An expat gives advice to newcomers to Hong Kong, as she reluctantly bids the city farewell…
It is Thursday night, and I am anticipating a phone call from a man. Although he is calling to arrange an assignation, it is not of the romantic variety: he is due to come and cut off my internet and television, because I am leaving Hong Kong.
After two and a half years in the city I have grown to call home, I am heading back to London. I am discovering which forms are required to close a bank account, just as I have mastered the most basic of taxi-based instructions in Cantonese. However, it occurs to me that I may have some advice for someone traipsing through the arrivals hall of Hong Kong airport. Here are 10 things to bear in mind:
1. Food and cooking
When people say that Hong Kong is one of the best places to eat in the world, they are not lying. For those with a sense of adventure, chicken feet and bird’s nest soup are commonplace, while you are never more than a street corner away from a steaming bowl of noodles. However, do not feel guilty if you shy away from the Sichuan heat and Shanghainese richness in favour of the plentiful pho kitchens.
Perhaps my taste buds have altered since I arrived, but I swear the sushi surpasses that in Tokyo, and Bangkok pales in comparison when feasting on the local tom yum. That the city is such a cultural melting pot contributes to its gourmet wonder: my favourite restaurant is, in fact, Argentinian. This said, it is a good thing that eating out is so glorious, as the kitchens in Hong Kong’s compact flats leave a lot to be desired. When flat-hunting myself, I found a plug-in hot plate presented by hopeful estate agents as a pièce de résistance.
2. Comfort over culture
As borne out by the eating-out-over-cooking conundrum, you may find it hard to over-exert yourself in Hong Kong. Almost every young couple has a helper to act as sometime cook, cleaner and nanny. The arts scene is nothing like London’s or New York’s, and the extortionate price of books may leave you reeling in the direction of a mani-pedi – a far cheaper habit to indulge than a literary one. As a result, even on a minimum wage, I have never been so lazy or well groomed.
Taxis are plentiful and cheap, and you must take them at every opportunity: the culmination of nearly all taxi rides I have taken on the Island has been less than a London cab would charge for the pleasure of your stepping aboard. However, note that Hong Kong taxi-driving involves heavy stop-start application of the accelerator.
Octopus deserves a mention of its own. If a London Oyster card could pay for your supermarket shop, parking, fast food, sandwich and coffee shops, a trim at the barber and a round of drinks in a pub (thank you, The Old China Hand), it would be fair to begin comparing the two.
5. Book lice
Buy a dehumidifier. When I first arrived, I assumed I could do without dehumidifiers and rice cookers. I have managed without the latter, but the former has saved my wardrobe from mildew, dried my clothes in the absence of a tumble drier, and rid me of an infestation of book lice. It took us a while to notice these tiny creatures, tottering sleepily around the walls. By the time we did, they existed in their hundreds. Though harmless, and difficult to see, they alarmed my boyfriend into a regular and uncharacteristic frenzy of vacuum cleaning the walls and ceilings. After several months, we were told what they were, and why they liked our walls in particular: the damp paint. A bottle of bleach, and a dehumidified flat later, and they were gone.
6. Ladies’ Night and Happy Valley
Wednesday nights are party nights in Hong Kong. Ladies’ Night means free drinks for women all night – you can sup on double vodkas or champagne until dawn if you go to the right places (and believe me, I did). It is also the night for races at Happy Valley: an intoxicating hubbub of beer tents and betting in the heart of Hong Kong high-rises.
7. Rugby Sevens
The Rugby Sevens Tournament is a yearly occurrence in the vein of Happy Valley Races, a time when the city comes into its own: a spirit of good-natured carnage. Only at the Hong Kong Sevens could one find oneself ordering a drink next to the Stig, complete with helmet.
Further to the Hong Kong pursuit of perfection (see 10), there is an all-encompassing local sense of paranoia. When you move to the city, people will warn you that you will not be able to walk anywhere in the summer thanks to the heat, and that an indeterminate period ranging from October to April is bitter. Neither is true. You are more likely to feel cold at any time as a result of constant and violent air conditioning, even during the frostbitten South China Sea winters.
There is a warning system in place which releases advice such as the following: “The minimum temperatures in the urban areas for tomorrow will be around 12C. People are advised to put on warm clothes and to avoid adverse health effects due to the cold weather. If you must go out, please avoid prolonged exposure to wintry winds.
An outbreak of swine flu in a Wan Chai hotel led to the lockdown of the hotel, and all local schools and nurseries for well over a week. My decision to go on holiday to Cambodia was met with the kind of concern I might expect were I to moot a weekend break in Helmand Province.
Warnings about typhoons are, however, universally applauded by the blasé and ignorant expat population. Despite technological advances meaning that typhoons are no longer a great danger, provided you stay indoors to avoid wind-borne projectiles such as flower pots, a Typhoon Warning Number 8 (T8) results in time off work. As a result, there is a pervading, joyous anticipation, once typhoon warning signals are hoisted, that lends a party-like atmosphere to the city. This is evident in the naming of a Wan Chai bar (“Typhoon”) and local “T8” ale.
10. Efficiency and convenience
In Hong Kong, you are never further than a harried glance away from a 7-Eleven. Should the need for a bottle of snake wine, a “Big Sheet” packet of seaweed, or a bottle of all-purpose Chinese ointment strike you at 3.10am on a Tuesday, one of these stores will not let you down. This is just one of Hong Kong’s many conveniences which make life easier, just like the MTR transit rail system, which is frighteningly efficient. Each morning, I can time my departure from the station to the nearest minute. Connections happen seamlessly, with connecting trains gliding into adjacent platforms as if by magic.
Coming from London, I remain enchanted by such high standards, while seasoned Hong Kongers expect them. This is why, when things don’t go to plan, everyone panics. Once, an underground train was delayed by over five minutes. This was reported in the South China Morning Post, an internationally respected Hong Kong newspaper.
Much as I may laugh, I find myself tutting in righteous indignation at the opening hours of my local off-licence, charmingly named The Relax Shop. While fairly sure it keeps hours for which I would have a healthy respect in the UK, I struggle to avoid thinking of it as the Too Relaxed Shop. True to form, it was closed when my boyfriend and I became engaged some time before midnight in January last year.
Undeterred, we managed to procure some champagne from an obliging 7-Eleven, and proceeded to go out dancing at 4.30am. I find it hard to believe that this would have been so readily possible in London, and it is one of the many reasons I shall miss Hong Kong so much when I get on that plane.
In case you also need some of that taxi Cantonese, straight on is zek hoi.