After spending more than a year abroad teaching English and traveling, I made my way to Hong Kong. It was one of the last legs of my trip before heading to Montreal. Saying that I was excited would be a huge understatement. To me, Hong Kong was supposed to be like the New York or Tokyo of China (even if many Hong Kongers don’t consider themselves to be a part of China).
Here’s how the travel blogging community, and as an extension the travel industry is a little weird; almost no one will come out and say they don’t or didn’t like a destination. We’ll give you a million and one reasons to visit a place, but we rarely say why you shouldn’t. And it makes perfect sense, we’re selling the travel lifestyle. It would be pretty depressing if every other travel blog you read was giving you lists of places NOT to go or things NOT to do, right?
Well, today I’m not pushing the dream. I’m not sugar coating or puff piecing for social media validation. I’m going to let you know exactly why I (currently) hate Hong Kong.
A large part (if not all) of why I hate Hong Kong is absolutely my fault. I set the bar WAY too high. Hong Kong is home to Bruce Lee, a larger than life martial artist who I’ve idolized since I was a kid. I was told Hong Kong was different from mainland China in many ways, and although I had a great time teaching in Harbin, my time there had drained me and I was ready for a change of scenery and pace. I had heard wonderful things about the food, shopping, wealth and activities too. I broke my cardinal travel rule: arrive with no expectations. My trip was off to a bad start before I even stepped foot on the plane.
Lesson: When traveling, give your destination a chance to impress you first. Leave your ego and expectations at home.
Hong Kong is an impressive city. It’s filled with skyscrapers (that’s good or bad depending on how you look at it), and has a seemingly never-ending list of things to do. You can do island tours, check out museums, parks, Disneyland, do tons of shopping (some brands are priced comparably to the US & Canada) and to top it all off, the weather is beautiful in September and October there. The transportation system is also top notch (but a little pricy) and the city is relatively simple to navigate. You’re thinking to yourself, “what’s there to hate,” right? The answer is simple: the people.
Lesson: There are pros and cons to every destination.
Hong Kong – The Land Without Smiles:
I spent a total of three weeks in Hong Kong. But even after my first few hours there, I had the impression that many of its people were rude, unfriendly and icy in their demeanours. I’m from Montreal, and although my city definitely has lots of charm and kindness, we’re not always the friendliest. I’ve had unpleasant encounters in a few of the places I’ve visited. Two “gentlemen” tried intimidating me into a large tip after they gave me directions to my train terminal in Rome, Italy (it was about 10 yards away and I didn’t ask for their assistance). I was followed around a convenience store in China. I was unlawfully stopped and searched by “police officers” in Bangkok. The list goes on. But never was the overall mood of any particular location as surly and unwelcoming as in Hong Kong.
Lesson: Not all cities are created equal.
Nobody likes feeling unwelcome, especially not when they’re spending their hard-earned money, traveling and generally experiencing degrees of discomfort to embrace a new culture. Not only did the security guards at the hostels I stayed in make ZERO effort to smile, nod or say hi, one actually yelled at me and waved me away for not knowing which elevator to take up to my hostel in a complex of about 17 floors and hundreds of rooms (turns out, one elevator was for residents, the other was for hostellers). Another security guard, yelled at me for not closing an automatic door which would’ve closed on its own a few seconds later. The staff at two out of three of the hostels I stayed in stared at me like a deer in headlights until I asked to speak to someone who could help me check in. One of the hostels had a note saying to use the phone on the desk to call someone to help check me in. She casually showed up 10 minutes later.
Out of all the shops and restaurants I entered (dozens over the span of three weeks), I’d say about half of them acknowledged my existence at all with hello, a smile or some form of eye contact. One particular restaurant’s hostess saw me walk in, wait at the door to be seated until I finally sat myself, more waiting. She welcomed two or three guests after me, even more waiting, brought their menus and took their orders, more waiting. She was then reminded that she hadn’t even come to my table, to which she responded with a hand gesture that was body language for “Yea whatever, I’ll get to him when I get to him.” In turn, I responded by standing up putting on my jacket and abruptly leaving, no more waiting. The next restaurant I entered (right next door) was a small, hole in the wall kind of spot where I was warmly greeted by everyone on the staff and they remained friendly until I paid my $30 HKD bowl of delicious ramen and left.
With the exception of the hole in the wall, the same type of behaviour continued in grocery stores, at the movie theatre, even walking down the street (people make no effort to move out of each other’s way). It’s like one big game of unflinching human bumper cars.
Fact: Hong Kong ranked as the 3rd least friendly city on Earth in a 2012 TripAdvisor survey of 75 000 people.
Is It Just Me?
At first, I took it upon myself to smile more and be more friendly. When my attempts to win the locals over with love failed (miserably), I began asking my hostel mates if they were having similar experiences. To my surprise, and disappointment, I was not alone. Honestly, I’d rather it have only been me having a sour time, but most of us reported several instances of flat out crappy treatment. So, like any self-respecting Millennial, I took to the Internet to see what even more people had to say about Hong Kong. The results were consistent, people in Hong Kong were seen as unwelcoming by A LOT of travelers. Of course, some people had no complaints at all, and I was genuinely happy to read their commentary. But most had sharp words for the shining city by the harbour.
It’s a sad reality, but money is one of the most influential things in our world. Hong Kong is no exception to that rule. I read several comments on travel discussion forum boards about how luxury travelers (or non backpacking budget travelers) or people who at the very least appeared wealthy had a much better time in Hong Kong. I mentioned this in conversation with a few other travelers and they too felt similarly. I decided to put the theory to the test. Instead of a “lowly” hostel, I booked myself a four star hotel for a couple of nights. I was greeted with smiles upon entry, engaged in small talk with a few of the hotel staff and even had my luggage (all 50 lbs of it taken to my room for me). I swapped my sneakers, shorts, t-shirt and backpack for a button down shirt, fitted slacks and boat shoes, sure enough, I was treated notably better than when I looked like a broke traveler. I like dressing nicely from time to time, and enjoy dressing down as well, but no matter what a person’s wearing, it’s the person that counts, not their clothing or outside appearance. To be fair, this frame of mind is NOT specific to Hong Kong, it happens all over the world, but Hong Kong is where I felt it was most pronounced. To a certain extent if you’re paying more for a premium service, you should in some cases get more, but never should you be slighted or treated as lesser than for being a regular person, on a budget or anything less than wealthy.
One of my hostel mates highlighted the fact that part of Hong Kong’s distant approach to its travelers may be based on some historical events. In a nutshell, as of the 1950s Hong Kong fell under British rule. This change in rulership brought many immigrants, refugees (many from the Chinese mainland), foreign companies and wealth. This strange turn of events created a large middle class for people already living in Hong Kong and turned many of the refugees/immigrants into Hong Kong’s lower/labour class. So basically, a lot of people in Hong Kong seem to have a “holier than thou” mindset as a result. There are obviously other factors involved, but I’m a blogger, not a historian.
Should You Go To Hong Kong?
I can’t answer that question for you. But theoretically speaking, if I were to answer, I’d say “Yes, go to Hong Kong.” Why would I suggest that you go to a city that I dedicated an entire blog post to bashing? Because I’m a hypocrite, obviously (kidding)! Here’s the real reason I would still suggest Hong Kong as a place to visit: you should never form opinions based solely on another person’s experiences. You need to see it and live it for yourself. Who knows? Maybe I just experienced and extremely unfortunate chain of events. Maybe I’m a self-righteous snob who expects the red carpet to be rolled out for me everywhere I go, lest the destination be the target of a scathing blog post. You’ll never know until you try it out and form your own opinions.
Planning a trip to Hong Kong? Check out the links below for help. Good luck!
Have you ever been to Hong Kong? What was your experience like? Leave an intelligent response in the comment section below. Let’s discuss!
Until next time,