Life in Hong Kong

Dim Sum rituals

Whilst having Dim Sum today I watched the lady at the next table carefully cleaning all the cups, bowls and chopsticks (using the tea and hot water provided by the restaurant).

The problem is that once you notice people doing this you can’t help but observe that most people who do this (and many restaurant staff) handle cups, bowls and chopsticks quite indiscriminately.  So we have to hope that their hands are really clean.  

I wrote about this several years ago, and these were the explanations offered in the comments:

  1. There’s a lot of TB in Hong Kong.  Which is true:
  2. Restaurants use bleach to wash everything, and it needs to be rinsed off.

    Another comment was that a brief wash with hot water is unlikely to kill many germs, which must be correct (for that you’d need water that is actually boiling).

    So if you are really a germaphobe you should probably stay at home.


        Red Taxi, Green Taxi

        Green taxiRather confusingly, there are several red taxis driving around Hong Kong dressed up as green taxis.

        In Hong Kong we have red “urban taxis” that have higher fares and can operate everywhere except the south part of Lantau island.

        Green taxis can only operate in the more northerly parts of the New Territories (such as Tai Po and Tuen Mun), and the east (Ma On Shan and Sai Kung, but excluding Tseung Kwan O).  Here's the map (pdf).

        They can also go to a few special locations (e.g. Tsing Yi and Tseun Wan MTR stations, the airport, some hospitals, Disneyland, Sha Tin racecourse) and on some highways.  Details are here.

        end of New Territories taxis operating areaIf you look closely when you are travelling around Hong Kong, you might notice the signs showing roads that are prohibited for green taxis.

        Apparently there are only 75 blue Lantau taxis (operating on Lantau Island and Chek Lap Kok).

        It’s an odd system.  If you live at the edge of the New Territories taxi zone and want to go out of that zone, you either have to wait for a red taxi, take a specific route (e.g. to Tseun Wan MTR), or negotiate with the driver of a green taxi to take you somewhere he’s not supposed to go.  Or take a minibus.     

        So it’s rather strange that an advertiser is allowed to turn a red taxi into a green taxi.


        HKTVMall - customer service

        A small follow up to my post on HKTVMall. 

        Just to say that their customer service really isn’t great.

        I ordered something that was supposed to be available within 4-7 working days.  Then just two days later I noticed that they had updated the order with a delivery date - the following day, at a time when no-one would be home.  So I contacted their customer service.

        I opened the chat window and entered my question.  And waited.  And waited.  It took about 25 minutes for someone to respond.

        Me: I notice you are planning to deliver this item tomorrow.
        HKTVMall: The item will be delivered within 4-7 working days
        HKTVMall: Monday to Friday
        Me: That’s fine, but your website shows that it will be delivered tomorrow and no-one will be home
        HKTVMall: Please wait, I'm checking the item.
        HKTVMall: The item hasn’t arrived in our warehouse.
        Me: So the information on your website is meaningless?
        HKTVMall: The item hasn’t arrived in our warehouse.

        That might look like a brief conversation, but it actually took 20 minutes (after the 25 minute wait for someone to appear).  To achieve precisely nothing.

        Someone must have decided that they were planning to deliver it the next day, but apparently this information isn’t shared with their Customer Services team.

        Needless to say, they did try to make the delivery the following day, and no-one was home.

        I’ve had other deliveries that have been later than the (4 hour) timeslot, and others that have been several hours early.  And the previous time I tried to contact their Customer Services it took one hour for them to respond, by which time I had given up (but I hadn't closed the chat window, so I know how long it took). 

        Quite a lot of work to be done on customer service, then.    


        HKTVmall - Amazon for Hong Kong?

        In Hong Kong your supermarket “choice” is largely between shops owned by Li Ka-shing (ParknShop, International, Fusion, Taste, and the Great Food Hall) and Jardines (Wellcome, Market Place by Jason, Threesixty and Olivers). 

        It’s no surprise that this lack of competition leads to high prices and poor service, so alternative options are always welcome.

        HKTVmall is a mini-Amazon, selling products from a wide range of suppliers, including some good quality imported produce at reasonable prices (e.g. frozen grass-fed beef and lamb, frozen wild-caught salmon, fresh cherries from Tasmania, fresh papaya from Hawaii, etc.), vitamins and supplements at much better prices than Watson or Manning (that duopoly again) and some electronic products.

        They also provide free delivery if you spend HK$400 (or HK$250 if you’re a “VIP”).  I remember when ParknShop offered free delivery if you spent HK150, but now their minimum is a hefty HK$800 (Wellcome's minimum seems to be $500).  

        The HKTVmall website and app are super annoying and although they do try to keep you informed on the status of your orders, the English versions are often confusing and incomplete:

        • “Our delivery team has picked up products in order xxxxx and will arrange delivery soon.”  Except that I had to collect it from their store.
        • “Product arrived at HKTVmall logistics centre, will be delivered soon.”  Not really sure how this one helps me - why not just send me a message when it’s actually ready for collection?

        It’s entirely possible that the Chinese versions of these messages make more sense.  For example, Cantodict tells me that 送 can mean “send”, “deliver” or “dispatch”, which might help to explain the confusion.

        But any competition for the ParknShop and Wellcome duopoly has got to be a good thing.


        This is part of a series (of sorts).  The previous post was Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsburys, M&S in Hong Kong (with updates here)


        Wrong MTR station names

        Many MTR stations have really confusing “English” names on the official maps.

        尖沙咀 appears as “Tsim Sha Tsui" on signs.  Good luck trying to pronounce that - and if your valiant effort is “Sim Sha Chewy” you won’t be understood by locals because it's actually more like "Jim Sa Joy".

        紅磡 is shown as “Hung Hom”, but really it’s Hong Ham, which I always find confusing.

        旺角 isn’t “Mong Kok” (as the MTR would have you believe), it’s "Wong Gok". 

        上水 isn’t “Sheung Shui”, it’s something like “song soy”,

        Some are more or less correct (at least to my tin ear), such as: 葵芳 Kwai Fong and nearby 葵興 Kwai Hing, and others are probably close enough, though it would help if you pronounce

        • 大 as “dai” (not “tai” as the MTR have it), 
        • 沙 as “sa” or “za” (not “sha”),
        • 上 as “soeng” (not “sheung”)

        But why can’t we have simple Romanization that's easy to understand?


        Man “falls on to tracks”

        On Thursday I was on the southbound KCR (sorry, that’s the MTR East Rail Line) when the train came to a halt in the Beacon Hill Tunnel just north of Kowloon Tong station. 

        Cue the usual announcement about a train being in the platform at the next station, but it soon became apparent that this was something more serious.  The MTR website eventually announced that there was “a trespasser at Kowloon Tong station”, though there was a less euphemistic version (now deleted) from @mtrupdate (an unofficial source of news about the MTR train service).

        After about 25 minutes the train reversed slowly back to Tai Wai station, where there was no service in either direction and long queues for taxis.

        The Hong Kong Standard managed this top quality piece of journalism:

        East Rail services disrupted after man falls onto tracks dies

        Train services on East Rail Line were disrupted for about 30 minutes after a man in his 50s fell onto the tracks at Kowloon Tong station.

        The middle-aged man was certified dead by emergency services at the scene.

        At about 13:46pm this afternoon, the MTR Corporation said normal train service is gradually resuming after the person has been removed from the track area at the station.

        Trains between Hung Hom and Sha Tin station were suspended.

        The grammar! The tenses!  “13:46 pm this afternoon”.  And the interruption was actually close to an hour, rather than 30 minutes.  But I can’t find anything at all from the SCMP.

        When does the MTR plans to install platform screen doors on the East Rail line?  It seems that this will have to wait for the much-delayed (and misleadingly named) Sha Tin to Central link:

        Delays on MTR link, lack of platform doors seen as suicide risk 

        Sunday, 14 December, 2014

        Delays to the long-awaited Sha Tin-to-Central link could have a human cost, suicide-prevention experts warned as they called on the MTR Corporation to speed up installation of platform safety doors at stations.

        A total of 22 stations on the East Rail and Ma On Shan lines still lack doors, leaving open access to the track. They will be installed as part of the work on the new railway, which is due to open in 2018 but is behind schedule.

        From 2005 to April this year, 27 people took their own lives on stations run by the former KCR - including all of those without platform doors. In the same period, Transport Bureau figures show, nine people killed themselves at other MTR stations, with none since 2011.

        [..] A spokeswoman for the MTR said gates would be installed on the two lines during the Sha Tin-to-Central project, which would involve platform modifications and a new signalling system.

        "As some East Rail Line stations are about 100 years old, the platform structure has to be strengthened and the curvature at some platforms has to be adjusted," she said.

        But with the HK$80 billion project 11 months behind schedule - in part because of the discovery of relics at the To Kwa Wan station site - Yip fears more unnecessary deaths.

        "We have talked to the MTR for almost a decade and it is a matter of urgency now," he said. "When you go to Kowloon Tong or Sha Tin, there is quite a bit of risk … there are more cases at these two stations."

        Kowloon Tong station is less than 40 years old (and very busy), so why not start there?


        Happy New Year / Tesco / M&S

        Happy New Year and a quick follow-up to last month’s post on Tesco and other British supermarkets.

        There do seem to be some bargains amongst the Tesco own brand products in U購select (and Vanguard*), including their basic cheese range (as pointed out by Private Beach in the comments), olive oil, nuts, and salad dressings.  They also have low-sodium salt at a fraction of the price of the branded product in ParknShop.

        So it’s certainly worth shopping around.

        * U購select and CR Vanguard?  No idea - it seems to be like that confusing fusion, Gourmet and International thing that ParknShop do.  This Wikipedia article claims that around one third of products sold in U購select are from Tesco, which certainly doesn’t apply to all their stores.

        Also, confirmation that Marks & Spencer is selling its Hong Kong stores:

        The clothing and food chain is selling its stores in Hong Kong and Macau to its longstanding franchise partner in the region, Al-Futtaim, for an undisclosed sum. [The] 27 stores will keep the M&S name under a franchise arrangement, which leaves Dubai-based Al-Futtaim with 72 outlets under the brand across Asia and the Middle East.


        Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsburys, M&S in Hong Kong

        About 20 years ago, Carrefour tried to expand into Hong Kong and were driven out (in part) because their prices were too low. Since then, no foreign supermarket chain has tried to challenge the ParknShop / Wellcome duopoly.  But at least we have a bit more choice now, including products from UK supermarkets Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.  

        Or there’s CitySuper, which is famous for its dizzyingly expensive Japanese fruit.  OK, well maybe not.

        Tesco have a joint venture with China Resources Enterprise (80% owned by CRE, 20% by Tesco) that arose from their disastrous foray into China. As part of that deal (signed in 2014), CRE’s Vanguard supermarkets in Hong Kong started stocking Tesco products.

        Now some of the Vanguard stores have been re-branded as Uselect, with prominent displays of Tesco products (from their UK, Poland and Thailand stores) some at good prices.

        Apparently it’s also 20 years since ParknShop started selling Waitrose products, and now a limited range is available in most of their stores.  They also sell products from Casino (another French supermarket).

        Oh, and earlier this year, Wellcome / Jasons Market added a range of Sainsbury's products

        Those low prices that got Carrefour into trouble?  No-one is making that mistake again.  Many products are sold at a significant premium (e.g. 3x UK price for cheese), but there are some bargains, so it’s worth shopping around (if you have the time).  Even CitySuper can sometimes be cheaper than ParknShop.

        Marks & Spencer has been in Hong Kong for nearly 30 years, primarily selling clothing, but with a small food selection (tinned, dried and also frozen products in a few stores). 

        They opened their first standalone food store here in 2010 (in Wan Chai) with a selection of fresh food (as the Daily Telegraph reported, er, four years later).  Since then they have opened a few more of these standalone stores, and also added a range of fresh food in several of their bigger shops.

        M&S announced one year ago that they would get rid of all their overseas stores, with the exception of Ireland, the Czech Republic (or is that Czechia?) and Hong Kong.  And, yes, they have done this before, with Hong Kong surviving but with a cull of expat managers. 

        Then it emerged that they plan to transfer the Hong Kong business to the company that currently operates 46 M&S stores in Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Oman, Qatar, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates


        MTR rules, rules, rules

        Last time I was in London, I didn’t swipe my card correctly and so I got charged for several “incomplete journeys”.  I filled in an online form explaining what had happened, and received a refund a day or two later.  Great service.

        Then, back in Hong Kong I went to meet my wife on an MTR platform, but she wasn’t feeling well so we exited the station.  I was charged HK$9.8 - it turned out I had been in the station for 22 minutes, and if you enter and leave at the same station more than 20 minutes later they charge you HK$10.

        I fully understand why they have this charge, but it is slightly ridiculous because if you want to circumvent it you simply travel (let’s say) from Wan Chai to Tsuen Wan and straight back to Admiralty and you will only pay HK$4.5.

        Anyway, I tried to explain the circumstances to the station staff, but of course (this being Hong Kong) they have to fill in a form.  A few days later I get a letter explaining the relevant MTR byelaws and hoping that this clarifies the situation.


        Squalid?

        Simon Jenkins, writing about the fire at Grenfell Tower, apparently thinks Hong Kong is “squalid”:

        The lesson from Grenfell is simple: stop building residential towers | Simon Jenkins

        There is no need to build high at all. The developers’ cry, that cities must build high to “survive”, is self-serving rubbish, the more absurd when their towers are left half-empty. The principal reserve of residential space in British cities is derelict land and the under-occupation of existing houses. Unless we wish to build at the squalid densities of Mumbai and Hong Kong, high buildings require space round them and extensive ground servicing.

        a04Almost everyone in Hong Kong lives in high-rise housing (for some striking photographs, take a look at Michael Wolf’s Architecture of Density).  Around 30% of the population live in rented public housing - these are high-rise, high density apartment blocks, but they are safe and certainly not squalid. 

        Another 17% of people live in high-rise apartments that were sold under the Home Ownership scheme.  Not squalid either.

        50% of the population live in private housing, the vast majority of which is in high-rise towers, which vary from small and basic to large and luxurious.  

        Lynsey Hanley used to live on Europe’s largest public housing estate (in Birmingham), and her excellent book “Estates” offers a very personal account of how the British government’s housing policies went horribly wrong and wrecked many people’s lives.  She has a more informed - and nuanced - view of the problem:

        Look at Grenfell Tower and see the terrible price of Britain’s inequality

        Tower blocks are generally held to be the least popular form of housing, particularly for people raising families. [..] But that’s not to say other people don’t enjoy living there, for the astonishing views, and for their self-contained nature – which in the most successful cases creates a tight-knit community.

        Problems mostly arise when housing managers fail to keep on top of repairs, safety issues, residents’ complaints and other bugbears, such as blocked bin chutes and noisy neighbours. On-site caretakers, when landlords decide they can afford to employ them, solve many of these issues.

        Indeed, all Hong Kong apartment blocks have on-site caretakers / security staff and most are well managed.  Hence, Hong Kong high-rise housing is safe - and not squalid.  Of course you pay more for larger apartments, lower density, and more open space, but that’s true everywhere. 

        Continue reading "Squalid?" »