In love with Hong Kong

I was first in Hong Kong about a month ago, when I had to leave Bangkok yet again for a visa run – a routine I have had to follow monthly lately, not having a visa. And here I am again on a stopover on my way back to Europe. I am totally in love with this place, it has everything I currently look for in a city. The dynamics, the cosmopolitan crowds, the wonderful hybrid of Western and Chinese culture (meaning mostly the mix of Western and Chinese eateries and shops, the Westernish behaviour of its Chinese inhabitants, and the many expats living here).

Hong Kong Island has a hill in its center, Victoria Peak, with the city leaning and ascending towards the hill in the South and facing the ocean and the mainland part of Hong Kong on the other side with its wonderful skyline towards the North. Its space is extremely limited, which has led to a very high density of skyscrapers with narrow streets, small roads, staircases and even open air escalators in between. Buildings are usually narrow and tall, with small shops on the ground floor.

At night, skyscrapers are sometimes animated with light installations such as swimming Koi fish or Chinese script, which, together with neon signboards on the streets, give the city a playful look from close, and a majestic appearance when seen from afar that is somewhat reminiscent of Bladerunner, Total Recall or these kind of futuristic, Asian-inspired movies.

At the same time, Hong Kong does not have the kind of cold aura often associated with modern cities. To the contrary, the mix of high rises and narrow walkways with little structures on limited space makes most spots I have seen interestingly cozy and village like and it’s much fun to explore it on foot. To me, Hong Kong that way offers the best of urban and small town flair.

The city has a lively after work pub culture, probably a result of British heritage, so bars are filled with suit wearing people quite early in the evening. During weekends, one entire street is filled with young people drinking, talking and sometimes dancing, often getting their drinks from 7-11 rather than one of the expensive bars. When I stood there with my new friend and host Christine, I was amazed at the young age of the mostly Western party crowd – the average seemed to be about 23.

Hong Kong, a bit like London, is traditionally a trading and banking place and still mostly independent from China (though China is trying to increase control). Given its main industries it may not come as a surprise that Hong Kong is very wealthy, a fact which can not only be seen in its infrastructure, but also in its steep living costs, especially its extreme rents. Some examples:

  • Rent for a 36 square meter apartment in an upper middle class neighbourhood: 2200 Euros
  • Small cup of Cappuccino in a coffee shop: 4 Euros
  • Pizza at an average restaurant: 17 Euros
  • Glass of wine in a Western place: 8 Euros
  • Airport Express from Airport to Hong Kong Central Station: 12 Euro
  • 500 g cup of Joghurt: 5 Euro

Food gets cheaper when you go for local food in non-fancy restaurants, and public transport is also affordable:

  • Chinese dish in a simple eatery: 5 Euros
  • 10 min taxi ride: 3 Euros
  • Boat ride from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island: 30 cent
  • Bus ride: 30 cent

Housing is probably a bit cheaper in the district Kowloon, on the mainland side of Hong Kong, but not considerably from what I hear. The housing situation must always have been tight, considering the existence of infamous Kowloon Walled City – a huge, extremely condensed housing block with miniature apartments and shops and almost no sun light. It has been demolished a couple of years ago, but it still remains a famous symbol for the housing situation in Hong Kong.

On my previous trip I had actually stayed in Kowloon, in a hostel inside a building complex called Chungking Mansions, which at 30 Euros a night was the budget I was willing to spend on a visa run. (I had no idea that building is actually famously known to be a somewhat shady refuge for tourists on a budget, sellers of fake watches and handbags as well as people coming to Hong Kong for drug business. I was quite happy when I could leave the place last time). This time I graduated to the Soho area of Hong Kong Island, staying with Christine in her above mentioned apartment.

Anyway, no matter where you stay – living in Hong Kong for a long time without a job is not really an option, unlike in places such as Bangkok. It reminds you that Asia really isn’t Asia. Once you get a job it pays much better than in Europe though, the salaries I heard of were quite generous.

I was told that foreigners have to be hired for at least 2500 Euros a month and the company has to justify why they are hiring a foreigner. While the latter is quite common from what I hear, the former is an interesting aspect which probably helps Hong Kong maintain a high standard.

Income tax is quite low at 15% and there is no VAT. Does that make shopping cheaper than in Europe? Not really, except for IT items. For example, Apple products are as cheap as in the US and I just bought myself a Sony Phablet (T2 Ultra) for about 200 Euros.

Some more niceties of Hong Kong: They have an Airport Train which links Hong Kong Island and Kowloon to the airport within 20 minutes or so. It is even possible to check in at the train station, which makes the entire trip very convenient. For public transport, most people buy an Octopus card which can also be used for shopping (a bit like the Rabbit card in Bangkok or the Oyster Card in London, apparently it has to be an animal name).
The Western part of the lifestyle is very similar to other cities regarding gastronomic offering (the usual deli/coffee shop items, Sushi, cup cakes etc.) and clothing style (grey/black urban look, sweat jackets, sneakers and thick framed glasses). While many people regret these similarities as an inevitable result of globalization, I take comfort in them, feeling like a world citizen.

Yes, Hong Kong also has dark sides. First of all, apartments are not just very expensive as described above, but also (logically) very small. Despite the steep price tag of Christine’s high standard apartment (with ocean view from the bed!), it is so small that it forces you to compromise on your daily routines. The bath carpet can only be put on the floor when the door has been closed, and my suitcase could not be opened fully on the floor next to my bed. Christine’s neighbor kids play in the tiny hallway of the apartment building because there is no playground around. And my other new friend Lenia and her boyfriend made quite a frustrated face when they told me how they don’t even have a proper table to eat at.
Coming from our 150 square meter apartment in Bangkok with a bathroom the size of a bedroom, and being used to Berlin’s real estate conditions where most people can at least afford a 60 square meter apartment, the housing situation in Hong Kong feels quite restricting. But there is no other way in Hong Kong, where you would have to be rich to be able to afford a place that compares to Berlin or Bangkok.
Because everyone has the same problem, people spend a lot of time outside of their homes, Christine tells me.
In that respect Hong Kong’s housing situation reminds me a bit of Bruce Willis’ shoebox sized apartment in the science fiction movie The Fifth Element.

Then there is the smog. I intuitively assumed that a city like Hong Kong, right next to the ocean, with not much traffic and no heavy industry, can’t have any smog problem. And in fact it doesn’t, but it regularly gets swallowed by the smog clouds that blow south from China (what symbolism). The city is often covered in a dense fog, especially in the evenings when sometimes only the lower half of the skyline can be seen from Kowloon side. What appears to have natural causes, like in San Francisco, is actually mostly smog.

But hey, I’m still lovin’ it and I would jump at the opportunity to move to Hong Kong, even if it means living in a shoebox and being surrounded by gloomy fog that reminds me of a scene in Pirates of the Caribbean – at least for some time until the first Asthma symptoms start showing. Also, there is not just Hong Kong Island but the northern outskirts of Hong Kong (towards Shenzhen on the Chinese side), Lanna Island with lots of green, and some places around Victoria Peak with its gorgeous view (though I think that area is reserved for Billionaires). It is unfortunately a bit far from Hong Kong to Iraq, but I’ll definitely keep this city in mind (for those who don’t know yet – my boyfriend will be moving to Iraq, yes, the place with the war and IS and suicide bombings, we just got too bored with our current lives).

As I am ending the text I am on my flight out of Hong Kong towards Cologne, which has only one skyscraper, but definitely the oldest one I have seen – the Cologne Cathedral, finished in the 18th century. And even a pinch of Far East philosophy – “et kütt wie et kütt“, „it happens as it happens“! The transition will be smooth…

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