Beauty and the Beast

Photo: Dennys Hess

This is a guest article from former FIDI President Rob Chipman, CEO of Asian Tigers Hong Kong. It was originally published on the Asian Tigers' blog here.

Photo: Jean Wimmerlin

I live in Hong Kong, and I love Hong Kong. For 17 years, this has been my adopted home and there is nowhere else I would rather live, work, play and raise my children. I also travel to Singapore several times each year, so I have the chance to compare these two great cities on an ongoing basis. And I’m not the only one. Practically any frequent visitor to the two cities falls into the same trap.

Photo: Nick Fewings

When you land in Singapore almost immediately you notice the high standard of English, with its ear-pleasing lilt. The 20-minute taxi ride to Orchard Road area takes you along highways that looks like they have been manicured with nail clippers, an emery board and a pair of tweezers. The roadsides are a proliferation of gorgeous bougainvillas in full bloom, splashing the landscape in watercolors of purple, violet and orange.

If you should happen to arrive at night, you’ll notice the ascetic use of light. Singaporeans are experts at creative use of up-lighting and down-lighting to accent majestic banyan trees as big as jumbo jets, and wonderfully restored colonial-era buildings. If you have been to Singapore, perhaps you have seen the Raffles Hotel, where the Singapore Sling was first concocted. This is a magnificent example of dramatic lighting used to accentuate stunning colonial-type architecture.

As individuals, Singaporeans are, with very few exceptions, extraordinarily polite. It is not unusual for people you pass in the street to make eye contact, smile and perhaps offer a welcome greeting – maybe even some small talk to make you feel welcome.

Sarah Arista

Hong Kong is a very different world indeed. What you might first notice is the standard of spoken English.  Hong Kong and Singapore were both English colonies for more than 150 years, yet Singaporean English is excellent, while Hong Kong English ranges from barely passable to incomprehensible.

Hong Kong is crowded, chaotic and dirty. The cleanest street in Hong Kong (after 17 years, I’m still looking for one) roughly equates to the dirtiest street in Singapore. But that’s not much of a contest since I haven’t yet found a dirty street in Singapore.

Sadly, there are very few colonial buildings left in Hong Kong. In their stead, Hong Kong developers have been quick to build monotonous, faceless, glass curtain wall skyscrapers – impressive in their own right but lending very little character to a city that is in dire need of some charm.

Hong Kong people you pass in the street would rather undergo root canal than look you in the eye. Smiling is definitely taboo. A casual hello, or even a simple hi? Please, be serious.  Hold a door open for you? Are you kidding? But easily the most irritating feature of Hong Kong is the local elevator etiquette. Rules for using lifts in Hong Kong are actually quite simple and you’ll learn them quickly.

First, be sure to rush into the elevator as soon as the door opens. Do not allow people leaving the elevator to exit first. Second, always speak as loudly as possible, no matter how close the other person is to you. Third, hacking, coughing, spitting, belching and breaking wind are all perfectly acceptable noises to make in a lift. Fourth, if you want to take the elevator down, always press the up and down buttons. Make the elevator stop no matter what direction it is going. Fifth, and perhaps the most physically challenging, be sure as soon as you get in the elevator, locate and begin pressing the door close button. It will be the one nearly worn out from overuse. If others are still getting onboard, well, that’s just a bonus – sort of like finding a forgotten $100 bill in your pants pocket. If someone is racing to catch the elevator, then press harder and faster. Do whatever possible to get those doors closed before anyone else can get in. If you master these few simple rules, you can ride lifts like a real pro.

Which brings me back to my opening lines. I do love Hong Kong. I have grown to admire the local Cantonese people in more ways than I can count. As much as I like Singapore, given the choice, I’d still opt for Hong Kong. Why? Well, sometimes clean and polite can blur into sterile and cold. Much the same way that seamy and crass can become exciting and intriguing. I can’t explain why, it just is.


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