A friend of mine, a young architect at a Shanghai design studio, recently visited Hong Kong for a “pilgrimage to the paragon city of ease, efficiency, modernity and planning”, the enthusiastic urbanist told me.
His brief trip to Hong Kong turned out to be a big letdown, however, starting from trivial aspects of daily life.
Not-so-convenient convenience stores
The first odd thing my friend discovered about Hong Kong was from the dinner talk when I joked about the recent blooper of chief executive contender Carrie Lam.
The former No. 2 official became the city’s laughing stock for dashing to a 7-Eleven shop in the wee hours for a toilet roll. Everyone knows that the right place to get stuff like this is not in a convenience store but in a supermarket.
“Seriously? 7-Elevens here don’t sell toilet paper?” He looked puzzled but I did not get any more questions from him.
Later, I took him to a 7-Eleven to prove that they really don’t sell bathroom tissue.
Then we found that convenience stores in Hong Kong are not that convenient. You would be hard put if you were in dire need of some daily necessities outside supermarkets’ opening hours.
There are a whole lot of things you can’t buy from a corner store in the city, especially toiletries like shampoo, soap, detergent or shaving cream, but these are all available at any 7-Eleven or the like in Shanghai.
“You can even find stationery, earphones, USB cables and power banks at a 7-Eleven in Shanghai, anytime you need them. That’s what a convenience store is meant to be… What’s the point of having a 7-Eleven if there’s even no toilet roll?” he said.
“Poor Carrie, she wouldn’t have made a fool of herself if she was in Shanghai.”
Stone Age of Octopus
Another embarrassing moment came when paying for the dinner. While I was digging through my wallet for my Octopus card, he lost no time mocking Hong Kong’s medieval ways of settling bills.
“You guys still use this? In Shanghai we scan a QR code and it’s done. I can’t remember the last time I used cash or credit card.”
Hong Kong’s once much-hailed Octopus now looks like a memento of yesteryear to our country cousins north of the border, who have long embraced smarter cashless solutions with the ubiquitous AliPay and WeChat payment, from chain stores to roadside stalls.
You feel you are living in the Stone Age in Hong Kong when local retailers still hand out stamp-sized paper coupons on the presumption that you will patiently collect them to exchange for rewards or discounts.
“We get e-coupons with a quick scan,” he said.
If you think settling bills at 7-Eleven with Octopus is not a big hassle — by the way mainlanders get things done by tapping a few buttons in their all-in-one WeChat app, which also allows them to hail a cab, buy tickets, reserve a table or split bills via peer-to-peer transfers — then for sure we are no stranger to the high-pitched, strident sound of rejection when our Octopus has insufficient credit, as you won’t know how much credit is left unless you get rejected.
As for security, all e-payments are encrypted and have to be authorized either by the user’s fingerprint or a PIN, but if you lose your Octopus, the money is gone.
“It’s like we are surfing the 4G network but people in Hong Kong still think 2G is already good enough.”
Hong Kong’s skyscrapers also fail to impress the architect when far too many tenement blocks in old neighborhoods are in a state of disrepair and when a frenzied competition to pierce the skies is on in his own city — the 632-meter, 127-storey Shanghai Tower is now the world’s second tallest after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.
Hong Kong’s shopping paradise status is somehow pompous as well, he said, after visiting a number of landmark malls and commercial precincts. Many local amenities pale in comparison with newer complexes in Shanghai either in scale or aesthetics.
“Places like Harbour City, Times Square or Causeway Bay SOGO look so ticky-tacky nowadays and they need a serious facelift in hardware… Many shopping centers in the mainland’s second tier cities look more chic.”
“Shanghai is now giving Hong Kong a good run for its money in shopping and tourism… Last year, we had a real Disneyland and Hong Kong’s is just a miniature one… Hong Kong’s officials and developers need to go to Shanghai to see with their own eyes, and that will be an eye-opening experience.”
This time, he no longer carried a list of cosmetics or gadgets that he would carry home for his friends or relatives. Scenes of mainland tourists towing large suitcases hopping in and out of the city’s shops are gone. Also, gone is Hong Kong’s hospitable image. Nowadays, customers are usually piqued rather than pampered.
The architect even found grave problems in planning and building standards after spending a few nights in Wan Chai and Mong Kok.
“The first issue is noise insulation. Cities with ultra-high density like Hong Kong must adopt higher thresholds for noise control, but I found rooms in many of the residential and hotel buildings are not soundproof at all, against the noise from traffic and construction during the day and nuisance from neighbors at midnight… And, many Hongkongers like to stay up late and don’t care too much when they become a bother to others trying to get some sleep.
“Another one is sunlight hours. In Shanghai there are rules requiring minimum space between buildings to ensure ventilation and at least one hour of sunlight each day for ground floor units… But in Hong Kong, forget about breezeways, wind corridors or sunlight, you just stack as many units on a plot as you like… Homes here sell for whopping prices but many even don’t have a balcony. What you have here are the so-called wall towers — in long rectangular shapes with huge screens — and I can imagine the plight of these unfortunate dwellers who have to live forever in the shadow of these giant walls.”
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