As seen in Out and Abroad
While the virtues of Hong Kong have often been extolled (See: Part I of my article), the city’s darker side has mostly been kept under wraps from outsiders. The truth is that living in Hong Kong and inhaling its infectious energy can also be lethally intoxicating.
Almost four years have gone by since I first landed with my suitcase(s) at Chek Lap Kok. Now I look back at the roller coaster ride that made up the first half of my adulthood: one day “I love this city!,” and then “I want to leave, get me out of this hellhole!” the next.
I already told you why I adored my Hong Kong life. But while the experience has made me more progressive, empowered, and stronger, it has also turned me into somewhat of a cynic – not completely bitter, but slightly jaded, weary, occasionally defensive and pessimistic. Hence, my decision to take a break.
Last March I packed my bags (and balikbayan box) and flew out of Hong Kong with no return date in mind. Whether I will return or stay away forever is a question that continues to hover at the back of my head…
Here are 6 reasons to stay away
Reason #1: People lose their values.
Some briefly, some for life. The old hedonistic adage of “What happens in Hong Kong stays in Hong Kong” applies to anyone living here too. It’s not uncommon to hear these excuses: “It’s so far away from home and anything familiar. Nobody knows me here so I can do anything and everything I please without repercussions.”
Dirty old men are not the only ones sleeping with prostitutes. I’ve seen my friends in their twenties do it too. Nobody even bats an eyelash anymore – it’s that common. True story: “She’s a Vietnamese student. I didn’t pay. It was like the movie Pretty Woman.” If you have done it once, what would stop you from doing it again? But then again, I hear this also happens in other big cities like Singapore, London, and New York.
And then there are women sleeping with supervisors to get promoted, or with clients to get business. Again, I personally know people who have done this. A pretty local girl my age said she slept with a married man when she was 18 just because he pampered her with gifts and attention. My mind kept telling me ‘this is not normal.’ But even my friends and colleagues of friends – normal, young attractive people with regular jobs – were doing it.
There was one night when a drunk French guy started following my younger sister and I. I told him “Go away, we’re not interested. We’re going home.” He laughed at our face and said, “Do I need to pay you so that I can talk to you?”
Last year the city reeled from a double murder at Wan Chai’s red light district. A young British banker butchered two young Southeast Asian prostitutes on separate occasions and stuffed their body parts into his suitcase.
A night out can consist of drunken fun, but it can also involve your friends disappearing every now and then to snort their nth line of cocaine in the washroom for the second evening this week. Or seeing that girl you were just kissing getting into a taxi with another man.
I got so used to people behaving horribly towards each other – using each other for fun – that until now I find myself being surprised and impressed when people have no ulterior motives. Perhaps Hong Kong isn’t the only city where people lose their values, but the culture is more prevalent here. I wonder… will I ever get rid of the suspicion or pessimism that was ingrained in me during those four years?
Reason #2: Dating is a bloodbath.
Most people date as a diversion, while they’re in town for a few months or years. No one intends to build lasting relationships, so why should you invest in people?
Any respect you had for others will fly out of the window, especially for Asian girls. They have a (regularly reinforced) reputation of being gold diggers, white man hunters and easy to get into bed.
Or men think they can treat you like objects because you look or dress a certain way. In Hong Kong women get manhandled all the time. One night a smallish Chinese guy slapped my ass really hard when I was walking out of a club. In defense I turned around and pushed him saying, “Don’t touch me!” He immediately raises a fist and punches me on the head. Someone drags me away while I’m kicking and screaming. I go to the bouncer to complain, but of course they do nothing because they haven’t seen anything.
Once, I was on a date with a guy and we were hanging out at a bar. A girl throws her arms around his neck. I’m thinking ‘He must know her.’ And then the irritating speculation: ‘Maybe they used to go out.’ But he raises his arms and says, “I’m with my girlfriend!” She laughs in his face saying, “It’s better to be single in Hong Kong, didn’t you know?”
Reason #3: The nastiness of locals.
I know that I’m going to be crucified for saying this, but even Hong Kongese people admit that locals are some of the most angry, unpleasant people around. Screaming and snapping at each other is a normal mode of communication. I simply cannot go two days without getting snarled and cursed at, or discriminated against.
Take a look at what politicians are saying to get a clue of the institutionalised racism in Hong Kong society. (See: Hong Kong lawmaker rapped for ‘racist’ views on maids’ sex lives.)
The hatred is especially directed towards Filipino and Indonesian women. These people grew up treating their Filipino and Indonesian maids as second class citizens and believing that specific nationalities are inferior.
No matter how hard you try to avoid the nastiness, you will experience it by doing everyday tasks, like trying to buy something in a shop with vendors tsking you about not having change; trying to get directions and getting brushed aside with “NO ENGLISH” even if they speak it perfectly or being completely ignored; even getting a taxi is difficult (See: How I got dragged on the street by a Hong Kong taxi driver).
Reason #4: Racism in general.
This was a conversation between my friend from Costa Rica and a woman he was tutoring:
It’s not uncommon to hear this kind of sentiment, even from highly educated people. Obviously, not everyone is like this, but the mindset is prevalent enough in the city to wear you down, especially if you’re part of the discriminated minority.
It gets exhausting trying to fight a prejudiced opinion of your countrymen every time you meet someone new or even when you’re trying to get a good table at a restaurant. I was waiting in the queue for a while and the waiter simply would not serve me until my caucasian companions arrived. Only then we were immediately seated.
Reason #5: Low quality of life.
An average salary cannot buy you good living conditions. I started out in a filthy Kowloon apartment in which I had to walk up four flights of cement stairs that smelled like urine. It was kind of fun at the time, but after a while I realized that I needed space to breathe, a kitchen without cockroaches, and a place to hang my clothes where they won’t end up smelling like dried seafood.
The pollution is getting worse as well. It’s nowhere near as bad as Guangzhou, where everyday is a grey day, but it’s close enough to the factories of southern China that when the wind blows from the north, you won’t see a blue sky for days or even weeks. The only decent sea water for swimming is around 2 hours away from Central (Tai Long Wan). And the only starry sky you will see are the twinkling of skyscrapers when there’s a light show.
Everything is ridiculously expensive. America and even Europe seem affordable in comparison. If you’re looking for western food or English speaking service (ie. yoga classes in English) expect to burn a hole through your wallet. A smoothie from Central alone can cost you HK$80 (US$10).
Reason #6: Materialism.
You are measured according to your net worth. You are judged according to the brand of watch you’re wearing, or the designer bag you’re carrying. I hate that I’ve gradually become brand conscious because I quickly realized that what I wore affected how I would get treated: from my chances of getting a job to good service at an establishment.
We’ve finally come to the end of my long-winded rant. Hopefully it didn’t ooze too much of bitterness. Ultimately the question remains: should I return to Hong Kong or stay away for good? Many who similarly felt disillusioned, sickened, and/or exhausted found themselves returning because they realized they can’t find a life as good anywhere else. But many have also walked away without looking back. If you were me, would you stay or would you go?