Friday, September 16, 2011

What's Different in HK, Part I

One of the most valuable aspects of traveling to other countries is that it gives the traveler great perspective on how life, society, culture, politics, economics, etc. can be arranged and organized in different ways. Perhaps this is why Mark Twain declared that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”

In that spirit, I thought I’d share some of our experiences in Hong Kong by noting a numbers of things that are different here. Here is Part I, which chronicles some of the minor and even superficial differences. Part II looks at some deeper and more important ones.

Paper Products

People here have some different customs when it comes to the paper products we regularly encounter in the States. First of all, one rarely gets a napkin in restaurants, especially Chinese ones, and never in Cantonese restaurants. Once in a while you’ll get a tissue. And one rarely gets a paper towel in bathrooms. Generally, you have a choice between a weak air dryer and a roll of toilet paper, which they mount in the place where paper towels would normally be. You leave the bathroom either with wet hands or with bits of wet toilet paper stuck to your hands. Now, these practices are not universal—bathrooms in the swanky malls usually have paper towels, and we’ve had napkins in Indian and Italian restaurants. But, it’s the exception.

Water In Restaurants

Like napkins, cold water at the table is rare at most and, especially, Chinese restaurants. They serve tea. Period. We’ve often made a special request for “cool water” and it’s generally ignored. Now, I like tea (Shannon and Berkley are more ambivalent, Quin dislikes it), but I want water with my meals. This practice is particularly hard to understand in light of the fact that the weather here resembles a sauna. After sweating our assess off all day touring around, we come into a restaurant, sit down, and are served…hot tea. Like napkins, however, bottles of water can usually be brought into a restaurant without offending anyone.


Bikes are very common in Hong Kong, and they range from the cheap beaters people use to commute from home to the train stations to really high-end road and mountain bikes (I’ve seen many bikes that would cost over US$5000). In that regard, Hong Kong is not much different than the US. But, what really stands out is the folding bicycle. We have folding bikes in the US, of course, but they’re a small share of the market and are generally pretty utilitarian. Here in Hong Kong, everyone lives in a high rise, so hauling a full-size bike up and down is a real challenge. Many people therefore opt for a folding bike. They’re all over. Probably half the bikes I see are folding bikes.

More impressively, some of these bikes are really high-end. I talked with a group of cyclists on some amazing folding road bikes. Below is a picture of one of them. This bike has some serious componentry on it (for the bike geeks, the crankset was Ultegra and the entire shifting system was SRAM Red). The owner told me it didn’t really have the performance level of a real bike; it was more for “leisure.” Man, I’d like to see the guy’s real bike!

Buying Food

The grocery stores here would be familiar to any Westerner, with a produce section, frozen foods section, aisles organized by product, etc. And Hong Kongers patronize them—they’re often crazily crowded. But what is different here is the wet market. Every town or community has a wet market and they’re often even more crowded than the grocery stores. In the wet market, you can get produce, cuts of meat, live chickens, live seafood, dried goods like noodles, fresh bean curd/tofu, preserved and fermented foods, and so on. Despite the odd and slightly off-putting odor, wet markets are a lot of fun because of the bustle and the amazing variety of foods on display. Like the natives, we regularly procure what we can from the local wet market.

Lines and Crowds

Though I understand it’s more prominent on the mainland, people in Hong Kong don’t mind pushing (and even occasionally throwing elbows) in crowds. Also, no one says “excuse me” or “pardon me” or “sorry” in Cantonese or any language. If you want to get by someone in the train or at the market, you just kind of push by. If you rough someone up in the process, well, that’s just how it goes—no need to apologize. Suits Quin and Berkley perfectly.

Lines are generally very orderly, however. But I have noted that people often cut into lines and, more remarkably, no one seems to really mind. We were once waiting at a taxi stand where a cab was coming only every few minutes. There were three or four parties in front of us. A guy walking toward the taxi stand flagged down a cab as it was arriving, essentially stealing the cab only 40 feet from the stand. I started yelling, certainly incomprehensible to the perpetrator. The other people in line, though, were completely nonplussed. This has been my experience when others have cut into line on different occasions (though I don’t always yell, wanting to avoid an international incident).

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a great trip for you all. I'll be following your adventures with interest! Best to all, Jay