Trivia of Hong Kong
Last updated: Saturday September 23rd, 2023
I have written many blogs about my home city so far. I am not going to bore you with more information, but rather some trivia that are probably not well known to outsiders.
A Smelly Harbour
You probably already know that the name Hong Kong literally means "fragrant harbour" in Chinese. Its Chinese name is made up of two characters. The first character 香 is pronounced like "hurn" in English, rhyming with burn, earn and turn but without the R sound. It is in the first tone in Cantonese, so it has a high flat sound just like how it is pronounced in English. As Chinese words are usually made up of compound characters, the character 香 can be used in words such as
花香 (lit. flower fragrant) = scent of flowers
香水 (lit. fragrant water) = perfume
香料 (lit. fragrant material) = spice
The character on its own can also mean incense sticks. So one theory on the name origin is that the island used to produce incense sticks that were traded in its port.
The second character 港 is pronounced "gong" but in the second tone in Cantonese, similar to "what?" in English (or just listen to this audio and save me from explaining). It means harbour or port, and in turn it is the shorten name of the city. It can be used in ways such as
港澳 (lit. harbour & bay) = Hong Kong & Macau
中港台 (lit. centre, harbour & platform) = China, Hong Kong & Taiwan
港府 (lit. harbour mansion) = the Hong Kong government
Another theory is that the city got its name from 香港仔, literally the "little fragrant harbour", which was a fishing village on the south of the island when the Brits first arrived during the Opium War. It is now a suburb called Aberdeen in English (named after the Scottish city). Aberdeen was where the iconic Jumbo Floating Restaurant was once moored. Due to its high maintenance cost and the lack of business during covid, the much beloved boat was towed to the open sea and sunk by its owner (who claimed it was an accident) in 2022, upsetting many locals and past patrons.
So the name suggests that the harbour must smell great right? It might be the case 200 years ago, but with so many people cramped into such a small place, pollution is inevitable and unsurprisingly there can be foul smell sometimes. However, the situation has improved in recent years, so confident that they resumed the annual Harbour Swimming Race in 2011, which was stopped since 1978.
Lion Rock Spirit
For most foreigners, the Victoria Harbour and the skyscrapers are what they would first think of Hong Kong. But to the locals, the Lion Rock is the landmark that truly represents the city.
Lion Rock is a 495 metre tall hill north of Kowloon, and its peak resembles a crouching lion overlooking the city. Under the hill, there are many social housing estates that initially housed thousands of refugees fleeing Communist China in the 50s and 60s. These families came with nothing and their hard works contributed to the success of the city, hence the term "Lion Rock spirit". This was popularised by the 70s TV drama series "Below the Lion Rock" which depicted stories of these poor working class families, and the theme song of the same name is so popular that it is often regarded as the unofficial anthem of Hong Kong.
In recent years, our lion has been busy "greeting" protesters who climbed up and vented their anger. This of course is no longer the case nowadays, with the powerful National Security Law keeping everyone at bay.
People Mountain People Sea
It is a Chinese phrase describing a lot of people, and in Hong Kong there are over 7 million of them. The city is famous for being one of the most crowded place in the world, with one of the most expensive property prices. What lesser known is that Hong Kong is actually not that small and it has an area of over 1000 sq km, which is bigger than Singapore, Bahrain and many other tiny island nations.
The truth is that most areas are steep hills and designated as country parks. There are many hiking trails, reservoirs, wetland reserves, beaches and islands that are just minutes away from the busy city. So much so that Hong Kong was once ranked as one of the most liveable cities in the world because of its easy access to nature.
While there may be a growing number of wild monkeys and pigs in Hong Kong, the number of people actually fell in 2022, with approximately 200,000 people already left the city since 2020 in the new round of exodus. Hong Kong also has the world's lowest birth rate, with fewer than 0.9 child born per woman, well below 2.1 required to replenish the population. It is expected that the birth rate will continue to fall to 0.6 in the future, meaning that childless couples will be the most common household. You can read this article explaining the situation further. But in short, it is the consequence of a combination of factors, such as despair over the political future and the depriving personal freedom, the high cost of living (e.g. US$2M can buy you a shoebox size apartment in Hong Kong), low wages and high inequality (the minimum wage is at ~US$5 per hour), and the high pressure environment.
In a recent TV news interview that went viral, a reporter asked a passerby what he thought of the Japanese nuclear wastewater. He said that he was not concerned because "we are the last generation", a sentiment echoed by many Hong Kongers.
As a result, the population is aging very rapidly, and many primary schools are now unable to fill their Year 1 classes with pupils and are forced to shut down.
Another popular theory in Hong Kong is that China is operating a "transfusion", i.e. sending thousands of mainlander migrants to Hong Kong daily to replace the local people. The concept that China is going to "keep the island, not the people" (which originally referred to Taiwan) is rife in Hong Kong. Therefore within the next decade, the demographic of the city will change significantly, and the Cantonese speaking Hong Kongers will eventually become the minority (similar to the Wu-speaking Shanghaiese in Shanghai).
The Helping Sister
If you do have children in Hong Kong, how could you possibly look after them when both parents have to work long hours to make ends meet? Thanks to the Philippines and Indonesia, there are hundred of thousands of domestic helpers working in Hong Kong who do all the cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping. Because the families who employ them have to provide accommodation (which is usually a room no bigger than a wardrobe), meals and flights, their salary is capped at around US$600 a month, which is quite affordable for many families. Previously, the locals would rudely call these Filipino workers "bun mui" (賓妹, lit. the "Pin Girl", which is quite offensive). Nowadays, the more educated Hong Kongers would tell their kids to respectfully call them the "big sister" (姐姐) or "helper sister" (工人姐姐).
For many first timers to Hong Kong, perhaps one of the most memorable scenes (or cultural shock) is that on every Sunday, they can find thousands of helpers everywhere in the city as they all have their day off. They would usually gather around the city parks, public squares, footbridges or anywhere they can sit together and spend the day picnicking, singing and gossiping.
WTF?! It's ATV!
For a global city and the centre of Cantonese and Chinese pop culture, it was strange that for a very long time, there were only two TV stations in Hong Kong, namely TVB and ATV. The former enjoyed an absolute monopoly for many years, with over 90% of viewership, leaving ATV the subject of mockery. For example, there was an internet meme from a comedy movie dialogue which said "Wtf?! It's ATV!". In one incident at an ATV anniversary show, actors and actresses threw traditional birthday buns from stage to the audiences below, but only fell to empty chairs as the audiences were all too bored and left the show early. In another joke, the 56th anniversary logo of ATV resembled closely to the word "death" (死). Whether this was a prank by the designer is still debated today. Anyway, this became a prophecy as the government finally stopped renewing ATV's free-to-air broadcasting licence in 2015. A parody song called "ATV is Eternal" became a great hit that year mocking the station.
When everyone was watching the final hours of ATV and anticipating something special to happen, it simply replayed an old women's talk show. The last line before the station shut down at midnight was that "everyone should be independent" (referring to that women should be financially independent). This was caught by the pro-independence movement in Hong Kong and became another viral meme.
Since then, there are two new free-to-air TV stations in Hong Kong, and TVB is quickly losing viewers especially among the younger generation. But this is another long story and I can write about it in another blog (or maybe not).
Ting Hai Effect
Talking about TV, the popular 1992 TVB drama series The Greed of Man led to a well-known stock market phenomenon called the Ting Hai Effect. The theory goes that every time when a drama series starring Adam Cheng is aired on TV, it will cause a sudden drop in the local stock market, the Hang Seng Index. And no, I did not make this up. You can follow the link to Wikipedia to learn more about it.
The TV drama was about Ting Hai (starring Adam Cheng) and his family making a fortune short selling derivatives in the bear market until their demise, where Ting threw his four adult sons off the stock exchange building before jumping off himself. This was seen as a curse on the stock market, and such phenomenon was first reported in 2004 by market analyst from Credit Lyonnais. Since then, this was widely publicised and became a self-fulfilling prophecy, when people would sell their stocks as soon as they learnt that Cheng's drama was scheduled to air on TV (and this included reruns).
Another supernatural phenomenon in Hong Kong is the Li's Field. Li refers to Li Ka-shing, the multi-billionaire in Hong Kong. It is a mysterious and powerful field that protects the city from tropical typhoon approaching on a weekday, which would otherwise force all schools and businesses to close during the storm.
This came about when Li told reporters that every time a typhoon hit Hong Kong, it caused millions of dollar in economic losses. This infuriated many ordinary workers, who would rather enjoy an occasional day off during the typhoon season. Because Li is so rich and powerful that his conglomerate pretty much controls every aspect of life in Hong Kong, including real estate, telco, electricity, supermarket, pharmacy, container port and so on, this tongue-in-cheek conspiracy theory soon emerged.
Becoming Dragon? Or Becoming Bug?
One way to annoy your Hong Kong friends is to tell them how much you love Jackie Chan. Yes his movies are good and funny (especially those in the 80s), and he is famous around the world, but most Hong Kongers loathe him because of his scandals, personal behaviour and political stance.
Firstly, he has an illegitimate daughter whom he refuses to recognise and support, while his son was caught up in a drug scandal. Then, he spoke publicly many times that the Chinese people had to be ruled with an iron fist and did not deserve democracy, as seen in the chaos in Taiwan and Hong Kong. He openly supports the Communist Party and the implementation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong.
As a result, he is the subject of many online ridicules. His Chinese stage name 成龍 (sing4 lung4, which means "becoming dragon") is often changed to 成蟲 (sing4 cung4, "becoming bug") by the netizen.
So if you want to impress your Hong Kong friends, tell them that you like Chow Yun-fat (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Pirates of the Caribbean) or Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love, Infernal Affairs, Shang-Chi) instead.
Winnie the Pooh and Pikachu
Speaking of nicknames, we all know who Winnie the Pooh is. On the other hand, the current Chief Executive of Hong Kong John Lee Ka-chiu, who is sanctioned by the US for undermining Hong Kong's autonomy, is nicknamed Pikachu as his name sounds similar.
Most other unpopular politicians have nicknames too. For example, the previous Chief Executive CY Leung is called "689", which was the number of votes he got in the sham election by the 1200 hand-picked election committee members. It also reminds people of the Tiananmen Massacre in June 1989, when back then the young Leung showed sympathy towards the student movement. Another Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, is nicknamed "777" (well she got more votes), or simply the "7 lady", as 7 sounds like another swear word in Cantonese.
There are many more fun facts and customs about Hong Kong, but many of these are hard to explain in English to a foreigner.
Now that you know the city as much as the locals, it is time to challenge yourself with my Hong Kong City Quiz. I hope you enjoy this blog and learn a new thing or two.