The Revelation of Hong Kong

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Hong Kong

Whenever I travel, I try to fit in. I’m quiet. I observe. I try to speak as much of the local language as I can. I even dress like the locals. I try to fit in seamlessly with the tapestry before me.

I love doing this, and having an ethnically ambiguous look is certainly an advantage. One of my first great achievements was at age 20 when an English woman in Florence complimented me on my English language skills after I gave her directions.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time in Asia, a continent that I love — but I can’t fit in here the way I can in Europe. Not only is there the race factor, but the culture is so different.

In most Asian countries, you’ll find lots of expats, but they tend to exist on their own orbit. Even the longtime expats that I’ve known in Korea, Japan, and Thailand — even Brunei — even the ones who have married locals and become fluent in the language, have found it enormously challenging to break through to the level of being seen as a local.

Hong Kong changed all that.

Hong Kong

From the moment I arrived, I was struck by the fact that Hong Kong felt so familiar — like a cross between American and Britain, only set in Asia.

What was it? I asked myself as I observed the crowd gathering at Tsim Sha Tsui, taking pictures of the Bruce Lee statue and putting their hands in movie stars’ handprints. Perhaps I was just struck by the fact that I wasn’t struck by how different it was, which is what I would usually expect in Asia.

And it was easy. If I cut through Thailand like a hot knife through butter, I cut through Hong Kong like a hot knife through, well, water.

Hong Kong at Night

On the surface, you could say that it’s because of Hong Kong’s long history as a British colony, complete with English signage everywhere and the English language being widely spoken. (Most Hong Kong locals fluent in English speak it with the most posh English accent, something I found interesting, considering how different the accents are in different countries colonized by the British like Australia, Malta, and Singapore.)

Or maybe it’s just because I’ve been to so many different Chinatowns around the world and it all feels familiar. (I really hope that’s not it.)

The day-to-day environment in Hong Kong is far less brash than mainland China, where visitors are often shocked by the hocking, spitting, pushing and yelling. A few Hong Kong locals even mentioned “culture clash” during busy Chinese New Year, a time when lots of mainlanders visit Hong Kong.

Hong Kong

It’s not a question of how much I like the place. I adore Thailand and Japan, but I could never feel like a local as easily as I could in Hong Kong. Both countries has cultural gaps that are too difficult to close.

In Thailand, economic disparity is the biggest factor. Even if you live in Thailand for years, learn the language and work on a Thai salary, even if you marry a Thai person, there’s still the fact that you got yourself to Thailand in the first place, ensuing that you’re coming from more money than most Thais will ever see.

In Japan, the difference is the culture — more than any other country I’ve visited, Japanese day-to-day life is defined by thousands of nuanced inferences. When you add in the constant politeness and the immaculate fashion on top of it, Japan can make you feel like a wild animal surrounded by porcelain dolls.

Mong Kok Crowd

I’m not saying a westerner could integrate seamlessly in Hong Kong — there’s no way you can go entirely native. Cantonese is a difficult language to learn (and much more challenging than Mandarin, I’ve heard from several locals), and Chinese culture could fill volumes of encyclopedias.

But as far as Asia goes, Hong Kong is about as close to the Western world as you can get.

Hong Kong

Could I live here?

Absolutely. If I were to live in Asia, Hong Kong would probably be my first choice.

I love the feeling of the city. I love the food. I love how easy it is to get around. I love all the things you’ll see on a stroll through the city. Visa-wise, I most likely wouldn’t have much trouble. And while Asia wouldn’t be an ideal location for me at this point in my career, Hong Kong is without question the best airline hub on the continent.

Lots of expats decide to make Hong Kong their home. While there are lots of English teachers, as there are throughout Asia, many Hong Kong expats tend to work in the financial sector, which makes a big difference in the expat atmosphere compared to other countries.

I wonder if Hong Kong will ever be where I call home. It’s certainly a contender.

Have you ever been struck by how at home you felt in a destination?

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48 thoughts on “The Revelation of Hong Kong”

  1. It’s because Hong King was a British colony until 1996. And being an international financial center as well, it draws people from all parts of the world.

  2. Hi! I’m an American girl who has been living in Hong Kong for almost a year, and the ease with which I was able to settle in here still amazes me. Because of its British past, you also find this really diverse expat group, where it’s not just teachers and embassy people, but also Western engineers, event planners, lawyers, yoga teachers, etc. On top of being incredibly safe, the locals are extremely kind and welcoming, which makes it even easier to live here. I love this city!

  3. This is nicely timed as I’m going to Hong Kong in just under a month. I absolutely can’t wait and luckily I have a guide in the guise of my best friend so it should be all good fun (and plenty of eating I’m hoping)

  4. Hong Kong is adaptable, reliable, and all those other “-able” suffixes which we yearn for when we are searching for out next home.

    I too visited Hong Kong after 2 years outside of North America and the Westernization of everything was extremely comforting.

  5. It’s great to hear you’re feeling so at home in Hong Kong ๐Ÿ™‚ Sounds really great. I’m looking forward to everything being so different when I visit Asia, so Hong Kong isn’t high on my list for the time being, but I guess when it all gets too much it’s not to know there is somewhere close by where things will be a little more familiar.

  6. I feel the same way about Singapore….. I have been to Hong Kong as well..twice…back when it was a crown colony. However when it came to choosing a place to return to on route to Cambodia I chose to return to Singapore…a cross between the UK and Asia. Plus the fact Malaysia is well…over the border!!!

  7. I never would have guessed that Hong Kong is such a wonderful place, but I guess it makes sense! The more I travel, the more comfortable I feel about acknowledging strong feelings I have toward places. Years ago I felt compelled to love EVERYTHING. Now, I’m a bit more honest with myself…with the positives *and* the negatives ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. I lived for a while just across the border from HK in Shenzhen, and the change in cultures that happens as you board the train from the border to Kowloon is incredible. I’d have to agree that it seems like one of the most liveable cities in Asia, and one that I could totally see myself moving to at some point.

  9. “Japan can make you feel like a wild animal surrounded by porcelain dolls.” – brilliant. I’m yet to feel completely at home in a country I visit. One part of me wants that to happen some day, the other part hopes that it doesn’t. Because I think it’ll just add to my fear of the world becoming one culture where everything looks the same ๐Ÿ™‚


  10. Hong kong us a great place the MTR sets it apart from the rest of asia. I surprised me in a good way when I was there. Good article.

  11. Hi Kate, usually I am a huge fan of your articles… however I am actually a little disappointed by this one. Hong Kong is high up on my list of places that I would like to visit, but the way that you sold Hong Kong came off as being a little ethnocentric and offensive. The idea that Hong Kong is your new favorite Asian city because its culture isn’t too Asian for you is off-putting.

    1. Hi, Alise — thanks for commenting. I don’t think this piece is ethnocentric at all, and if I didn’t like Asia, I wouldn’t have spent more than a third of my time there over the past few years. Even in this piece, I talked about how much I adore Thailand and Japan, but how it’s difficult to be seen as a local there, even if you spend years living there, learn the language, and marry a local. It can be lonely being an expat or living abroad long-term, and finding Hong Kong a place where you don’t stick out so obtusely can be a big relief. There’s nothing wrong with that.

      1. Hi Kate,

        as a native HongKongese, I agree what you think!

        As a Brtitish colony for 160 years, local HK people are well westernized and mix with traditional chinese character. So it is a charming city for many expats!
        It will certainly more interesting if you are guided by a local Hongkongese, will find more insteresting culture, tasty food (even it only cost you about $1.00 US dollar).

        Disappointed that there are many big changes in these 18 years, too many immigrants form mainland china(not westernized but only have chinese character), at the same time, the government become more “chinanilzation” (I guess you know what I mean).

        Anyway, I love my Home, and welcome you like my Home! Hope you will visit again and I will introduce as much as tasty food for you…..:))

  12. You’re absolutely right! When I went to Hong Kong, it felt so right and somehow just so British. It’s difficult to explain but you described it well. I felt right at home and was so close to moving back there but having a baby and moving away from the German grandparents wouldn’t have been nice, as my son is an only child.

    The other place that I immediately recognised as “home” was, and is Berlin. It was so uncanny that when I left India (that I had been dying to go to for years) the place that I felt safe, comfortable and alive in, was Berlin. I’m still here!

  13. It’s interesting to hear you say that about Hong Kong. I’ve heard a lot of people say they didn’t particularly enjoy living there. My sister was recently asked to move there with her job but she convinced them to let her use Auckland as a base instead. I’d be realy interested to spend some time there myself and see how I feel about it.

  14. I spent christmas in Hong Kong with my family a couple of years ago and it was awesome. We spent a day going out to the little islands and on one of them I ate this steamed custard bun that I still rave about today. Random, but oh so delicious. ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. Ive been to Hong Kong at least 3 times and love it. I love how you can be in the city but then be at the beach or in the hills in no time at all and I think that sidenof hong kong, outside the big city, doesnt get enough coverage.

  16. I’m SO glad you wrote this post Kate. I’m not into Asia much at all generally, but for some reason Hong Kong has always piqued my interest, with its mix of Western culture and Asian traditions. Your post just confirmed that my interest is not unfounded and that I would probably enjoy Hong Kong very much.

  17. Interesting read. Since I have lived in different cities, I have the ability to feel at home almost anywhere. I am pretty adaptable to a new atmosphere, culture and lifestyle. The only thing that bugs me a little bit is too many language differences in India.

  18. I felt the same way about Hong Kong! I thought it was the perfect mix of familiar and foreign-it felt Westerm enough to by homey but foreign enough to always be interesting.

  19. That’s so interesting, I’ve had so many friends give my wildly varying opinions on Hong Kong, ranging from hate to obsession. I have a feeling I’d love it!

  20. After visiting myself, I can totally understand why lots of expats choose Hong Kong as their base in Asia. It’s modern, easy to get around, and very easy to assimilate to.

    Unfortunately, I don’t generally love big cities (London being the exception, it seems) so I don’t think I’ll ever find myself relocating to Hong Kong. But I can understand why you connected with it so well!

  21. There have been a few western cities I have visited that I thought I could definitely live in. In Asia though I felt so out of place in Thailand, Cambodia and Japan but Singapore felt like home to me. I have said a lot ever since my first visit that I could live there or at least spend a lot more time there. By the sounds of Hong Kong I imaging I will feel the same when I eventually get there soon.

  22. I love Hong Kong as well. I have been traveling in Thailand, and fell in love with it. I am always struck by how I feel at home in most places….I think some of us carry home around in our hearts, and so we always love our travels. Hong Kong is an amazing city…I fell in love with Bangkok in just the last couple of weeks!

  23. You could probably manage to do the same thing in Argentina or Chile, and maybe South Africa. And maybe Singapore? The colonial days have a hard time fading away. But I think if you’re trying to be an expat, it’s a lot better to pick a country where you can feel at home, rather than just sort of drift through as a semi-permanent tourist. I would find it weird to live somewhere and feel cut off from the local population, and cultural detachment has a way of doing that.

  24. How would you compare it to Singapore? I’d really like to visit Hong Kong (hopefully in the next few years) but am not a huge fan of Singapore.

    1. I found the ambiance to be very different from Singapore. Singapore had a nice but sterile feeling to it, and Hong Kong felt much more vibrant and lively to me. Then price wise, Hong Kong is a bit cheaper overall than Singapore, and when it comes to liquor, MUCH cheaper. I’d go for Hong Kong over Singapore.

  25. This is exactly why I’ve called Hong Kong home these past two years. From a western standpoint, it has everything you could ever want plus all the benefits of Asia!

  26. I think for me, the at-home feeling arises when I land in Singapore..something about the weather, the tropical feel, the drive from the airport along the lush tree-lined streets..the familiarity in languages spoken (my mother tongue, Tamil) including English. The next place for me is Ubud, Bali. It just feels comforting. I think I could retire there, running a B&B ๐Ÿ™‚

  27. Hong Kong had better be good. I just booked a flight there. I was considering booking it last night, but held off, thinking, “I’ll read Kate’s posts about Hong Kong first, we seem to like similar places.” If I don’t like it, I’M GOING TO SUE YOU. Part of the package that I’ll undoubtedly win (because what judge wouldn’t agree with me?) has to include Mario’s cousin. Heterosexual, schmeterosexual.

  28. Hi Kate!

    What a great read on the city I grew up in ๐Ÿ™‚ I live in New York City now (and for the past 8 years), and I go home every so often. HK will always be my home no matter where I am in the world.


  29. I visited HongKong a few times over the past few years. It’s great there, every time i’ve seen a new face of it – malls, mountains, and chungking mansions, but i never got a feeling i could live there until i visited Llama Island. Did you get a chance to catch a ferry there?

    I’ll be going back during this Chinese New Year holiday, and made a post of the things i’d learnt from my first time back in 2010, hope to prepare some others heading out for their first time!


  30. I first visited Hong Kong in 1997 to do a visa run (I live in Korea). That is when I got MY revelation about Hong Kong. The FOOD, shopping, FOOD, convenience, FOOD, so much to see and do, FOOD, great nightlife, and uh, did I mention FOOD?

    That said, it’s different if you LIVE in HK but well, you could pick far worse cities to end up in.

  31. I have spent a lot of time in Asia as well. You are right, blending in with their culture is really hard, it is so different. Taiwan struck me as pretty similar to America, but I have never been to Hong Kong, I will have to go and see!

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