Once a small fishing and farming village, Hong Kong is now among the world’s busiest ports and most important centres of trade. The city, an autonomous territory of China, has been both a part of Imperial China and the British Empire – giving it the East-meets-West vibe that locals love.
“Hong Kong is a busy metropolis still steeped in Chinese tradition,” said seven-year resident Ski Yeo, originally from Singapore and founder of walking tour company Big Foot Tour. “Take the architecture. Regardless of how modern or progressive the building seems – like the HSBC building by Lord Norman Foster and Bank of China by IM Pei – many of these buildings were built with the concept of Chinese feng shui in mind.” For example, the HSBC building has an open atrium ground floor, thought to allow wind and good qi (energy) in.
We talked to a few of Hong Kong’s more than seven million residents to find out exactly how to navigate this unique energy and way of life.
Why do people love it?
Of all the Asian metropolises, Hong Kong has a vibe that’s all its own. While its impressive skyline might look extremely modern, ancient traditions remain alive. One of the most famous is ‘Villain Hitting’, practiced by a handful of women who are paid by residents to cast out bad luck.
“We have modern-day ‘witches’ who put curses on people. You can find a group of them under the Canal Road Flyover in Causeway Bay. It’s worth a sight, especially in the evening,” Yeo said, explaining that the candlelight and burning incense lend to a more dramatic atmosphere. A typical ritual involves the woman hitting a piece of ‘villain paper’ (which can include the name of the person a client wants punished) with a slipper or shoe, meant to scare and drive out bad spirits or whatever is bothering the client.
These strong links to tradition don’t stop the city from being extremely welcoming to other cultures. As home to many European and Asian expats, the city has an international feel that makes it easy for newcomers to fit in. More than half of residents also speak English, reducing communication barriers and making it easier for many to make new friends.
“I grew up in New York City where the locals are not as open to the idea of connecting with strangers, but here many people offer to meet up after a brief initial encounter,” said Audra Gordon, founder of fashion agency Global Identity Partners, who has lived here for seven years. “You are always one connection away from a new opportunity.”
What’s it like living here?
This city is fast paced, so the people who do best here are the ones who love cities like New York, London and Tokyo, said Alan Lau, CEO of Apollon Blockchain and long-time Hong Kong resident.
“Businesses are also conducted at a rapid pace. If you dine at a cha chaan teng [a Hong Kong-style diner] in Hong Kong, it’s likely that barely five minutes after you have placed your order, your food is served,” Yeo said.
Similarly, people speak directly without wasting time, rarely using pleasantries like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ that Westerners might be used to. They also persist in the face of challenges like high real estate prices, which can lead to some surprises. “You’ll see great eateries in places that you’ll never imagine, like on the 13th floor of a dilapidated building, business making use of tiny spaces to set up shops, or people residing in what we called ‘coffin houses’,” Yeo said. “There’s always a creative way around, and Hong Kong people do not give up.”
While English is widely spoken, most Hongkongers speak Cantonese as their first language. But residents constantly invent new slang that might be unintelligible to speakers who live elsewhere.
“‘黐線’ (ci-sin) literally means ‘glued wires’, but it means ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ in local context,” Yeo said. “Or we use ‘煲電話粥’ (bou-din-waa-zuk) to refer to someone who can spend a long time talking on the phone. Literally, it means ‘to boil telephone congee’!”
The fast pace of the city can be exhausting, but nearby beaches and hiking trails offer an easy respite – all accessible through the region’s excellent and well-used public transportation system.
“Sai Kung is a gorgeous lake you can do cliff jumping in; Lamma Island is a tranquil hiking spot with plenty of beaches; and Shek O beach is a great beach to hang out on,” said growth marketing specialist Stacy Caprio, originally from the US.
What else do I need to know?
Property is extremely expensive. According to price comparison site Expatistan.com, an 85-sq-m space would be 67% more expensive to rent than a similar place in London, and 34% more expensive than New York City. Residents do say that lower taxes and affordable public transportation ease the cost-of-living burden.
One creative way residents save money is buying alcohol at 7-Eleven. While elsewhere in the world, 7-Eleven may just be a convenience store, here in Hong Kong, it’s a way of life. Locals love buying their drinks here, since it comes with fast service and no service tax.
“A can of beer at 7-Eleven can cost less than HK$10,” Yeo said. “If you take a walk through Lan Kwai Fong (a popular nightlife hotspot) on a Saturday night, you’ll find people spilling out on to the streets, mainly outside the 7-Eleven!”