Hong Kong and Macau, March 2016

I was recently in Hong Kong for a number of different reasons – to do some business, to catch up with some old friends and to attend a wedding.

I’ve been to Hong Kong a number of times over the last decade or so – it’s always just a little bit too busy for my own personal liking, but it is definitely not an uncomfortable place to visit by any means.

Hong Kong bills itself as “Asia’s World City” – I like to think of it as New York City, but with Chinese people. It has its own neighbourhoods like NYC (including a SoHo) and it has a myriad of shops, skyscrapers and people out and about at all hours of the day. It also has an atmosphere of hustle.

It’s interesting, because here in Southeast Asia, we like to think of Hong Kong and Singapore as the two examples of countries that have prospered since the end of the Second World War. This is not to discount the economic progress and quality of life in other places like Japan, South Korea or Taiwan, but Hong Kong and Singapore are the two places that mostly come to most people’s minds when asked about it.

What I find fascinating is that Hong Kong and Singapore could not be more different. Over the years, Singapore has become extremely diverse – they are really trying to expand their cultural and ethnic mix, even if the policies to do so do seem a little racist to western observers. Hong Kong on the other hand, I feel has become even more Chinese with closer and closer ties to the mainland. Both are economically successful, with a critical difference:

  • In Singapore, unless there’s a law saying you can do it, you probably can’t.
  • In Hong Kong, unless there’s a law saying you can’t do it, you probably can.

As a result of this, there is more of a sense of hustle in Hong Kong – you have to push the edge to compete and succeed.

Day 1: Business First

Whenever I’m on a trip and I have multiple things to do, I always like to put business first. There’s a psychological aspect to it where I’m consciously telling my subconscious “hey, this is what matters to me”. There’s also a practical aspect where once the business is done, I can relax a little and just enjoy the rest of my time.

OK that’s actually not true. The first thing I did in Hong Kong was find myself some Hong Kong milk tea – probably my #1 favourite drink in the whole world.

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Oh yeah, that’s the stuff.

I love it so much that I bought some drink mix sachets to bring back to Bangkok:

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And then I got down to business 🙂

In Hong Kong this time, I tidied up a business transaction that has been ongoing for a while, and met with the MD of a fiduciary group that I’ve done business with in the past.

This time around, Aki and I stayed on the Kowloon side in Tsim Sha Tsui, and mostly took the MTR (subway) over to Hong Kong island when we needed to.

If you’ve never been, the transportation system in Hong Kong is world-class, and puts places like America and Australia to shame. It’s super-easy to navigate and get around, and there are networks of underground walkways linking stations and buildings, and each station has multiple exits, so you can get right to where you want to go.

Aki and I noticed that Hong Kong people walk A LOT. And so did we. On an average day in Bangkok, the Health app on my phone logs about 4,000 steps. In Hong Kong, I was clocking in over 20,000 daily.

And the crazy thing is, people dress really, really well in Hong Kong. Tailoring is excellent and abundant – don’t be surprised to see an army of Chinese guys in tailored suits and wingtips wandering the streets. There’s also a large amount of clothing retailers, and a lot of Korean/Japanese brands available, which is always nice for those of us who have Asian body shapes and don’t fit as well into western-brand clothing.

Aki’s analysis: there’s more of an emphasis on understanding fashion and expressing individual style in Hong Kong than there is in Bangkok, where people just follow mass fashion trends.

While I know very little about fashion, what I do know is that I’ve never seen that many well-dressed aunties and uncles anywhere else in my life!

The business side of things ended up being very straightforward, which is always nice. I think it goes back to what I mentioned before about hustle – everyone hustles in Hong Kong and just wants to get things done. Sure, relationship building (guanxi) is important, but people know that they’re on the clock and try their best not to drag things out or put on appearances too much. It’s definitely one of the things I appreciate about Chinese culture after living in Thailand for such a long time, and after doing business with the US for the past few years.

With business done and out of the way, I found some time to finally visit Quinary, which is a molecular mixology bar owned by Antonio Lai. The drinks were amazing, and I got to connect some friends from Australia with some friends from my time in IM circles.

One thing I noticed is that both expats and locals in Hong Kong seem to drink quite a bit – maybe there’s not that much to do, or maybe it’s just the local culture, I’m not sure. But there sure are a lot of nice drinking establishments in Hong Kong.

Days 2 &3: The Other Financial Centre – Macau

One of my friends jokingly likes to call Hong Kong, “where they help people move money through banking” and Macau, “where they help people move money through gambling”.

And from the outside, Macau definitely looks that way, with gaudy casinos, unlimited numbers of wealthy Chinese tourists and many efforts to become the Las Vegas of the East. But that’s doing a discourtesy to the island’s history, the local Portuguese and Macanese cultures and the other side of Macau that most people completely forget about.

Fortunately, Aki and I travelled with a couple of friends, one of whom is a frequent visitor (and a foodie) and we got to see all the things that people usually miss when they make a beeline from the ferry to the Cotai Strip.

The pictures really tell it all:

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They really like gold in Macau.
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Dimsum lunch at a James Bond villain’s lair.

World’s best dimsum.

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That’s a lot of Chinese tourists.

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Old Portuguese house.
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Wandering the back alleys.
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The original egg tart – amazing.

Dinner at a private Macanese kitchen.

We actually ended up getting stuck overnight in Macau. There was a super-thick fog rolling into Hong Kong harbour when we left in the morning, and it persisted all the way across to Macau and into the evening.

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Us at the ferry terminal trying to get back to Hong Kong at 9pm.

It turns out all the ferries were cancelled until 4am the next morning, so we ended up staying overnight at a hardcore Chinese gambling hotel:

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Yep, more gold.

While the cultural aspects and food in Macau were nothing short of amazing, there were just too many mainland Chinese tourists for my liking.

According to 23andme, I am genetically 99% Han Chinese. But it isn’t about race or ethnicity – it’s about culture. Simply put, a substantial percentage of mainland Chinese tourists are… loud, pushy, rude, and generally unpleasant. They don’t know how to queue up for stuff and they have a penchant for shouting and spitting wherever they please.

I realise it’s something of a taboo topic to talk about – we’re starting to see more and more mainland Chinese tourists around the world, and no one’s really sure what to do with them.

And I do realise that I’m comparing my cultural standards against theirs – and I have no doubt that if I had grown up in mainland China and had to compete against a billion other people to survive and get ahead – I may have adopted many of the same traits.

But the world just isn’t ready for the huge cultural clash that is coming for when the Chinese start venturing out into the rest of the world. Most of the western world has thus far been spared – tourist visas are hard for Chinese nationals to get. But if you go to Singapore or any other Asian country that is a Chinese tourism hotspot, you’ll find similar sentiments – they like that Chinese tourists bring in money, but don’t like the bad behaviour and headaches that come along with it.

Something that most people don’t realise is just how many Chinese tourists there are. Over 120 million Chinese nationals travelled abroad last year. Compare that with the 30 million Americans who travelled overseas in the same period. They bring their own tour groups, buses, planes and operators, and this keeps them insulated from having to deal with or adapt to the local culture.

My guess – there is going to be a lot of give and take down the line. I just plan to be out of the way in the meantime 🙂

Day 3: A Wedding

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Thick fog on our way back from Macau.

After our little misadventure in Macau, Aki and I managed to make it back to Hong Kong and out to another island – Lantau – for a wedding at Discovery Bay, which is a secluded expat community that feels more like an upscale American suburb than part of Hong Kong (but in a good way).

Congratulations to Chungman & Dion!

Days 4 & 5: Shopping and Old Friends

With most of the business and social commitments done, I had a chance to just relax and do what I wanted in Hong Kong for a couple of days before leaving.

Most of my local friends often complain about there being not that much to do, besides work, which hasn’t been my experience. I personally think there’s actually a lot to see in Hong Kong: from the different distinct neighbourhoods to the touristy stuff like the Peak, Ocean Park and Disneyland. This was not my first time there however, and I had seen most of those things on prior trips.

I met up with some old friends from high school who I hadn’t seen in years – seems like a lot of them have settled in Hong Kong (it is a world-class city after all!)

Aki and I also checked out a couple of places around the hotel too:

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Hong Kong cafe food.

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And of course, there was shopping.

I managed to pick up some Chinese tea, which was an experience in and of itself. I had a friend show me where to buy good tea, and as we walked into the shop asking for “Chinese tea”, the lady running the shop proceeded to yell at us that it was ALL Chinese tea, look irritated that we were asking too many questions (and not pulling out money) and then proceeded to hand me two bags of tea. All this in about 60 seconds on a quiet Sunday morning – such is the hustle in Hong Kong.

The rest of the shopping was mostly for Aki:

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Yes, you can buy bespoke Nike shoes in Hong Kong.

We also ate a lot of food – nothing too exotic (except in Macau), but Cantonese fare is generally tasty and I really enjoy Hong Kong-style cafe food as well. Here are some gratuitous food photos:

Day 6: Leaving Hong Kong

If you’ve never experienced having to fly out of Hong Kong you should at least once in your life.

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In-town check-in.

It’s absolutely amazing that you can take a short taxi ride to a check-in terminal IN THE CITY, drop off your bags, then get on an express train directly to the airport.

(Yes, the train has free wi-fi.)

Once you get to the airport, you walk through immigration and security, and straight to the gate. You can literally be at your gate within 15 minutes of the time you get to the airport.

If I contrast this to other places I’ve had to fly out of, it’s revolutionary. In Bangkok, I still have to cart my luggage up onto the skytrain and all the way out to the airport. The same goes for London. And let’s not even talk about LAX and standing in security lines for 2 hours.

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Thai Airways lounge.
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View from the lounge, overlooking our gate.

Hong Kong International Airport has always been clean and modern and they seem to be renovating it as of late with better shopping and food.

Wrapping Up & Cool Bonus Stuff

One thing that I’ve always found problematic in Hong Kong is the language. I don’t speak Cantonese – all I’ve picked up from friends is how to swear and ask for the cheque. English used to be very usable in Hong Kong – I feel though that in recent years it has been displaced with a focus on people speaking Mandarin instead. There were still some taxi rides and situations where I had to use my less-than-satisfactory Mandarin to express what I wanted.

If you’re planning to visit Hong Kong, here are some cool things to look out for:

1. OpenRice App

Open Rice on the App Store

This is a nifty Yelp-like mobile app that ranks local food places in Hong Kong. It seems to be a lot more active with locals than Yelp or any other foreign discovery apps, and I like to take that as a sign that the ratings are more reliable.

2. Google Maps App

Google Maps on the App Store

We used this to get around everywhere. It links into real-time MTR data so you can plot your trips from one place to another by subway. It’ll tell you what exits to use (there are often 10+ exits per MTR station), what lines to take, what line to change to etc.

Hong Kong also does have Uber but we didn’t use it – taxis are plentiful and from what I’ve seen, not fussy about where they take passengers.

3. Octopus Card

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Buy this and put money on it. You can buy it right at the airport once you clear customs upon arrival. It’ll let you get on the Airpot Express into town, access the MTR and buses, buy stuff at 7/11 and a bunch of other stuff once you’re in Hong Kong proper.

Bonus Photos

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