The view from "The Peak".
Hong Kong is a fantastic city, a megatropolis that combines ancient Chinese tradition with high-tech modernity. There always seems to be things to do here, particularly if you are a fan of food consumption. I am tempted to say that HK is a city that never sleeps, but that would be untrue, as the city does like a good sleep-in - a great many shops and restaurants are open late, but breakfast is harder to find than you'd expect in a city with such a great food culture. I've had an awesome time here, met some great people and learned many things.
BUT... after a week among the graceful, respectful and polite Thais, our arrival in HK came as quite a shock to the system. My first impression of Hong Kong was that it was a city full of assholes. Fortunately the impression only lasted less than 24 hours, but in that short time I was treated to a real lesson in the differences between Chinese culture and that of my more familiar SE Asia. Years of hanging out with Chinese-Australias failed to prepare me for this.
In Thailand, everyone seems pretty chilled - why, one of their most famous monuments is the "lounging buddha". I didn't see a single person running for the train, pushing through a crowd, or looking particularly stressed out. HK has a really different edge to it; my friends warned me about this, but witnessing it first-hand was stunning and hilarious. Lesson One was in the queue for a bus at HK airport. The line was quite long, which led to various attempts (seemingly all by elderly Hongkies) to get on the bus before anyone else. One guy walked up near the front of the line and asked where the bus was going. Upon receiving his answer, he sneakily stayed where he was, as if he'd been at the front of the line all along. Unfortunately for him, the couple he asked were familiar with this tactic and reminded him where the back of the line was. Once the bus arrived and opened its doors, what was once an orderly queue descended into a rabble, with people from the rear rushing to the front as if the queue had never existed. One old lady was trying to push past us, but when Andi purposefully moved his suitcase to block her path, she actually climbed through a fence in order to jump the queue. She must have been about 70.
Granny don't take no mess
Which leads me to an interesting facet of Asian culture - the old lady with attitude. Western grandmothers tend to be fairly quiet, good-natured and are a bit intimidated by people between the ages of 11 and 60. Anyone who has spent time in Hong Kong, Springvale or Box Hill, will know that they are different kettle of fish. You'll find lots of scary Asian grannies who will take no crap from anyone. Having reached a grand old age and popped out lots of offspring, they seem to have decided that they've earned the right to do whatever the hell they want. This includes barging to the front of queues, giving anyone who displeases them a piece of their mind, and jabbing unsuspecting victims with their walking sticks when words just aren't enough. While I suspect that the Chinese have more of this brand of senior citizen than other Asian nations (like the exceedingly polite Japanese, Indonesians and Thais), anyone who has met my late Indonesian nenek would recognise this as not just a Chinese thing.
For all the Asian females reading this, I may be describing your future.
How to be a Hongky, Part 1: Talking Like a Hongky Ah
To put more "flavour" into the conversation, Malaysians love to put lah on the end of every phrase, while Indonesians use sih, dong or loh. To talk English like a Hongky, end every phrase with ah; it doesn't matter if its a statement or a question. Typical conversation:
"How much is that ah?"
"Eh, too much ah. Fifteen ah."
"Thank you ah."
Got to give respect to the Cantonese - their language is probably the hardest ever devised by mankind. To basically need to be a genius to get your head around the 6 tones (Mandarin only has 4). For those who don't understand how the tonal system in Chinese works, it means that a word can have a variety of completely different meanings depending on whether you say it with a rising tone, falling tone, a flat tone and so on. And that's without even mentioning the writing. Add to this the fact that most Hongkies speak at least a bit of 2 other notoriously difficult languages (English and Mandarin), and they get much props from me on that front.
How to be a Hongky, Part 1a: Being offensive in Cantonese (this section comes with a coarse language warning, at least for Cantonese speakers.)
Cantonese insults are quite creative. And as in almost every culture, the worst stuff you can say to someone relates to their mama. Below are some examples: (these may not be 100% correct by the way)
Diu! - ****!
Diu lay! - **** you!
Diu lay lo mo! - **** your mama!
Diu lay lo mo chao hay! - **** your mama's stinky ####!
Pok gai! - Literally "to fall over in the street". Equivalent to "drop dead!"
Pok gai ham ga zhan! - I hope you and all your family die in the street!
Ham sap - horny
Ham sap gwai lo - horny Westerner
Thanks to Helen and Vivian for those.
How to be a Hongky Part 2: Learning the Hong Kong Attitude
A Russian co-worker once informed me that "We Russians are the only people ruder than the Chinese." Well, I haven't been to Russia, but he was certainly onto something about the Chinese, at least in HK.
Walking around the city and people-watching, the term that seems to best describe Hongkies is self-absorbed. Everyone seems locked into their own little world, unaware that other people exist outside their own bubble. This is reflected in the way people walk around. There are 2 possible modes of walking in the busy HK streets:
1. Frantically push past people, squeezing you body through the crowd. If you bump someone, don't apologise, make eye contact or otherwise acknowledge that the person exists. After all, that person is not important - the only thing that matters is getting where you want to go.
2. Dawdle as if you have absolutely nowhere to go and nothing to do. Look mostly at the ground. Walk slowly and aimlessly, occasionally stopping in the middle of the footpath to chat or look around. Pay no mind to the fact that there is a crowd of people behind you trying to get past, as they are not important. If you want to sms someone, do it while walking, or alternatively if you have one of those hand-held miniature computer game consoles, play it while walking through a busy crowd. Don't worry about looking up to avoid people bumping into you, that's their responsibility.
Walking gets downright deadly when it starts raining and everyone pulls out their umbrellas. The tines of an umbrella can easily poke you in the eye, and this seems especially likely in a city which is (a) extremely crowded, (b) full of short people, and (c) full of people who don't seem to care if they do poke you.
Lesson Two in Hong Kong rudeness was at the Stanford Hotel (or Sie-Tan-Fook, as the Cantonese pronounced Stanford). In Bangkok, our hotel staff bent over backwards to make us feel welcome, helping us with out bags and showing us the rooms. At the Stanford, after lugging our heavy baggage from the bus stop, the extent of their helpfulness after check in was "here's your key." Thanks a bunch.
The Chinese are renowned for their business acumen and ability to make money. Ironic then that the art of customer service has never really sunk in here. I'm sure in business school they teach you that being friendly to your customers will make them feel valued, meaning they will come back and thus bring you more money. This doesn't mean much to many Chinese workers, who will give you the bare minimum and take out all the trivialities like smiles, "Hello" and "Thankyou".
In Thailand, in every place of business you enter or walk past, you are greeted with the ubiquitous "Sawadee-kaa" in a warm and gentle tone. In Indonesia people greet you with a smile and every exchange is followed by a friendly "terima kasih" (thank you) and "sama-sama" (same to you). Most Hongkies in service occupations will just stare at you until you tell them what you want. Then they will perform the task with a complete lack of joy. It's amazing how many waiting staff look like they are about to yell at you. The ultimate was the old lady selling fruit slushies on the roadside who told us off for the heinous crime of asking what a few of the drinks were. "So many questions, so many fingers pointing! And for such a small inexpensive thing. Hurry up and make a choice!"
Upper-echelon restaurants tend to be much better in terms of friendly service, and I have to say that one place in Shenzhen (across the border in mainland China) had perhaps the loveliest and most enthusiastic service of anywhere I have ever been. My Chinese colleagues assure me that is definitely the exception rather than the rule.
How to be a Hongky Part 3: Hongky Names
One interesting aspect of Chinese people outside China is the names they pick for themselves. For example, Chinese Indonesians usually adopt Indonesian names, yet tend to pick far more flamboyant names than native Indonesians. The funniest example I have come across was a guy named Ifan Satria Nusantara, which translates as "Ifan the Warrior of the Archipelago".
Chinese in English-speaking countries (like Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia) can get even more original with their names. As well as a full Chinese name, they are often given an English name; or in many cases, they select an English name themselves. There are various categories - regular, surname-as-first-name, and just plain out-there names.
Regular names: These are those English names that Chinese just love. This category includes names like Penny, Jackie, Lawrence and Kenneth. Malaysian Chinese love to name their kids Kelvin and Eugene, while Indonesian Chinese have a peculiar affinity for the names Irwin and Rudy.
Surname-as-first-name: This has become quite popular amongst Westerners - picking a name which usually a surname, but using it as a first name instead. Chinese take this to the extreme. Examples are Jackson, Harris, Davidson, Wellington and Wilson.
Out-there names: This usually happens when a Chinese teenager with only a Chinese name decides on an English name without consulting the advice of others. The strong teenage desire to be different/funky/cool leads to some really unorthodox name choices. 3 that I have heard about are Raysond (he was unable to choose between Jason and Raymond), Potato, and Cereal. I'm not kidding. I imagine you would get sick of having the same conversations over and over again:
"Hi, I'm Potato. Nice to meet you. Yeah, that's right. Potato. No, seriously! My name is Potato. Just like the vegetable... why are you looking at me like that?"
Like this? You'll also like:
Hong Kong / Macau / Shenzhen - weird Chinese food and persistent salesmen
Hong Kong names, part 2
The tale of the "Grass-Mud Horse" (or "F*** your Mother")
Salam from Indonesia, March 2006
Jakarta travel notes
Salam from Malaysia, March 2006