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More Random Hong Kong Observations

January 17th, 2009 · No Comments · Hong Kong, LANG

Again, I reserve the right to come back and write about any one of these items at greater length.

–They should consider a law here on “hands free” walking. At least once a day I almost crash into someone meandering/veering down the street while fiddling with their BlackBerry, or while texting someone, while playing a tiny video game, while dialing their cellphones …

It’s an epidemic,  I tell you. I don’t know what the people are thinking, staring at a tiny screen between their hands — while walking — but I suppose they think just staying with the crowd precludes actually having to watch where they are going. It’s bizarre.

–Which brings to mind a more general topic, along these lines, often remarked upon by Westerners: The ambling Hong Kong foot traffic.

The place is crowded enough. Trying to negotiate any given stretch of sidewalk is a test of skill and planning. One made more difficult by that 10-20 percent of people who … are … just … strolling.

I actually have been involved in discussions with Westerners trying to figure out what this is about.

One older Englishman, a lifelong expat from what I could tell, had the oddest suggestion. That Hongkongers hate wearing glasses because they are particularly vain, and thus a lot of them can barely see where they are going, he said. So they walk slowly, following someone else. Hmm. The man wasn’t kidding when he said this.

A colleague had a more likely explanation: That when you have an island where everybody lives in a tiny apartment, just being on the street is a form of escape. Of freedom. And that lots of local pedestrians are in no hurry because they don’t want to get back to their tiny apartment anytime soon. They are, in fact, killing time. Going nowhere in particular. Even though most everyone else is in something of a hurry to get somewhere.

I have my own theory. That cruising down the sidewalk at 1 mph is a form of passive aggressiveness. “Hey! I exist! I am not just a number in a crowded city! You have to see me and plan for me and work your way around me and acknowledge I am here!” Maybe in tandem with the “just getting out of the house” thing.

–Hongkongers love their salt. Americans eat a lot of salt, but I think HK’s population has us beat. With their soy sauce, and MSG and just the generic craving for salt. They even sell “extra salty” potato chips here (along with shrimp-flavored and seaweed-flavored potato chips), and when did you ever eat potato chips and think, “those chips were OK, but they could have used a little more salt”?

–It took nearly four months, but I finally saw my first display of local drunkenness, in public. I was walking to the subway on Friday night when I saw a young woman, in the company of two men, who had emerged from a car pulled over on Java Road — bent over the street, throwing up into gutter. I suppose she could have been ill ill, but I don’t think so. They all were dressed for going out and the guys were acting goofy.

–There is little palpable ethnic tension here … but at the same time, ethnic groups rarely mix. I’m looking at a Web site that claims Hong Kong is 95 percent Chinese, which seems a bit high, because you don’t have to look hard to find Indians and Pakistanis, as well as Filipinos and Indonesians (most of them female and domestic helpers) and Anglos (mainly Americans, Brits and Aussies involved in finance).

At any rate, you almost never see Chinese with anyone who isn’t Chinese. Nor Indians with anyone who isn’t Indian. Or the Anglos with someone who isn’t an Anglo — and, often even among their own nationality. (That is, it is rare to see Brits with Yanks, or Yanks with Aussies, etc.)

It’s actually rather strange. Not dangerous strange but “odd” strange. It’s as if everyone just decided “I’ll stick to my own kind, thank you” … but at the same time is polite and helpful to other ethnicities. Maybe the flip side of the USA, where ethnic groups do mix (far more than here, and it’s not close) … but where there also is a much higher sense of ethnic tension and hostility.

Language is an issue, certainly. Hongkongers learn some English in school,  but few are even vaguely fluent in it (far less than I expected). Also, a lot of the Chinese here apparently are first-generation immigrants from the mainland. Who have never studied English. Anglos rarely speak Chinese, of course. The Indians almost always can speak English, but they seem to prefer their birth language. Matter of fact, as I write this, I can hear about a dozen Indian men at their usual Saturday night haunt, outside a parking garage across the street, telling stories in Hindi, Bengali, whatever.

Another issue seems to be schools. My sense is that Hongkongers go to schools with “their own.” This seems particularly true of Euros and Chinese. The Indians might make up for a tiny minority in Chinese schools or Euro schools and, actually, the rare ethnic mixing I have seen (aside from dating, which I consider a different issue) is the stray Indian/Pakistani with Anglos or with Chinese.

–Hong Kong has one of the world’s lowest birth rates. Maybe the lowest. In 2006, the birth rate was 0.9 children per adult woman, far below the “replacement rate” of, like, 2.1 births per woman. I attribute it to crowding. If you’re going to have a kid, you probably need at least a two-bedroom apartment, and that’s going to cost you more than you might be able to afford.

–And speaking of crowds … someone was talking about the hotels that rent by the hour, not more than a few blocks from where I live, and laughing about it. You know, the red light district of Wan Chai. And someone else noted that it’s not all cheesy and illicit. That some of it involves Regular Joe/Joetta lovers who are just in search of some privacy in one of the most crowded places on earth.

–I can go days here without seeing five kids between the ages of 3 and 12. I guess they stash all those kids in school, then take them straight home.

Under 3, sure, I see them with their doting parents, sitting in strollers or being carried. (Apparently, children under 3 here don’t walk, in public, perhaps as a safety issue.) And after middle-school age, when kids apparently are deemed old enough to travel the subway alone, the kids can be seen again. Lots of high-schoolers on the trains, especially on Fridays, all wearing their school uniforms.

–Most schools I have seen are five or six stories tall. With much of the ground floor given over to a playground. I wonder how many five- or six-story elementary schools there are in the U.S.  A dozen? Total?

–“Subway” here is used in the British sense. As a path leading under a road. The underground train is the MTR. In England, it is The Underground. You figure this out fairly quickly, like when you see a sign reading “subway” and follow it … and end up on the other side of the street, no nearer to “the MTR” then when you first saw the “subway” sign.

–I continued to be impressed/amazed at the manners and deportment of Hong Kong kids.  The small ones almost never cry or shout. The older ones rarely are loud and, from what I can tell, never are purposely rude (or even accidentally rude). You know how Americans often feel a frisson of fear when four or five 16-year-olds get on the bus? No one feels that, here. It can be five teenage boys, it could be 50. They’re not going to give you any trouble.

–Almost no one here smells bad. Which you come to appreciate on the MTR. Go to Paris and ride the Metro, and you can count on being assaulted by body odor. Here? Nope. Aside from the occasional guy who had too much garlic for lunch.

–Almost no one here is dirty. Or obviously sweaty. The personal habits of the overwhelming majority of people are impeccable, by American standards, anyway. On days when I am taking the MTR the two stops back from jogging at Victoria Park, I will be, without question, the sweatiest/grimiest person on the train. I will have no real competition. And I have become so conscious of it that I take with me an extra T-shirt, so I can wear the clean/dry one back to the apartment.

–Hongkongers are much more touch-feely than I expected. And not just young lovers. Parents and children (whether 60 years old and 30, or 30 and 6) routinely hold hands. Girls who are friends often hold hands, as the Europeans do. And it isn’t unusual for a young man to be seen walking down the street with his arm draped around the shoulder of his pal. (Though I can’t say I’ve seen men over the age of 30 do that.)

–Hong Kong women certainly give credence to the perceived reluctance of Chinese women to let the sun shine on their skin.  If the sun is out, so are the hats and the umbrellas. Even on days with only occasional sun, women who are out jogging wear enormous visors that cast shadows over their faces.

As I understand it, sun-darkened skin, in China, still is seen as a mark of a lower-class existence, because you are working out of doors. In the fields, etc. Meanwhile, Europeans are out frying themselves the world over.

–And one last one, maybe the oddest thing of all, at this point in history.

Hong Kong is the first foreign place I’ve been to in a long time … where locals sometimes wear apparel with “USA” on it — or even American flags. It is not unusual. At all. It’s not like every third kid has a “Born in the USA” shirt on, but if you’re paying attention, at least once a day you will see someone wearing an American flag somewhere on their clothes.

I have a sense that anti-Americanism … just doesn’t really exist here. Maybe because Hongkongers are a little nervous about that Chinese socialist monolith right next door? And I can tell you that it is very, very rare to see a Hongkonger wearing a China flag.

Anyway, yes, any Americans who plan to visit … don’t worry about buying stuff with a Maple Leaf on it, so people think you’re Canadian. You can wear your American gear, and no one will say anything. They might even consider you fashionable.


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