HK Essay

It’s been a long time. I was depressed to see that someone chopped out a big slice of my last entry and posted it on a local site for expats, but I guess that’s always the risk with a public weblog. I went to Shanghai last weekend for one of the most interesting and unforgettable trips of my life; the entire trip report has been posted on TW, with all the details.

Meanwhile, I got really pissed at the way people push me whenever I step out of an elevator or subway car — they believe they have to run in before the people get out, not realising that this only slows things down for everyone. I guess it’s “a cultural thing.” I posted this on TW recently and was amazed to see how many locals agree with me. Here goes:

Hong Kong: I love it, but…

It was all over the newspapers last week: Movie theaters and concert halls throughout Hong Kong will soon be implementing a new technology that will block all mobile phone and pager signals in their auditoriums, ensuring that the audience can enjoy performances without constant interruptions from chirping pagers and phones that burst into song. This was great news, but it was also depressing: Theaters were forced to adopt this last-resort solution for the simple reason that there are always a few selfish people who, despite the pre-show requests for silence, refuse to turn off their phones, terrified at the prospect of missing that one all-important call. When I say always, I mean always. It is taken for granted that whenever you go to a movie here, without exception, there will be at least two or more phone interruptions to ruin the show for everyone. The ringing is bad enough. But since the people who leave their phones on are self-centered and rude, they feel it is their right to answer the call and sit there in the theater and talk, as though they’re in their living room. It’s hard to stay absorbed in the film when someone behind you is shouting into his phone in Cantonese.

This is just a manifestation of a far broader issue here in perennially noisy, crowded Hong Kong. When I decided to move here more than a year ago, a Hong Kong native I know said I was crazy: “People in Hong Kong are so rude, they are uncultured, the streets are always packed, the air is polluted, it’s always dirty and the cost of living is the highest in the world.” (He had some good points, though I feel the positives here balance if not outweigh the negatives: great food, great location for Asian travel, many nice people who nearly all speak English, low taxes, bountiful shopping and entertainment, etc.) The point about rudeness is what’s on my mind, because it is so ubiquitous, and it’s a bit startling to a Westerner, and even to other Asians from outside Hong Kong.

Case in point: Hong Kong’s superb subway system (called the MTR) is a real pleasure, marred only by the behavior of some of its riders. “Let the passengers off,” blare the loudspeakers as the train approaches, a request that is almost completely ignored. As the doors open, the waiting mob tries to squeeze into the doors, going head-to-head against the poor passengers trying to exit. It happens every time, and I wonder why there is so little respect and courtesy for others. After all, even in New York City, subway riders extend basic rules of civility toward one another. Someone told me it had to do with the sheer number of people here, that there¡¦s always a crowd and that has generated an “every man for himself?mentality. That’s too bad, because it looks terrible to the outsider who watches, somewhat amazed, as a little old lady weighed down with shopping bags stands in the MTR, and none of the young people who managed to get a seat offers her theirs.

When someone bumps into you on the street in Hong Kong, they rarely say anything like “Excuse me” or “Sorry about that.” I guess it’s just a fact of life that when streets are always this crowded, this thick with unending throngs of pedestrians, you are constantly moving from one bump to the next, always pushing, slamming, evading and strategizing in your mind how you can most effectively wind your way through the masses. There’s no time for “Excuse me’s.” Every man for himself.

Perhaps the example that is most likely to raise culture shock to new levels is the way cars in HK interact with pedestrians. The pedestrian has no rights, and must always be on guard; the cars here simply do not stop for them. In Japan, in New York, in California — everywhere else I have ever been, in fact — motorists extend basic courtesy to pedestrians. Here, if you are crossing the street (even at a corner) and a car approaches, instead of slowing down, the driver will hit his horn and accelerate, forcing you to run. Someone at my office said the only reason they don’t mow the pedestrians down is that they’d have to take time to wash off the blood and repaint their fenders. Again, this could stem from the fact that there are so many millions of people in this microscopic city, and if drivers were always deferring to pedestrians they’d never get anywhere. Drivers are as rude to other drivers as they are to the pedestrians. The concept of “merging” or “right-of-way” is anathema to the local mentality, and cars are constantly scrambling to stay ahead. So when lanes converge at a tunnel, for example, it often seems as though a driver would rather give up his life than let another car in front of him. Twice now I thought my life was over as my taxi driver had to slam on his brakes to avoid smashing into a car that decided my taxi had no right to merge into his lane.

I can go on and on. The way some people insist on cutting into lines, pushing their way onto escalators, never acknowledging that there is anyone else on the planet but themselves…. The “rudeness thing” is probably the most common source of dismay to newbie expatriates here, and I wonder if I will ever really get used to it. Articles appear in the newspapers about it now and then, and public officials will write op-ed pieces admonishing their people that such rude behavior could alienate Hong Kong from the international community. It doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact so far, so for now I just gird myself for battle whenever I go onto the street and remind myself, “Every man for himself.”

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: One Comment

I totatly agree with you. People from Hong Kong are so incredibly rude. Mind you, most Cantonese speaking people are rude and classless.

If you walk into a restaurant where the servers are
cantonese and you don’t speak cantonese. You should expect very bad service.

Maybe it’s the dialect they speak. I mean, the cantonese language sounds if they want to kill each other. The sounds are so harsh and the facial expressions that go along with the words make the people look always mad.

Best of luck to you.

October 3, 2005 @ 1:55 pm | Comment

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