I look down towards the street from our 16th floor apartment, watching people going about their business, walking their dogs, crossing the street, old people walking slower than young people, and I wonder what it is about this place that keeps me here. Today’s weather doesn’t seem too bad; it’s 24˚ and 81% humidity. The air seems OK too, but a quick check of the Hedley Index reveals that it’s actually still at very bad level. It’s pretty much at this level every single day. Pollution is pretty bad here.
Last Wednesday I woke up early and had a chance to play some basketball at Victoria Park. It was the first time I ran around outside in weeks. Afterwards, it didn’t take long for me to start coughing. It felt like I had inhaled some smoke, which I guess wouldn’t be too far from what actually happened.
On some days, when I take a break from work and look out the window, I’m appalled by what I see: a thick plume of gray through which I can barely make out the outlines of the buildings across the harbor. After work, as I walk home from the MTR station, I find it difficult to breathe, like I’m about to pass out. I’m afraid to inhale deeply. Finally, once I’m home, I’m completely exhausted even on the days when work hasn’t been particularly intense.
Hong Kong is a place of many smells. High population density means there’s probably someone near you right now making a smell. At this moment, I can smell the fragrant incense that one of my neighbors is burning. When JC takes a shower and I have the window open, I smell the scent of her shampoo being expunged from the bathroom fan. When I walk past a storm drain, I smell the noxious fumes coming from below. Alleys reek of cat (or human) urine and dirty dishwater from cha chaan tengs. I’ve noticed that, for some strange reason, the exhaust from armored vehicles in Hong Kong is particularly bad. Although I don’t recommend inhaling it, try to keep your nose open the next time you’re around an armored vehicle – you’ll probably see (or smell) what I mean.
One of the worst smells in Hong Kong is that of cigarette smoke. Despite efforts by the government to curb smoking, you still see and smell people smoking everywhere. The government says that the smoking rate in Hong Kong is now 1 in 10, but I wonder if that number takes into account visitors and expatriates from other countries, especially Mainland China, which has its own smoking problem.
An eyesore (or nose-sore) in Hong Kong is the trashcan, where people congregate to smoke. The smokers gather around because of a built-in ashtray on top (some trashcans don’t have the ashtray, yet smokers still pretend its there, leaving behind burn marks and melted plastic). A major problem with these combo trashcans is that smokers don’t always extinguish their cigarettes when they’re done, so the cigarettes continue to burn inside the tray, creating a super cigarette that clobbers anyone walking by with a carcinogen-laced poison punch. I’ve often wondered whether it’s some sort of game to the smokers, to see whether they can keep the fire going. Because of this and because Hong Kong trashcans are spaced so closely together, you can pretty much walk down an entire block without not smelling cigarette smoke.
That’s not to say that all the smells are bad. For example, Hong Kong is named for the scent of its harbour. When I take a walk alongside, I understand why. Sometimes, when the wind is blowing in from the harbour, the sweet smell even makes it inland. When I come home from work, the smell of steaming rice intermingled with burning incense brings a sense of familiarity that I could never get in SF. These are the smells of childhood, smells I remember from my Granny’s house, from before we moved to America.
If we do decide to go back, these are the smells I’ll miss the most. The pollution and cigarette smoke, on the other hand, I won’t miss at all.