of all markets’ vibrancy and indeed expected in many cases, even in some stores. You’d be surprised what you can bargain for here. Mark even bargained for a high-end watch in a jewelry store after doing some price checks around the block, and I negotiated for my Nikon D810 – and yes, both are the real thing. If you’re in the spirit, the game of it all is quite entertaining. Shop clerks will sometimes feign offense and tell you a lower price is not possible – sometimes it’s the truth, sometimes it’s just a first step. More often than not, this is followed by a good-natured exchange and a few laughs – and eventually, a (slightly) better price for whatever you decided to purchase.
Speaking of ‘not possible’, on a more frustrating front, you’ll sometimes hear locals respond to a request with a simple ‘cannot’. This is occasionally accompanied by a slightly infuriating raise of crossed arms to drive the point home. During our first few months here, I honestly had to fight an urge to punch someone when this gesture was presented to me – particularly when a request was so simple as to be absurd to refuse it – such as swapping a side dish at a restaurant, even when offering to pay more. Now that we’ve been here a year, we have adapted and learned to laugh when it happens. When people tell you that living in Asia teaches you patience – perhaps this is one way this occurs!
I joke, but it is an example of narrow thinking that we have observed with some frequency here. Add to that the inexplicable queues for what-often-turns-out-to-be-nothing-worthwhile. Sometimes I do wonder what goes through folks’ heads!
It’s not altogether surprising, I suppose. HK is part of China after all, and for years, it was a country that celebrated blending in with and following the crowd, more than individuality and independent thought. But that is changing, and there are certainly those who break the mold. More on that in my next and final post in this series.
Like many cities, Hong Kong is characterized by extremes. This is particularly true on the money front. With the world’s most expensive real estate market (ok – by some accounts, perhaps #2), HK is often perceived as a city of exorbitant wealth. It is, partly – but of course, there are many who live on the other end of the spectrum (and many in-between). Over the course of the last year-plus, we’ve seen only a couple truly homeless people. But that doesn’t mean that poverty is nonexistent. It’s just hidden from general view. You may have read about or seen footage of HK’s cage homes and shoebox apartments – which are basically what they sound like. While some live in luxurious flats, others live in cramped quarters of relative squalor. This, by the way, is part of what has fueled the angry albeit mostly orderly protests of late (which are finally being cleared 2 months after they began). Much of the wealth that populates HK is actually attributed to mainland Chinese, not locals.
The concept of wealth is certainly idolized here – perhaps more so than in other cities. At least it is talked about more here, from what I have observed. Money is an awkwardly common topic of conversation among many. Status is overtly showcased by those who have it (or wish to suggest they have it). ‘Peacocking’ in all its shallowness and superficiality is all too common – from way-too-obvious brandishing of designer bag logos to talk about one’s ridiculously expensive car (that could be only driven with justice somewhere off the main island) to the not-so-casual mention of which luxury apartment building one lives in or one’s wealthy/famous friends. But I can’t say this is really attributed to pure locals, as I have actually observed it more commonly with expats and mainlanders.
Sometimes that competitive spirit manifests in a more fun manner, though. HKers enjoy a good competitive sport, whether dragon boating, horse racing, or racing miniature motorized boats at the local park. Less fun competition? Trying to get your kid into the best private international school (or so I’ve heard).
Distinguishing elements of HK are its rich natural landscape and, with the exceptions of a brutally humid summer and a brief, slightly brisk winter, quite temperate weather overall. HKers embrace this and revel in the outdoors whenever possible. For some, this means hiking on one of its numerous trails. For others, it simply means hanging with friends or even exercising in the local park – perhaps even a nighttime game in the rain. For yet others, it means prolonged cocktailing on one of HK’s miniature or sprawling rooftop terraces. The common thread? Usually socializing of some sort.
And HK loves to celebrate! There are numerous festivals, some with deep cultural or historical roots, others created more recently (some more for the sake of having a good time than anything else). These near-constant parties can be found in parks, in the streets, almost anywhere. The party culture is embedded, and you are expected to participate!
HK is a fun place to live, whether you’re a kid, a grandparent, or somewhere in between. There’s something for everyone, as long as you put yourself out there and take advantage. And almost universally, family is a focal point for many of these festivities, often spanning generations.
Bright lights, big spectacles – it’s all good…
Families here are also extended – in a way. Almost everyone has a helper. Labor here is so inexpensive, anyone with a moderate amount of money can employ a helper to take care of all the mundane tasks of daily living, including everything related to child care. There are several hundred thousand helpers in HK, roughly 1/2 of whom are Filipino, 1/2 Indonesian. They comprise a fraction of HK’s population but are quite heavily integrated.
Particularly on Sundays (their one official day off), these domestic workers seem to take over the city – spending time with friends in a multitude of public spaces, even the Ikea ‘living rooms’!
Helpers often live with families in minute slivers of space that most would consider the equivalent of a closet. These women are often a primary source of income for their families back home and so put up with sparse living conditions. Unfortunately, there are occasional reports of abuse, one of which was widely publicized earlier this year – likely only a small sample of what really goes on behind some closed doors.
But many lead a relatively content life here and become a very key part of families – indeed an important part of the overall culture of HK. That is in part due to their own contributions to local culture, but also in part because they alleviate the burden of many parents here – freeing those parents to engage with the city a bit more than they could otherwise.
Before we moved, I wondered what HK would be like for yet another family ‘extension’ – pets! I assumed that HK might be frighteningly similar to the mainland in its treatment of animals – which is to say (with the exception of caring pet owners themselves), not very well, and quite infamously, even as a potential food item. As a pet owner myself, I was concerned if I would have access to the basics of decent pet food and veterinary care. Needless to say, my concerns were completely unfounded! Pets here lead pampered lives. Specialty pet stores, vets, and pet spas seem to dot every neighborhood here, and owners treat especially their dogs like – well, essentially miniature, furry people.
I suppose I am not perfectly objective about my closing thoughts on the culture of HK. But I still think it’s fair to say that expats are integral to the city. They still comprise a small percentage of HK’s total population, but they (I should say ‘we’) are visible almost everywhere, at least on the main island. I’d like to believe we are contributors to HK society – and certainly add diversity to the city. Even those who do not actively work here play a part in supporting businesses and the overall economy. But most locals are relatively ambivalent about expats – neither negative nor overly enthusiastic about their presence – unless they are seen as a target customer, of course, in which case they may be treated like (temporary) best friends.
As an expat, one challenging fact-of-life to adjust to here is the constant efflux of expats. Expats cycle through HK it seems in a flash – so one must get accustomed to building friendships that quickly become long-distance. The silver lining? There are always new folks to meet (and no, they don’t all work in finance). And the world can be small if you make it that way – you never know what reunions can occur when you travel. I’m pretty confident (and happy) that some of the friendships we’ve started here will continue for years to come, even with those who have moved beyond HK’s borders.
And let’s not forget about all you visitors…you help HK thrive!
Overall, Hong Kong is a fascinating amalgam of old and new, east and west. Elaborate festivals, temples filled with heady incense smoke, markets abuzz with activity, over-the-top shopping malls, artsy corners, hidden little gems – and people fuel all of it. Despite its stereotype, its heartbeat is not perpetually fast. It has its celebratory and party moments, and there can be crowds – but it’s not overwhelming. It’s all relative, I suppose – but coming from NYC, sometimes HK feels downright slow to me. But even if you find HK to be a bit hectic, know that it also knows how to chill out – as long as you do. Quiet and peaceful nooks can be found if you know where to look. You can escape the masses, massive skyscrapers, and mega-malls – and quickly. Head for the mountains or the beaches, or another island adventure nearby.
Along the way, you’re bound to encounter some interesting folks – locals or not. And as I always say, people make the place. Take a few moments to absorb and immerse – and you might be charmed, too. Or at least have the experience of a lifetime.
All images © 2014 deb fong photography