The Sound of Hong Kong

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“Among all the countries, why chose Hong Kong?” I asked my foreign friend, Kai*, as we were wandering around in Tsim Sha Shui.

At night, neon lights and LED lit up the whole city. Indistinctive faces passed by. The green traffic lights flashed and beeped. Then, the red man lit up and I halted. But Kai just crossed the road, looking straight ahead with seemingly irremovable determination. “Some years ago,” Kai said, “I came to Hong Kong and I LOVED this place.”

……

……Huh?

And, he’s now living in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is filled with social problems, such as overcrowdedness and political interference from China. Plus, we possess one of the priciest real estate on earth. These reasons should be enough to scare off foreigners. I, as a Hong Konger, may definitely tell those thinking about moving here to go back to Mars! Let me tell you why.

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Two buildings in Kung Tong. A modern, well-built one on the left which seems to have a garden on the top left corner. An old, dirty one on the right which seems abandoned.

😦 Working Mentality

Similar to other fie chings (廢青; literally, rubbish teens) during summer holiday, I applied for a part-time job to earn money for an iPhone. Also, like other fie chings, I missed the important interview. As a student with a high sense of responsibility, I called the company to arrange another interview, telling them to reschedule for I got lost in Kowloon. (Trust me, I did.)

Having nothing important to do at that time, I aimlessly journeyed from Kung Tong to Leu Tue Mum. Because, why not? Wandering around, I saw people flooding into and out from the Kung Tong MTR station. Many  were dressed up, tie, suit and all. That’s mostly because of one thing — work.

Work, work, and work is what Hong Kongers often do. Work-life balance is virtually non-existent in our dictionary. Some are workaholics because they find the meaning of their lives at work. Some work just to survive. They aren’t interested in their work. Yet, they keep working because they need the money. No matter why they work, they are destined to be confined in the cage of a workplace.

However, in western countries like the US, entertainment plays a huge part in people’s lives. Kai also lived in the US said he hated the long working hours in his learning centre here. He did all he could to get his two days off. He has a clear concept of how much time he should dedicate to his work, because he needs to ensure he gets enough time to explore other parts of life besides work.

For Hong Kongers, we focus more on the group as a whole rather than on people as an individual. For instance, if I were to apply for a job, I would think “the salary is attractive” or “the working environment is comfortable”. Yet, I would NOT think, “The company’s work ethics quite fit mine,” or “My boss seems to provide me many opportunities to shine,” or “I can learn so much out of this job.” We are less likely to rationalise our decisions based on benefits to ourselves.

It results the ‘walking dead’ kind of mindset inside Hong Kongers’ heart. Somehow, we feel we got to work. But why? Shouldn’t we think about how work or the money gained from work achieves some life-long goals of ours?

😦 Life Education

We’re told what to do from a young age. Whether we like it or not, it’s not about us but about what our parents think is right. For reading, studying, playing the piano, et cetera, we don’t have a say.

People say it is important to do things out of interest; nonetheless, it can hardly be the case in this beloved land. Because interest is NOT on our study list; crazily enough, a series of academic subjects is (aka. Maths, Chemistry, English etc.). If you doubt how long the list is, simply go downstairs and buy something from McDonald’s. Along the way, you will see the list up on the tutorial centres’ billboards and double-deckers in every district, with promising tutors crossing their arms and smiling at you.

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2017’s choice for straight A students. English.

This tacit study list leads us to over-focus on the academic achievement and to forget the more important like enjoyment. To be on the A-list, kids study like robots, being forced to neglect the fun. For instance, when selecting an undergraduate programme, youngsters who like drawing, playing basketball or the guitar have to listen to what their parents say.

Those people, therefore, live in their parents’ dreams perhaps for the whole life. But, since the children then are loaded with work and chores, they probably don’t have time to think about what they want to do and what their goals are. I often picture those kids wake up one day and they sadly realise they don’t like their subject and work. Then everything’s too late.

😦 Pricey Living Condition

Some Hong Kongers don’t want to work. But for them, what are the other options? We need money to pay bills and rent. Interests? That’s too much to yearn for.

Today’s society pressures us to work by draining our money fountain again and again. The high cost of living eats away the working and middle classes. For an average part-time job, one hour at work equals to a lunch set in a cha chaan teng (local diner). ($50 wage and $50 lunch)

Transportation? You’re lucky if you pay less than $10 to commute. For most of us? Although I was not working, the stress substantiated when my student Octopus card (which halves my train fare) was invalidated. I paid $20 (plus $20 for the return) to travel from far north, my home, to the heart of Hong Kong. Simply put, lunch and travel equal to two hours at work.

The fare and lunch may seem inexpensive but they add up in the long run. Plus the rent, utility bills, things for our children and so on, the burden is already so heavy that makes Hong Kongers work sheepishly.

😦 Pragmatism

In the following section, I’ll explain this unseeable mindset by using these photos taken in Kung Tong.

Badly-maintained one on the left and polished one on the right.
Industrial buildings.

In the photos, there are some posh-looking and slum-like buildings. More importantly, they are RIGHT NEXT TO EACH OTHER.

But well, that doesn’t quite prove anything, Mr writer.

Hold your horses, readers.

Just think: any normal being probably won’t put these old and new things randomly together. Take designing an album as an example. You just won’t put songs from the 20’s and 90’s together. however, Isn’t it even more bizarre to randomly squash unmatched buildings in the place in which we wake up every morning?

So why? Because we’re practical. Land is precious in Hong Kong given that 7.3 million people live in a tiny area. Since resources are insufficient to cater everyone, we settle people like books on a bookshelf to mindlessly make the most of every space.

Also, when it comes to the arts, our obsession with being practical becomes clear. Most Hong Kongers deem the arts abstract with no real value. The unwritten study list also says business and science are the ‘real, tangible, hard’ subjects but the arts aren’t.

Of course we know art; however, is it necessary? Could we make a mountain of money out of it? Deep down, we know dreams won’t guarantee us success or wealth; however, are they the only reason we live? Wealth looks like success; however, who defines success?


In short, there are some problems rooted in Hong Kong, like working mentality, living condition and our overly practical mindset. So is Hong Kong just… ugly? That’s why I want to write this article: to show you the other side of Hong Kong. And this, I dedicated to my foreign friend, Kai.

Kai and I met in a language exchange meet-up and we hung out with the group a few times. He is an American go-getter type of person. Often travelling, going to the top of the buildings, parachuting and stuff. So different from a homie like me. And he is the one who helps me to see the other side of Hong Kong.


🙂 A lot to explore

One day, we got lost finding the restaurant we wanted to go to. He stopped and checked Google Maps. We then turned left to a dark alley where I saw rubbish bags, sewage, rats and graffiti. I thought to myself, “Oh my god,” eyes busy looking at the floor to confirm I wouldn’t step on anything disgusting.

An alley in Kung Tong. It’s super clean compared with the one I’ve been in Tsim Sha Shui.
The back entrance of the building in the alley. Seriously, will anyone use it?

If not for him, I’d never have gone into any of these dingy alleys. Looking for the lights is what I usually do, and so do other Hong Kongers. Light means safe. Also, if we got lost, we wouldn’t have to worry. We could easily find an MTR station in the open.

Although Kai just moved to Hong Kong two months earlier, he strode to the restaurant as if he knew Hong Kong very well. (In fact, he already hiked many mountains, hills, and reached several peaks in Hong Kong.)

“I feel like I’m the tourist and you’re the guide,” I said, following him with difficulty.

Somehow, he then mentioned one word: downtown. Like magic, the word sank in my heart.

High-rise buildings and bad-looking buildings in Kung Tong.

On one side of Hong Kong, perhaps that’s where the rich live. On the other side, that’s where the poor live. What you see here are often contrasting: alleys and skyscrapers; scruffy elderly with plain white vests, and fashionable teens with tie and suit, walking together along the same street.

Hong Kong is actually an ever-changing, exhilarating city. There’s Chungking Mansions, where many people from South Asia live in and sell their traditional curry. When you pass by Tsim Sha Tsui, you will be stopped by the staff and given a coupon of their restaurants. Also, there are high-scale bars in Central, filled with Europeans who enjoy a drink after work. On Sundays, domestic helpers gather in Mong Kok and Causeway Bay. They sit on a piece of cloth singing, eating, and listening to the radio in their language. When you listen closely to all the sounds in Hong Kong, it truly is like a processed sausage, mixed with all types of meats with all types of flavours.

🙂 Productiveness

Kai and I then scurried to the restaurant until a couple blocked our way. The couple, still dressed in suit, walked moderately fast. I think it was fine on a Friday evening to enjoy a slower-than-normal moment. However, perhaps influenced by the vibe of the city, Kai was agitated. He moaned about the couple and blew a loud, sustained whistle to signal them to get out of the way. Yes, it called the couple’s attention. They looked back — but at once turned their face to front again with nonchalance.

Hong Kongers breathe efficiency to survive. But maybe every human being needs some relaxing time. Normally, we are critical and on our guard for everything. Public transportation, such as MTR and bus, should operate with utter precision, arriving at the time it displays on the shift screen. Restaurants should serve food after 5 minutes we order. We can’t miss one second.

You think on weekends we will book a cottage overseas to idle away a week? Sit on a park bench to read and enjoy some time alone? Sit by the beach and watch the gorgeous sunset? Haha. You must be joking.

Instead of a cottage in a remote terrain, we will choose a hotel in the heart of a foreign city with bustling shopping malls, posh restaurants and civilised attractions. Because somehow Hong Kongers are blind to the most luxurious of the luxurious 5-star hotels, multitudinous upper-end restaurants in our homeland? Well, no — we choose to stay in cities when we travel simply because we cannot stop working. Having nothing to do kills us. When living in a populated area, we can look where people are going as a reference, to find somewhere to visit and some food to eat.

This innate habit constructed the metropolis in which we called home. Some decades ago, Hong Kong was still a poverty-stricken city. Thanks to industrialisation, Hong Kongers now live with riches and civilisation. In the past, working meant productiveness. Productiveness is certainly one of the Hong Kong’s core values as the song, Lion Rock’s Spirit, rightfully echoes many citizens’ hearts.

But, after our city flourishes, is it now the time to think about slowing down, maybe exploring the countryside?

Yau Tong. Roads and cars are everywhere.
Marlboro Knitters Ltd in Kung Tong.

🙂 40% of Green Areas + Heritage

If you still haven’t noticed yet, there’re lots of historic and natural places in Hong Kong. As our city has modernised, apartments have been mostly built in the centre of the city; hence, Hong Kongers aren’t aware of these valuable places.

Kai told me a funny fact. While weekends are supposed for us to go away from the city centre where we already spent most of our time, most Hong Kongers still head back to the same place. We seem never bored of similarity.

Tin Hau Temple in Cha Kwo Ling, Kung Tong.
A house in Lei Yue Mum.
Lei Yue Mun (Sam Ka Tsuen Ferry)

So, this is Hong Kong: practical and messy. We, down-to-earth animals, spend the shortest time and minimal resources to achieve maximum results, without focusing much on ourselves and sometimes overlooking other needs. We also accommodate people like books crammed into tall bookcases, building more and more high-rise buildings.

But I still love this legendary place.

 

After finishing our dinner, Kai and I strolled along the Victoria Harbour on the Tsim Sha Shui side.

“Can you hear the noisy cars and people?” Kai said, “That’s one thing I don’t like about Hong Kong.”

I tried separating and categorising every sound I heard. Cars. Buses. Vans. Waves. Chatter. Air-cons. Music from speakers. I had never realised it was that noisy before. Like a cacophony. Then, my vision became clear too. Lamp posts. Buildings. More buildings from the other side of the harbour. Water reflecting the shimmering LEDs. People sitting by the shore. Bars across the road.

As the city has matured, its sounds have been amplified. It’s common to neglect all of them because we are just fishes in a pond. Sound is the only medium we cannot shut down. No matter who, locals or foreigners, we live with the sounds of the city every day; therefore, we become so accustomed to them and naturally filter them. Unless there’s a huge change, we hardly notice the heartbeat of the city.

Only recently some special, piercing sounds have developed. So palpable that people can now consciously perceive those sounds again: realising something has changed, and the city vibrating at a different frequency. The drastic change makes some Hong Kongers uncomfortable and consider living with a different sound.

 

I walked a long way from Kung Tong that day. At the end of my spontaneous walk to Lei Yue Mun, I rested somewhere peaceful where I could hear the waves hitting rocks. I stood by the seashore while the breeze trying to bring me to another unknown place.

Lastly, I recorded the sound at the exact place where I took this picture.

Ma Pui Tsuen, Lei Yue Mum.
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