Hello Hong Kong

I’ve never been to Asia before. One’s first trip to the other side of the world can be pretty disorienting (no pun intended), but Hong Kong is a nice way to stick your toe in the water: so many people speak English, though our local guide says the younger someone is, the less likely they speak it very well. Too bad!

But my first hint at something different enough to be a surprise came on the 14-hour plane ride across the Pacific. First, in complete contrast with my recent experience flying, the flight overseas proved that even American-based airlines (in this case, United) still know how to give good service: overseas flights are great, compared to domestic hops. There are enough flight attendants to give superb service, the food is OK (not quite good), and alcohol flows for free (well, included in the ticket cost).

Tsingtao’s old style removable pop-top.

But that wasn’t what was surprising. Rather, it was when I went for some of that “free” alcohol and realized that while enroute Asia, I could probably get a real Tsingtao Chinese beer — “Brewed with Laoshan Spring Water”.

I did, and immediately noticed something very different about it: the cans had the old-style pop top, the kind that come off the can when you pull them. I haven’t seen one of those in more than 20 years, after a bunch of lawsuits in the U.S. from stupid people who pulled the tab, dropped it in the can, then gulped down their beers got chunks of metal stuck in their throats.

So, this concept that the Chinese are way behind the U.S. on product safety, thinking nothing of slapping lead-based paint on kiddie toys? Obviously it’s just part of a trend. (But hey, I like it! Kind of nostalgic, really. After all, I was one of those kids that didn’t wear a helmet when I rode a bike, in part because they weren’t available for sale back then….)

I Saw the Problem Clearly

But on arrival in Hong Kong, there was something from my childhood that I remember well, but am decidedly not nostalgic for. I grew up in 1960s Los Angeles, and remember the air being thick with smog. Smog so pervasive and poisonous that it sometimes literally hurt to breathe.

The air in Hong Kong is like that today (it was probably pretty clear in the 60s!) Truly, truly awful. At one of Kit’s meetings, we were hosted by a senior Vice President of the Langham Hotel chain, a friendly Chinese man responsible for developing the chain in Asia.

Kit asked him about whether the chain paid attention to the environment. He was passionate in his reply: how sad it is that Hong Kong is so dirty and hot this late in the fall, how terrible it was to visit Alaska this year and see how far the ice has retreated, how the hospitality industry has to work much harder to be more gentle on the earth.

At least part of Chinese hospitality industry “gets it.” It’s about time the rest of the truly wasteful hospitality industry starts getting it too, especially in the U.S., which used to lead the world in hotel operations strategies.

But this is the reality of the air in Hong Kong today — this was taken at high noon:

Smog clogs the view of Hong Kong’s famous harbor. (Click to see larger)

The grayed-out buildings in the distance are only about a half-mile away, on the other side of the harbor. The natives are proud of their convention center, based on the Sydney Opera House (right above the junk motoring across the foreground). Hey, if visitors can’t see it, we’re not going to be impressed!

Randy and Kit dressed up for dinner.

And let’s finish this entry with a positive note–

You know, when we really try, Kit and I can really clean up for dinner. This is us just before we supped with our delightful host from the Langham hotel chain.

31 Comments on “Hello Hong Kong

  1. I’m sure your tour guide will deluge you with ideas for shopping at Ladies Market and such, but take the train to Lantau Island. It was very much worth the trip!!! We were there for ten days this Spring and while it was fun, I wouldn’t go running back there like I would for Sydney.

    We have an extra day available, and Kit has already decided to head there. Thanks for the confirmation of the idea. -rc

  2. Despite being “passionate in his reply”, talk is cheap. This is not really an indication that “At least part of Chinese hospitality industry gets it”. When I was in China (Hong Kong and mainland) last year, I spoke to several US-based businessmen. They all said that the Chinese they deal with frequently say what they THINK people want to hear. It seems to be a cultural thing. The US-based businessmen have to expend great effort to discover what the Chinese are really doing as opposed to what they say.

  3. Take the bus! Well, if they still have them … I was there in the navy, 1974, and on our very first liberty excursion, we piled into the top front of a red double decker bus and rode around until we got back to the start. Two hours for 5 cents, I think. No tour guide, but worth the price.

    And the Victoria peak tram was something else. Is it still called Victoria Peak?

    But you have the advantage in not having to endure liberty boats …

    I think things are a tad different now, Felix. With traffic the way it is, I think a full circuit would take more than two hours now…. -rc

  4. You don’t have to go back as far as the 60s for the air in Hong Kong to be much clearer. When I lived there in 1995-97 there was virtually none of the haze you see today.

    When I went back for a visit earlier this year I was shocked at the difference, and learned from friends that the haze is pervasive pretty much all year round. It doesn’t come from Hong Kong itself of course – it’s blown down from the vast industrial cities of Shenzen and Guanzhou just across the border to the north.

  5. I live in Hong Kong, and have seen the pollution get worse every year! The Hong Kong Government is trying their best to resolve local Hong Kong generated pollution. But the culprit of the choking smog in Hong Kong comes from over the border, Guangdong China. As China has become the factory for the world, making everything under the sun, they are spewing tonnes of pollutants into the atmosphere. And Guangdong province being one of the more developed provinces in China because of its proximity to Hong Kong, continues with their unabated industrial expansion, the sky over Hong Kong will continue to suffer, blanketed by choking smog! Every now & then, when the atmospheric condition is right, and the wind is blowing in the opposite direction, away from Hong Kong, you can see blue sky over Hong Kong. I must admit it is quite a sight, with the harbor, the peak over on Hong Kong Island framed by a crystal blue sky!

    China needs to do more to curb their pollution, and Hong Kong must move forward with their environmental protection policies to make sure Hong Kongers & visitors alike continue to see clear blue sky over Hong Kong and southern China!!

  6. First, nice to see a pic of the two of you.

    Second, Hong Kong used to be and may still be the best place to buy fire [Australian] opals on the main shopping street if you love that jewel.

    Third, the further into the rural Mainland you go, the nicer the people will be — that is, fewer will be city slick greedy — but the worse the pollution will be.

    Finally, let me take this opportunity to welcome you to the country I am no longer teaching in, but during the six years I was there found reading your True a great way to stay in touch with North American-style sanity.

    Thanks always!

  7. So, is the REAL TsingTao any better than the stuff they send over here? It always tasted like skunk-cabbage to me… (well, like it SMELLS anyway).

    It was pretty good, yes. I think the stuff we get it the U.S. tends to be pretty old…. -rc

  8. When we were in Hong Kong in October 1988 there was very little air pollution. Sorry it has changed so drastically.

    Hopefully mainland China will address this problem, but I wouldn’t count on it anytime soon. Not having to worry about the expenses of nonpolluting factories makes it cheaper to run them. That’s one of the reasons why so many countries are beating a path to manufacture products in China. Plus cheap labor. This includes the U.S. Enjoy the rest of your trip.

  9. Re: skunky beer. Green beer bottles, such as those used for Tsingtao, offer less protection than brown bottles against developing a skunky odor. The skunky odor is a result of degradation of the hops by natural or fluorescent light. Some research by professors at UNC and published in 2001 described the chemical changes, but this is something that has been known about for quite some time. So if you buy beer in green or clear bottles that has been sitting out for some time, or even in the cooler under the lights, there’s a reasonable chance it may be skunky. It can also happen to brown bottled beer, but it takes longer to develop. Beer in cans, such as the one in Randy’s photo, don’t develop the odor since the beer is not exposed to light.

  10. Good grief, Charlie Brown! The explanation we heard in the UK for the switch from detaching to non-detaching tabs was that it was supposed to reduce littering. But dropping the detached tabs into the drink then suing the manufacturer when they swallow the tab?!? Sometimes I am left all but speechless at the sheer mindless idiocy of which people are capable.

    When I am feeling cynical, I often think we should remove all product safety warnings for obvious hazards, and all safety devices designed not to protect against reasonable hazards but to protect people from the consequences of their own sheer arrant stupidity, and allow the most determined imbeciles to select themselves out of the gene pool. Our descendants would probably thank us.

  11. Re: Pollution. I made a trip to Hong Kong in the mid 80’s and I understand the air pollution is exacerbated by the terrain. Hong Kong and the harbor are in a sort of “bowl”, not unlike LA. But what struck me was the condition of the water. One “river” literally had sewage floating on top, and one of the public restrooms near one of the shopping areas was a concrete slab with a trough that ran downhill straight into the water. There was a hole for the solid stuff also.

  12. You’re right – you two do clean up nice. 🙂

    Are you really that tall, or is she that short? I’m betting she’s of average height, and you get stared at a lot by the Chinese. 🙂

    Kit is of average height — for Chinese. I am nearly 2m tall. -rc

  13. What’s really strange is that in (Mainland) China, canned beverages are canned like in the U.S., but on the Chinese airlines, they use the pull tab cans.

    I don’t know why.

    I have only seen the old style pop-tops here in China (I’m now in the mainland). The weird thing: tonight they served us Budweiser at dinner, though with plenty of Chinese characters on the label. I suppose they thought they were giving us a treat, but I would have preferred Chinese beer! -rc

  14. Someone please tell Phil not to read the Stella awards. 🙂 He may never be able to speak again. I have left the legal business, but oh the stories! Often had the gene pool idea, tho’!

    As for pollution: we live just north of Mexico – that’s normal. They don’t treat the water, it just goes down river! Tourist venues, big hotel chains are there to make the $$$, not change the infrastructure of a country…or create it.

    Y’all have fun over there anyway….they’ll be surprised having tourists who are not the “ugly Americans”!

  15. Hey, stop complaining. At least you can see for half a mile. Come on over to the other side, the one they call “Mainland China” and the visibility drops to 1/4 mile. And the air tastes better here, not like that rarified stuff they breathe in HK.

    I’ll have more to say about the air pollution in my next entry…. -rc

  16. I always knew many people in America were stupid especially when they’d had a few drinks (like the story about the blind ATV driver in the latest issue of This is True), but your story about the ring-pull beer cans is the tops. Probably the person or persons who swallowed the can cover, were on their 10th or 11th beer by that stage? Did that ever come out in court?
    BTW, I loved Hong Kong when we were there in 1992, but I got scammed by a store selling out video recorders at lower than low prices. Serves me right!

  17. I thought the reason they changed the can’s ring pulls was because the ring was just the right size for the coin slot on the parking meters. I’m told it went in just fine, got you the hour and then jammed the works up. Not that I’d know from practical experience.

  18. Ah, you’re just spoiled from your consistently clear views of the Sneffles range. 🙂

    While indeed I am spoiled by that, that’s not my complaint. Rather, it’s the chunks of lung tissue I’m coughing up here…. -rc

  19. Re: Pollution in LA. I was fortunate to grow up in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles in the ’50s. The Valley then was usually but not always clear and the sky was blue. Truly a Golden Age. But then into the ’60s it did deteriorate somewhat rapidly. By the mid ’60s when I was in College it could get quite horrid at times. The gray smog seemed to back up against the mountains when the prevailing winds came from the West. Relief from the Santa Anna winds when the winds were from the East was always welcome.
    As my plane flight came into LAX on the few times I have been back since leaving there in late ’69, I’ve always been distressed by the deepening gray haze. What a pity. Just proves the old adage that “you can’t go home again.”

  20. My Dad complained once about my Mom’s attempt at a candlelit dinner with “If I can’t see it, I don’t eat it.” As for air quality, hey, I live in Los Angeles: If we can’t see it, we don’t breathe it. Thank you for your commentary and pictures – greatly enjoyed!

  21. Do those loose ring pulls not even raise a consideration from airline security? Those things can be a lot sharper than the nail clippers etc that get confiscated.
    Have fun out there Randy and perhaps find some examples of your own of Engrish (Google it for examples).

  22. The old-style pop tops are actually a VERY good idea in China! Remember, in most of the country you must be very careful what you eat and drink to keep from getting really sick — don’t eat any fruit you can’t peel yourself, do NOT eat any raw vegetables, no ice unless you KNOW it was from boiled or bottled water, brush your teeth in boiled or bottled water, and so forth. Our bodies can’t handle the germs in their water.
    The can tops may be contaminated, even if they’ve been washed, and you don’t want the stay-on top to go inside the can where it contacts the liquid. The best thing to do is pour it into a clean glass. If you drink from the can your mouth is touching the can, but in HK you’re probably fine. Just be careful in the rest of China!

  23. I think it’s wonderful that China is opening up. Now we Americans can be ugly in more parts of the world! I like your emails but I don’t much care for your condescending tone in this article. But hey, no matter! You keep on believing “this is the greatest country on earth” and China will keep getting richer and freer while America sinks into the depths of socialism and stupidity. In spite of what’s drummed into our heads from birth, occidentals are really not superior to orientals, and the Chinese are probably superior in many ways to us. My 2 cents.

    My, but aren’t we incredibly touchy? Suddenly I’m again racist? Uh huh. The fact is, the air in much of China is terrible. To say we learned our lesson from the 1960s is simply true; to note that China didn’t learn from our stupid mistakes is simply sad. But it’s not racist; to say that I cannot find fault here is. -rc

  24. Randy, We still have the “old style” pop tops in Australia. Haven’t managed to swallow one yet.
    The one thing that has changed is cans and bottles are getting larger. When I lived in Korea the standard size for a can was 250ml, not the 375ml in Oz.

  25. My brother has been to China since his wife is Chinese. He has another tip. Bottled water is NOT necessarily safe. He bought some bottled water and got really sick. They had just put untreated tap water in an old bottle and resealed it. His wife told him they do that all the time to make money off of unwise (aka stupid) travelers. You have to boil water if you want to be 100% safe.

  26. China is a developing country. Do they deserve the right to learn from their own mistakes or do they have to learn from developed countries that have already made the same mistakes in regards to pollution therefore making it more expensive for them to make products from the get go, rather than building up their business, then becoming environmentally conscientious.
    We know the damage that certain industries can cause, but is the fact that China are building up business to a level that will allow their population to subsist in a reasonable way and dealing with the consequences after they get there any different than what the rest of the world has or is doing?
    It is easier to be “green” when you can afford to….

    I agree with your bottom line. And yes, they have the right to destroy their own environment. But I also have the right to be saddened by it. -rc

  27. Good comments. I’ve been to Hong Kong twice and observed the same conditions. Have you seen the sidewalks busy with cockroaches after dark? If not, you’ve really missed one of the “sights.”
    I returned to China 3 weeks ago after heart surgery in Canada and immediately ran into breathing problems. There is no doubt the pollution needs attention. Yes, you are right, China is the North America of the 60’s, making the same mistakes, just delayed a little.
    Hope you make it to the mainland! I’d be glad to join you in Shanghai for coffee. It’s only an hour away by high speed train.

    I missed the cockroaches! Darn. And yes, see another entry for our itinerary — we have moved into the mainland, but are not getting to Shanghai this trip. Maybe we’ll do coffee next time you’re in Colorado. -rc

  28. Unfortunately, Hong Kong itself does not have a huge lot of control over the air quality coming at them from the industrial development immediately to the north. “One country, Two systems” works both ways — HK may be free to govern its own affairs, but they do not have control over the rest of China’s affairs.
    You are partly right about things being different in the 1960s (I spent my teens there, from 1963-1969) but when I looked at my mother’s photos of HK in the 1940s the amount of haze was dramatically less back then than even in the ’60s.

  29. I’m truly sorry to hear about the pollution problem in Hong Kong. I was there several times in the 1980’s while serving in the Navy. I have always said it is one of the two places I would like to get back to with my family, (the other being Thailand). I now must rethink my plans. Another tip; go ahead and pony up the extra penny and ride first class on the Star ferry between Kowloon and Winchai. 😉

  30. I’m sorry you ran into smog in HK and have formed a slightly negative opinion. I go there about twice a year and find the visibility varies with the seasons. Many times I’ve been rewarded with the clearest of skies and far-reaching views.
    I think HK is much cleaner of late and I also note with pleasure that the harbour is very much cleaner than it used to be. The foam churned up in wakes is white these days! Also there is very little litter in the streets and the HK authorities are working hard to educate locals about the dangers associated with standing water being breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes.
    My suggestion is that you go again in a different season; views from The Peak can be breath-taking.


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