Our recent pro-democracy protests (#umbrellarevolution) have transformed the humble rain-shield into our greatest symbol. Like a third limb, they’re in every handbag, briefcase and school bag, and have been given deity-like qualities. Along with protecting us from monsoon grade rain and blister-strength sun, the umbrella can now add tear-gas-and-pepper-spray shield to its repertoire. Watch out for old ladies using them as poking devices when the crowds don’t budge.
We’re always in a hurry. Power-stabbing lift buttons to make them go faster or tutting at pregnant ladies who are walking too slow is de rigeur. Minibus drivers all think they’re really racers on the inside — especially those plying the Mong Kok-Sai Kung route. Speeding is such a lifestyle choice, transit drivers are legally required to display giant speed monitors so passengers can see EXACTLY how fast they’re going and report their asses. Stand still at Causeway Bay’s five-way intersection and the crowd will sweep you along — no walking required. That waiter shooing you to your booth and slamming down your drinks? He’s not rude, just way efficient. When you go home, everything will seem like it’s in slo-mo.
Our need for speed extends to our vocabulary. People from Hong Kong love to shorten things that don’t actually need abbreviation. 7-Eleven become Seven (se-fun). Hang gai (walk the streets) means you want your cha siu fan to go. Zhou sa (hold the sand) means you want your coffee unsweetened. Leng zhai (hot guy) is a bowl of plain rice and leng zhai fa zhong (hot guy with makeup) is rice with extra sauce. Confused? We all are. More ammo for those who think we’re walking, talking, riddle-making machines.
Cantonese is not spoken like it’s written, making it a bitch to master. Distinguishing between the 12 tones ups the ante — it’s easy to call your mother a horse by accident. Canto-slang changes monthly and our swearing twists the panties of even the most-seasoned truckers.
Sooner or later, you’ll learn these indispensable Hong Kongisms:
Whoever said Chinese were inscrutable has never heard us in our element. Skyping with the parentals, dim sum with 30-member extended fam-damilies or haggling for a catty (0.7kg) of choy sum is all conducted well above 90 decibels. Maybe it’s our language, but even the sweetest conversations sound like blue murder. Get over our “lack of manners” and you’ll soon be bellowing with gusto like the rest of us. Or we’ll just drown you out in the process. If your ears develop a constant ringing, it means you’ve gone native.
A meal without wrestling to pay is just not worth eating. Manhandling waiters just so we can access the bill is a common form of post-meal entertainment. If all else fails, generic cash is just shoved or thrown until the poor server is left with a pile of red 100s and two sides refusing to budge. My 84-year-old grandma once out-ran my 6’1″, karate-black-belt boyfriend to the counter and ripped money out of his hands. Plus, she threatened the server with never coming back if he refused her money. It’s mostly ritual and one side always gives way, promising to pay next time when the whole shebang repeats itself.
Numbers don’t need to be said out loud, and in our free-wheeling city of commerce and fierce haggling, flashing a hand sign (not a gang side) is all you need. What the world knows as “hang ten” is our sign for six. A curled index finger is nine. And two crossed index fingers is 10. We even use strings of numbers to replace entire sentences. Incredibly lazy or super stealthy — you decide.
With minor exceptions, solo eating makes you a social leper. We level-up on “sharing is caring” and only enjoy food when we have to fight for scraps. Just kidding — real HKers know there’s always too much food. Our round tables facilitate eating family-style, where the number of dishes outnumbers the diners. We like variety and the ability to taste all the foods — no matter the cuisine.
You’ll spot the HK group at the fancy French place straight away — everyone will order something different, there’ll be numerous rounds of plate swapping AND we’ll be loud. Commit social seppuku by refusing to share and you’ll never be invited again.
Not all teas are created equal. The complimentary weak stuff they slam down before taking your order is not for drinking. Because we’re naturally suspicious and germophobic (see below), we use this faux-tea to rinse our cutlery and crockery. You’ll see it everywhere including the fanciest seafood joints. We have as many kinds of teas as ways to drink them. Order the milky kind from cha chaan tengs and traditional jasmine, oolong, iron Buddha, or chrysanthemum at the dim-sum house. Kung-fu tea served in shot glass sized eggshell-thin porcelain are only found at Chiu Chow restaurants or grab a bubble tea to-go after shopping in Mong Kok (purple taro is the best).
Surgical face masks are worn with great commitment by anyone with even a slight cough. Our collective hypochondria comes from the days when Hong Kong was a cramped, dirty cesspit of tuberculosis, diphtheria, and flu pandemics. Still the densest place on Earth, we’re the perfect Petri dish for a superbug. SARS confirmed our worst fears and germophobia rose to greater heights. Common symptoms include opening doors / pressing lift buttons with tissues, washing shoes when returning home, or using hand sanitizer at two-minute intervals. Don’t believe us? Sneeze on a packed train and marvel at the speed it empties of people.
Everyone else calls them cupboards. To us, they’re apartments. Hong Konger’s have excelled at compact living decades before IKEA jumped on the bandwagon. Dad grew up in a 40m² box with seven siblings, his parents, plus an industrial sewing machine in the Kowloon’s resettlement housing. Personal space is so expensive and scarce we do most of our living outside. Don’t be surprised if you’ve never been invited to a friend’s house — we’re more comfortable socializing in roomier locales with half of HK.
You’ll find the streets crammed with people, eateries full and commerce booming — especially after dark. It’s no wonder they call it the city that never sleeps — since sleeping involves listening to the syncopated snoring of your seven siblings. Less awesome is the fact that some still live in barely legal cage housing — a travesty for one of the world’s richest cities and a big thumbs down on the humanitarian scoreboard.
Foodstagramming has never seen so much fervor as it has seen from the dedicated gluttony in HK. When it comes to food posing, we’re champions. Watch as 10 smart phones click in unison over a plate of garlicky typhoon shelter crabs. While the food gets cold, Instagram filters are mulled over. We’re so food obsessed that we greet people with “Have you eaten yet?” when a simple “Hi” would suffice. So being able to relive our eating adventures is our greatest joy.
Hong Kong’s Octopus is like London’s Oyster — but on crack. Our miraculous one-card wonder works for ALL public transport. (Yes, this includes quaint, colonial-era trams and iconic Star Ferry.) Swipe it at club 7-Eleven for emergency booze, HK-only yuen-yeung at Starbucks, and your baked pork-chop rice at Café De Coral. It’s like free money until you realise it’s time to top up. We’re so sci-fi (HK inspired Ghost In the Shell), you can even Octopus your way into schools or apartments with a swish of your card. How James Bond is that?!
A city of 7.1 million keeps sane by communal neglect. When people are always in ya’ business, the greatest favour is giving people a wide berth. Body contact is out and huggers are treated like heavy mouth breathers — with suspicion and disgust. Growing up in New Zealand where I picked up “nasty gweilo habits” (mom’s words), a hug would elicit shock, fear, and, finally, defeat on her part. She’d give in and awkwardly pat me on the shoulder like a pet — that’s tough love HK-style. All body contact rules are abandoned though during crowds and queues ’cause we can’t resist that squashed-sardine feeling.
Photo: Akhradej Suntornsnoh