Beyond Borders

Mind your Eastern Ps and Qs

2011-01-21 10:40

Simon Williamson

Some things are just the way they are. In Cape Town you will never be able to find parking, particularly the free variety.

In London you will have to choose either the frozen air outside or the sweaty armpit of the Underground because taking your jacket off and putting it back on repeatedly is just not an option.

In New York, if you stop walking in a busy area - by choice (eg. to read a sign) or involuntarily (eg. heart attack) - you will be stampeded. And the same applies here in Hong Kong where the urban cultures and norms are just that: their own.

A stroll up Queens Road Central - one of the main thoroughfares through what South Africans would call the Hong Kong CBD - is an invitation to being bashed left, right and centre by the other millions who make up the throng that populates this city.

Limited space

There is limited space and a lot of moving people - so humans of all local demographics shoulder-barge, obstruct, overtake, trip over and smash into others without apologising. It’s not seen as rude here - had you grown up in this gigantic sardine-can, you would also have been bashing into people your whole life and not find it surprising when others do.

Variants of people from three-year old boys to preppy, new money adults to 90-year old women with walking sticks are happy to walk into, near or through you if you happen to be between their points A and B. Not one of them will even acknowledge your presence, let alone apologise. It is just normal to walk into people.

As a South African who has experienced ample space in my life, I haughtily kakked on people at the beginning, but have realised it will take a lot of patience (and probably a good few Cantonese lessons) to convert seven million others into how I feel they should move around.

Hygiene obsessed

And while that reaction will get you no Hongkonger’s attention, if you want their focus there is a very simple way of doing it. Since the avian flu crisis, which affected Southeast Asia to the tune of over 500 deaths, this city has become hygiene obsessed. One sneeze on a packed train is enough to get you hate-filled looks from everyone within air-movement distance.

It is an accepted norm to wear a facemask if you are suffering from even the mild sniffles, and it is rude and disrespectful to pollute the air shared by many with your fluey germs. That’s obviously a similar sentiment anywhere one goes, but is a far bigger faux pas than a polite cough while sitting at a dinner table in South Africa.
Other manners are completely due to Cantonese culture - white is a colour synonymous with death, so giving your dinner host a bunch of white flowers would be as awesome as mud. Red, however, conveys good luck and some folks are known to wear only red ties to business meetings.

Unashamedly Hong Kong

The number four is the equivalent of our number 13 – in fact many buildings don’t have a fourth floor. Ours is one of the few that does which is why we seemingly only have other non-Hongkongers living on our level.

Feng Shui is also a big deal here; while looking for flats we saw one which was marked down by 50% because of a pointed roof outside the window.

So we’re still learning what is potting around these here parts, and delighting in doing so while trying to offend as few people as possible. What I do love about Hong Kong is that it is so unashamedly Hong Kong, and idiosyncratic in totally its own way - a parallel it shares with South Africa.

- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. 

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