If you have a tendency to feel a little on the claustrophobic side, there’s every chance you’ll find the pulsating energy of Hong Kong suffocating (initially). In fact, even if you don’t mind being in a tight squeeze, you’re bound to find it a little intense if, like me, you weren’t brought up in the ‘crush’ that is ASIA.
Declared one of the most densely populated cities in the world, there are on average 25,900 people, squashed like sardines, into each and every square kilometer. In some areas, there are 92,000 people per square kilometer (phew)! Yep, it’s what you might call over-crowded!
Having now lived and breathed the fervor and vibrancy of Hong Kong for more than two years, a new year begins and I can take a deep breath, look back and say there’s definitely an ‘adjustment period’ when it comes to immersing yourself into the pace of a city with its pulse in permanent overdrive.That’s not to say it hasn’t been an immensely exciting and satisfying process, just one infused with a lot of mind-boggling, hair-pulling moments. Actually, I still have those ‘moments,’ I’m just not quite so phased by them.
Until we arrived in Hong Kong, I hadn’t traveled much in Asia. I had experienced though, what I thought was ‘crowd-crush’ in places like Oxford Street, London or downtown Nairobi. As the new girl on the block, I was eager to get out and explore every inch of this new found homeland and pregnancy wasn’t going to stop me trawling the busy streets until I could waddle no more. I soon realized every outing was like a David and Goliath battle (and not just because I had a sizable belly on me).
To my horror, a simple shopping excursion saw me shoved, pushed and pulled in all directions (and once Ava was born, things really stepped up a notch and I’m pretty sure the term ‘push chair rage’ became a regular fixture in my vocabulary). What made it even more confronting was the ‘oblivion’ showed by anyone who ‘bumped’ into you. There’s no courtesy nod of apology. No one mutters ‘sorry’ under their breath (or the Chinese equivalent). Kicked, scuffed, stepped on and elbowed – apparently it’s all par for the course when you step into the world’s busiest city. I’ve since come to know more about the culture and this heaving metropolis to understand it’s really nothing to get your feathers ruffled over.
Just the other day, I was merrily minding my own business, scouring the racks for a good bargain (as you do) when I was poked in the side of my ribs by a Chinese lady, eager to push past me – yes ‘poked!’ Before I could say ‘excuse me!’ in my best ‘stern teacher’ voice, she was gone, charging through the shop, shouting and stepping over anyone and anything completely and utterly unaware! All Just a normal part of the shopping experience really. After my initial ‘are you kidding me?’ moment, I had a good chuckle. You see none of its intentional it’s just the way things are when you live in a city that’s literally packed to the rafters, it always has been.
A stone’s throw to the north is Mainland China. It’s the world’s most populous country and while there’s a little more space in terms of spatial awareness. I’m told there are places where you won’t just bump elbows, you’ll bang eyelashes! (getting up close and personal with complete strangers, not quite the romantic rendezvous you’re after).
I went to Guangzhou last weekend – (coming from Australia I love the idea that you can take a train ride and be in another country, well in China’s case, we’re over the border armed with visas) the third largest city behind Shanghai and Beijing where 13 million people reside. I was totally prepared for the onslaught – don’t be fooled by the white skin Guangzhou people, sleeves rolled up, I can crowd surf with the best of them. But, I can safely say, Guangzhou you’ve got nothing on the Fragrant Harbor! Much less dense and more spread out, there is room to move. So much room, there are up to 12 lanes of traffic in places.
In Hong Kong, I guess, the reality is when you grow up in a place where the population outgrows the city your own ‘personal’ space isn’t priority. It simply can’t be.
Given most housing is of the high-rise kind, locals typically grow up in small apartments with very little privacy. Ideas of a communal society still hold true and this combined with the spiraling cost of housing means families often squeeze up to ten people in small flats. (About 32 per cent of the more than 1.1 million private housing units in Hong Kong are smaller than 430 square feet AND it’s become the world’s most expensive place to buy an apartment.) Grandparents typically live with their children and in turn children live with their parents until they marry. All eating, sleeping, working and playing under one roof and often in one room.
In some areas apartments have been partitioned into two or subdivided to make the most of the precious commodity that is ‘space.’ Some are what they call ‘coffin’ homes where living-space is no bigger than a twin-sized bed and has just enough room to sit up. For those of us who come from a country where our nuclear family lives in a three bedroom, free-standing house, maybe with a family room, a large kitchen (with an oven and a dishwasher), even a garden… it’s impossible to comprehend. For us, having personal space is the norm, we know no different.
I was always a little curious to see locals ‘hanging’ out amongst the masses in coffee shops or on shopping centre benches for hours….many just sitting (some sleeping) but the truth is, it’s most likely far more spacious, comfier and a little ‘time-out’ from the close quarters at home. I also used to find it a little unnerving in cafes when people would come and join my table…’er hello?’ (This is virtually unheard of in Australia) but nowadays, I expect someone to descend on the empty chair. They aren’t there to chat or invade your space, simply to find their own retreat amongst the madness. It quite probably contributes to the work ethic in Hong Kong. It’s nothing to work a 12 hour day and 16 can be the norm. I’m sure a lot of work spaces are far more luxurious than their micro-environments at home.
These days, equipped with a little understanding and some cultural immersion, I daresay I’m partial to a bit of stampeding myself. Sometimes I feel like a super-sleuth, slinking through the crowds, ducking and weaving through the pack to get to my destination quickly and in one piece. To be honest, I might even be guilty of the odd shove (I’m guessing this is not going to go down too well at the local shopping centre down-under where my family lives in what can only be described as a peaceful paradise and therefore tackle-free zone)?
But hey this is Hong Kong! My advice, if you don’t want to get lost in the crowd, you have to go hard, like a bull in a china shop!
Nicole was a Journalist and News Reader with Sky News Australia for a decade before making the life changing move to Hong Kong with her hotelier husband.
Mum to hyped up blondie Ava, Nicole has swapped the news desk and microphone for a change table and nappy bag but is still enjoying the best of both worlds, freelancing as a Journalist, Presenter, Master of Ceremonies and Media Trainer.
Read more of Nicole's Expat Focus articles here.