50 Things to Know About Hong Kong

1) Hong Kong is not the same as the rest of China. They are very very proud of their individuality and identity.

2) Mandarin won’t get you very far here. Character recognition (especially traditional characters) is helpful, but not essential. More people speak working English, or are more willing to speak English than Mandarin with you.

3) Spaghetti is sold everywhere, but it is not at all the same as the spaghetti you had growing up in the U.S. Don’t be fooled.

4) Cheese, yogurt, and milk are abundantly available, but horribly expensive.

5) There are five major meals; breakfast, dim sum, lunch, high tea (yum cha), and dinner. Dim sum overlaps with early lunch/brunch time, and yum cha is similar to a late lunch. Generally, you should pick any three meals, not eat all five (especially if you don’t want to gain a ton of weight).

Picture (reluctantly) taken by the waitress
Picture (reluctantly) taken by the waitress

6) French toast is deep fried bread filled with peanut butter and covered in condensed milk. I have no idea how this relates to the French toast I grew up with (bread dipped in egg and cooked on a griddle) but it is AMAZING.

7) Most Hong Konger’s eat out for most meals. Generally, their apartments are too small to hold working kitchens, so they don’t really have another option.

8) Locals take food very seriously. You absolutely should take advantage of this.

9) Unfortunately, HKUST cafeteria food is pretty much universally disappointing. Leave campus for as many meals as possible.

10) There area multitude of ways to dress up a simple bowl of ramen, for those times where you can’t leave campus to eat. Cheap, easy, and tasty 🙂

Thanks for the pic Will!
Thanks for the pic Will!

11) SNACKS. Between the local and Japanese snacks, there are plenty of little treats to munch on as you are studying. My favorites are the freeze dried squid tentacles and waffles with peanut butter.

12) Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, the NYT, and information on “sensitive issues” are all freely available in Hong Kong.

13) However, most people don’t use Facebook or Twitter. Currently, Whatsapp is the most popular, but LINE and a few other apps are gaining in popularity.

14) Press censorship is less obvious in Hong Kong than in the Mainland, but due to increasing pressure from the central government, self-censorship is on the rise.

15) The most important holiday is Chinese New Year, the exact date of which varies from year to year because it is calculated via a lunar calendar. Generally students are given a few days off of school to return home to spend time with their families.

Thanks Alvin for the photo!
Thanks Alvin for the photo!

16) In the weeks before the holiday, dozens of New Years markets spring up around the city. Check out the flowers, traditional crafts, and crazy toys for children on display.

17) I also highly recommend going to one of the dozens of little local temples and purchase a CNY offering set. Mine included a dozen sticks of incense, two candles, and a bundle of spirit money. If you are quiet and respectful, the little elderly volunteers in charge of the temple will help you successfully complete your offering.

18) On the night before CNY and the day of, nearly all restaurants and shops are closed. Many shops and restaurants remained closed for a few days afterwards too, so stock up on food beforehand.

19) Late April to Mid-September is the unbearably hot and humid season. Air con is available in the dorms, but only if you pay for it using your student id. If you arrive for fall semester in late August or early September, you won’t receive your id for at least a week, meaning, unless your roommate is a local, you will not have air con during that time. Good luck.

20) Late September through November the weather is glorious and beautiful. Imagine that one gorgeous week of autumn in Madison extending for two months, but without the changing leaves.

Reflected picture by Ben.
Reflected picture by Ben.

21) December through February is wet, rainy, and cold(ish). Most buildings in Hong Kong lack central heating, so be prepared with layers and a good rain coat.

22) March and April are the foggy season. It will slowly warm up, the rain will stop, but the humidity will not ever dissipate. If you are extremely interested in hiking or photography, I strongly encourage you to come fall semester, not spring semester, because the fog obliterates all of the beautiful vistas.

23) And then, just as you are giving up hope because it has been grey and damp for weeks and midterms are looming and everything seems awful, the sun comes back out. Catch your Vitamin D while you can.

24) People don’t obsessively talk about the weather like they do back in Wisconsin. Everyone kinda knows what to expect, so why bother?

25) Tin Hau (or Matsu in Mandarin) is the patron goddess of the sea and fishermen. Hong Kong was originally populated by a variety of fishing peoples. Therefore it makes sense that there are a bazillion Tin Hau temples everywhere. Seriously, you can barely walk three blocks without finding another one.

Thanks for the photo Kevin!
Thanks for the photo Kevin!

26) There are the big famous temples in SOHO and Yau Ma Tei, but the most sacred Tin Hau temple is not far from HKUST. Take bus 91 towards Clear Water Bay, get off at the stop past the roundabout with the green pagoda by the side of the road. Follow the trail up and down the mountains (with a bonus awesome view of Clear Water Bay) for roughly 3-4 hours. At the end of the trail you will glimpse the Joss Bay temple on your right, when you are in front of the Hong Kong Golf Club turn follow the path to the right to the temple and a wonderful beach.

27) Guanyin (Quanyin, Kwan Yin, or Kuanyin) is the ever-popular goddess of mercy. After Tin Hau, the majority of temples seem to be dedicated in her honor. She is famous throughout Asia, so I don’t associate her as strongly with Hong Kong. There is a cool giant statue of her in the Tai Po which is worth checking out if you like giant buddhas, but don’t want to face the crowds or cable cars needed to reach the Big Buddha.

28) Beyond Buddhist temples, there are a number of interesting churches, mosques, and Taoist temples scattered about. Hong Kong’s religious diversity and diversity of religious architecture is pretty amazing.

29) Everyone is so nicely dressed all the time. There is just no competing with Hong Kong women on style. Its like the Paris of Asia.

30) Locals rarely go to Lan Kwai Fung, but invite them to some Korean BBQ and some karaoke, and you will definitely have a fabulous time.

Thanks for the buddy pic Krystal
Thanks for the buddy pic Krystal

31) Aunties, domestic helpers, maids, or whatever else the innumerable South East Asian women workers are called have very few legal rights. I highly suggest becoming informed about these issues before arriving, because it is a major part of Hong Kong’s economy.

32) Cars drive on the left side of the road. I’ve been here nine months and I still forget this from time to time.

33) The Octopus card is the greatest metro pass system in existence. Enjoy it while you can.

34) Michelin starred restaurants are great, but there isn’t any particular need to go out of your way to get to most of them. Hong Kong has hundreds of undiscovered gems which will be cheaper and less crowded than those with stars.

35) Dating is a big deal at HKUST. It is a small, relatively isolated campus where the guys outnumber the girls. Competition is fierce and PDA is abundant. Don’t be surprised if you are stuck in an elevator with a couple making out. It has happened to me. More than once.

Thanks again for the photo Krystal!
Thanks again for the photo Krystal!

36) Green mini buses are driven crazy fast, but are cheaper and get you to your destination more quickly. Double decker buses feel safer, but are significantly slower, and you may be packed in like sardines.

37) The minibus line is generally shorter at Hung Hau than Choi Hung. During rush periods, both lines are insanely long, but the Hung Hau bus arrives more frequently.

38) Sweaters are useful year-round because the air conditioning is cranked up so high in the classrooms and library. I frequently wish I had brought mittens.

39) Books in Hong Kong are insanely expensive. Take full advantage of the HKUST and Central Libraries, and check to see if you can find ebooks through the UW Madison library or the Dane County Public Library.

40) When ordering food in the cafeteria the English translation on the board is not always to key phrase that the register workers are listening for. Be prepared to try many different combinations of “BBQ pork and duck” before you hit on the right one.

Thanks Tyler for the pic!
Thanks Tyler for the pic!

41) The hall workers are very friendly and nice, but they rarely attempt to speak English. They will almost always wrangle a local or mainland student to act as translator. This is mildly frustrating for everyone.

42) HKUST lacks good public meeting places. If you are working on a group project, plan ahead and book a study room in the library, but be aware that they fill up quickly around exam time.

43) It seems like a silly thing, but try out a bunch of different pen brands. Hong Kong has a number of wonderful Japanese stationary brands available which makes taking notes a little bit more fun.

44) My favorite people-watching spots include IFC Mall, Sham Shui Po Market, and Victoria Park. Between these three locations you can get a good cross-section of the super-rich, average locals, and immigrant communities in Hong Kong.

45) If you look rich enough, you can take your dog anywhere. Seriously. I’ve been seated across a Pomeranian eating lasagna at Starbucks before.


46) HKUST professors like to assign group projects. As an exchange student, these are perfect opportunities to get to know local students.

47) “On Time” usually means roughly 10-15 minutes late for everything except the MTR.

48) Wake up early and watch the sunrise over the bay at least once. You will be well rewarded.

49) Meet as many people as you can. Hong Kong is a hotbed of global citizens with really fascinating life stories. I’ve met high powered businessmen, stay at home mothers, English teachers who have hopped from country to country, new immigrants struggling to make ends meet, locals who trace their ancestry back many many generations, artists stopping through for inspiration, and scientists collaborating with peers around the globe. It is Hong Kong’s people that make the city so interesting.

50) Don’t ever be afraid to reach out to someone. The students, staff, and even just random people you meet out and about in Hong Kong are some of the kindest and most hospitable people you will ever meet. Any and every effort you make to reach our tot them will be amply rewarded.