Reality check: Is Vancouver like Hong Kong? Is there any truth to "Hongcouver"?

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Hong Kong skyline

The City of Vancouver is also known as “Hongcouver” to some people due to its significant Chinese population as well as its cultural and economic similarities to Hong Kong, but is it really?

We’ve all heard it before, “Vancouver is turning (has turned) into an Asian city.” More specifically, Hong Kong. In this in-depth Vancity Buzz feature, Kenneth and Sharon boil down the similarities and differences between these two amazing and beautiful cities that are interwoven into each others’ history.

Food and shopping

Vancouver has a whole suburb (a.k.a. Richmond) mainly serving food that is quite influenced by Hong Kong. There are also entire streets in Vancouver that exclusively serve and sell Chinese food and groceries. And then, there’s T & T Supermarket – your one stop location for all your “exotic” Chinese food and groceries. It opened its first location in Metropolis at Metrotown exactly 20 years ago, and it has since sprouted with 22 locations across the Vancouver region, Calgary, Edmonton, and Toronto.

These are just one of the indicators of an integrated Chinese population in every neighbourhood of the region – the days of Vancouver’s Chinatown role as the “to go” place for Chinese food, groceries, and merchandise long belong to a bygone era. Chinatown’s sharp decline is ironically interlinked with the wave of Hong Kong immigrants during the 1990s who built and opened Chinese restaurants, shops, and large malls in the suburbs, namely Richmond. In effect, a modern version of Chinatown appeared overnight.

When it comes to restaurant food, there are some who have vocally quelled on the thought that Vancouver’s dim sum is better than Hong Kong’s. It doesn’t end there though, there are even some who think our Chinese food is the best in the world! They say it has to do with our supply of fresh ingredients, particularly seafood – a Chinese staple.

I don’t beg to differ though since tasting some dim sum in Vancouver (especially in Richmond), for instance, does make me feel as if I’m back home in Hong Kong. Both of these cities offer a huge selection of cuisines ranging at different prices. Simply put, this is what I love about Vancouver – you have a fusion of cuisines not just from Hong Kong but also Taiwan, Shanghai and various places in Mainland China, and even Singapore. These influences congregated in Hong Kong, and were also shed onto Vancouver; many of the very best chefs in Hong Kong were part of the immigration wave of the 1990s.

Hong Kongese (also referred to as “Hong Kong Chinese”) also eat out a lot more than Vancouverites. First of all, in Hong Kong it’s relatively cheap to eat out – the range of pricing options is much wider than Vancouver’s with its variety street food, small business restaurants, chain restaurants, and the upper class restaurants.

Secondly, there’s availability and proximity. Business hours run longer into the night in Hong Kong, and food carts/restaurants are everywhere in this concrete jungle. It is also safe to eat at any time in Hong Kong and it has become a habit for Hong Kong people to eat in the middle of the night on the streets. The streets are literally lined with restaurants from left to right. It’s foodie heaven. While in Vancouver, while we do have it good for North American standards, food options are few in comparison and require long-distance trips.

And finally, time is money. The average weekly work hours for a full-time employee in Hong Kong is 49.6 hours. Many, if not most, Hong Kongese work from 8 am/9 am to 7 pm/8 pm. In contrast, the average in Canada is a much more balanced and healthy 36.4 hours that is just five days a week with workdays ending between 4 pm to 5 pm.

Life is stressful in Hong Kong, and it leaves very little time to do other things like cooking your own meals. That’s why grocery stores and supermarkets are small and few in number while street food and restaurants are aplenty everywhere.

As for shopping, Hong Kong’s city streets are lined with a vibrant mosaic variety of shops, restaurants, and businesses. There are even some quirks here and there, including entire streets that exclusively sell a single type of product such as cell phones, electronics, running shoes/sneakers, herbs, etc.. There are rarely any closed doors to these street-front businesses, they are wide open to welcome shoppers and would-be purchasers. A constant powerful stream of air also funnels down along the width of entrances to keep air conditioned air in and bugs out.

Then, there are the street markets. The two most popular and largest street markets are located along Temple Street and Tung Choi Street (a.k.a. “Ladies” Night Market). While the very concept of Vancouver and Richmond’s Chinese Night Markets originate in Hong Kong, they are quite different. Hong Kong’s markets run from early-afternoon into the very late-evening, and compared to our own generic and “controlled” local night markets they are organic, chaotic, and unorganized. And really, that’s where the fun and cultural experience comes from (tourists seldom go there for actual shopping).

Crowded, noisy, and colourful… Hong Kong’s city streets can be best described as organized chaos (not to mention that the markets are never short on supply with ultra cheap knock-offs, which is an understatement). And when the sun sets, the city’s vibrancy is maintained and crowds in the street are even larger. City streets and storefronts are lit up with bright lights (neon signage are everywhere you look) like an urban festival (there is even a nightly light and laser show emitting from the entire Hong Kong skyline!).

It’s nothing like Vancouver’s dark streets, which could arguably use a bit more light at night to animate and liven up: in comparison it’s severely depressing here, especially when the cold winter months and short dark days roll in.

What about indoor shopping malls? If you thought Metropolis at Metrotown was big, and it is, then try to imagine numerous similar sized (but more compact for additional shops) malls scattered across Hong Kong and with a lot more people in them. They house virtually all of the world’s brands. Whether it be on the street or in a mall, Hong Kong has everything for your fashion needs.

Shopping malls are also your place of refuge from the humid heat outside. But be weary as you could also catch a cold from the super cool air conditioned air! Not kidding, here.

Street food at Temple Street Market.

Image: philek9.

Shopping at Causeway Bay.

Image: Phil Wiffen.

Neon lights at Halphong Street in Kowloon.

Image: laszio-photo.

 

Mainland Chinese

They’re increasingly becoming a larger proportion of the populations in both Vancouver and Hong Kong. Most of the Mainland Chinese newcomers are usually more well off and have a greater financial capacity than the average citizen from both cities. Some might also think that there is no difference between China and Hong Kong – because we’re all Chinese – but let us explain.

The Mainland Chinese are individuals who live in the area deemed as Mainland China, a large geopolitical area ruled directly by the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It excludes the PRC’s Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau.

Many Hong Kong citizens do not label themselves as someone from the mainland of China but instead a “Hong Kongese” due to reasons such as differing etiquettes, languages, and cultures between a Hong Kongese and a Mainland Chinese. More importantly, 156 years of British colonialism (ending in 1997) have created a highly different culture and unique sense of identity among the Hong Kongese.

In the past decade or so, there has been a growing outflow of Mainland Chinese from China (specifically, the exploding middle and upper classes) into the world’s cosmopolitan cities. This includes both Hong Kong and, of course, Vancouver.

There’s no doubt that Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese arrivals like to stay in groups in Vancouver, which might be the reason why you see more of a larger cluster in Richmond than in other areas. Not that there is anything new to the idea of immigrants choosing to live in clusters, it has been a common occurrence around the world throughout history with the Irish, Italians, Jews, Dutch, Germans, Swedes, Ukrainians, Japanese, Indians, Muslims, etc. It’s only natural for new immigrants who are unfamiliar with their new home to have a desire to live in a place where language and culture is familiar before assimilating into their new society.

Richmond’s allure for the Chinese has led to the statistic where 50% of its populace now identify themselves as Chinese. In contrast, the Chinese account for 30% of the City of Vancouver and Burnaby’s population. Across the board for the entire Metro Vancouver region, close to 400,000 or more than 18% of the population are Chinese.

While the Hong Kongese fled in droves to cities like Vancouver, Toronto, San Francisco, London, and New York prior to the 1997 British handover of the colony to the PRC, currently that’s no longer the case. Fears were fever high over the strong possibility of communist crackdowns and the implementation of draconian policies that would severely impede on Hong Kong’s free market society and financial systems.

Hong Kongese were particularly fearful following the events of the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, but these fears were proven to be unfounded shortly after the relatively smooth transition and the fulfillment of China’s promises to Britain regarding how it would treat its former subjects. In the process, these events have forever changed the demographics of cities like Vancouver.

With the communist scare long over, immigration numbers from Hong Kong have been falling sharply for more than a decade. Not only has the number of immigrant numbers from Hong Kong been dropping, but more importantly the number of Hong Kong immigrants actually present in the city has been free falling. There is no net gain in Hong Kongese arrivals. But there is, however, a surge in new arrivals of Mainland Chinese.

In fact, “Mainland Chinese arrivals in Vancouver outstripped those from Hong Kong by 7,872 to 286 in 2012.” That’s a 27-1 disparity, and it doesn’t even include all those Hong Kongese that have returned to their home city. In the decade ending in 2006, 18,890 immigrants arrived from Hong Kong but nearly 30,000 also left Vancouver during the same period. There are now an estimated 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong.

The communist scare played the single most important factor in the original mass Hong Kong migration to Vancouver, and China’s subsequent relatively lenient policies with Hong Kong is also the main reason for their departure and return. But there are other reasons too, including lifestyle and cultural differences, strangely complex and high Canadian taxation policies, and much fewer opportunities for wealth generation compared to the global business city that is Hong Kong – the freest economy on Earth.

These would all be unusual for those who originate from and are used to the idea of a fast-paced, highly urbanized, red tapeless and business-driven society. The economies of Hong Kong and China have traditionally seen (and continue to see) booming growth that far outpaces the rate of Canadian economic growth. Moreover, systemic racism in Canadian society still exists and hinders the ability for high advancement.

With the Hong Kong immigrants who have chosen to remain in Vancouver, their reasons include their preference for a much cleaner and more spacious environment, better education opportunities for their children, and the idea of retiring in a comfortable and mild climate setting. Of course, there’s also the reason of not wanting to ditch the new life they have already built up in Vancouver.

High levels of immigration from Mainland China are expected to continue for the foreseeable future. While there’s no doubt that the Hong Kongese played a major part in our society, and they will continue to do so, the future of Vancouver’s Chinese influence lies not with the Hong Kong Chinese (nor the Taiwan Chinese) but with the Mainland Chinese.

For that matter, Hong Kong’s future also largely lies with the Mainland Chinese. While July 1 is an important date for Canadians, it also marks the anniversary of the “new Hong Kong” under Chinese rule.

The old Kai Tak Airport landing strip is seen on the upper left. Believe it or not, this was the site of Hong Kong International Airport until the construction of a new world-class airport in the 1990s out at sea by flattening one of Hong Kong’s mountains. Until its closure, Kai Tak was one of the world’s most dangerous airports as tall skyscrapers are built right next to its runway flight paths.

Image: sean_in_hk.

Neon night lights and crowds in Hong Kong’s pedestrianized streets.

Image: HanelleC.

 

Pollution and weather

You cannot compare the pollution and weather between these two cities. Your lungs will be much healthier in Vancouver than in Hong Kong.

The air is incredibly stuffy and polluted in Hong Kong with temperatures averaging 24 to 28 degrees Celcius in addition to the humidity factor. While much of the city’s air pollution is locally created and is trapped by the city’s skyscrapers, exhaust from new factories in the nearby Chinese province of Guangdong have recently greatly contributed to Hong Kong’s increasingly high pollution index readings. Growth in emissions from marine traffic that serve the Port of Hong Kong, one of the world’s busiest ports, is also to blame.

According to a University of Hong Kong study, in 2012 more than 3,000 died prematurely from air pollution-related illnesses. More than 150,000 were also hospitalized and it caused a loss in HK$39.4 billion (CAD$5.2 billion) through decreased productivity and medical bills.

With that kind of weather and air quality, outdoor activities aren’t so fun in Hong Kong so everyone stays inside the city’s many massive air conditioned malls. This is particularly the case during the summer months whereas during the winter months, clear skies and Vancouver-like late-spring and summer temperatures are a common occurrence (if you plan on traveling to Hong Kong, December and January are great months to do so).

Temperatures during these two months can also reach as “low” as 14 degrees Celsius, and when this happens “cold” weather advisories are implemented. Hong Kongese take out their thick wool scarves, turtle necks, winter coats, fleeces, mittens, and toques whenever the thermometer dips into the mid teens. Wearing my t-shirt and shorts in 18 degrees Celsius weather, I was frequently asked if I was cold and/or crazy for wearing “so little” out.

In Vancouver, when it isn’t raining for extended periods (as in continuous weeks or even months), the sun and the clean breeze are perfect combinations to an outdoor activity day. Fortunately, unlike Hong Kong, we aren’t frequently hit by typhoons during our summer months.

While Hong Kong is best known for its canyons of skyscrapers, vibrant urban life, shopping, food, and big city attractions, it isn’t renowned for its nature and outdoor activities. Contrary to the knowledge of many, natural and outdoor attractions do exist in quite an abundance.

But how does one of the densest cities on the planet still possess such a large natural backyard? Well, most of Hong Kong’s geographical area is mountainous and therefore unsuitable for development. Like Vancouver’s North Shore Mountains, these forested Hong Kong mountains provide the city with both an natural air filter and its drinking water supply through reservoirs. Mountain hiking and even clean coarse sand beaches with clear water for ocean swimming are types of outdoor activities that Hong Kongese can enjoy.

Apart from the sharks that swim in Hong Kong’s waters, does this all sound a little familiar to Vancouver?

70% of Hong Kong’s land area can be more aptly described as mountainous “nature.” That’s the reason why the remaining 30%, where there are concrete jungles, is so crowded.

Image: Michael Hansen’s Hikes.

Image: Bridget Coila.


Image: sean_in_hk.

Image: Anthony Gurr.

Two views of the Hong Kong skyline taken at the same viewpoint in Tsim Sha Tsui at Kowloon District.

Image: Jason Wun.

 

Space and affordability

A Big City on a Small Island

It is beyond cramped in Hong Kong, especially with 7.1 million people squeezed into that tiny 1,100 square kilometre city.

Well actually, it’s much worst than that. Only a fraction of this space is urbanized as Hong Kong is largely mountain covered which means the city is much denser than these numbers would indicate; about 30% of its land area is developed and the remaining 70% is protected as a natural preserve, which explains why Hong Kong is so crowded.

In contrast, Metro Vancouver has 2.5 million people spaced out over an area of 2,877 square kilometres. However, to be fair and like Hong Kong, much of the Vancouver region’s area is covered by protected watersheds, mountains, forests, and even a large swath of farm lands. These are specially protected areas that are not urbanized nor can they be urbanized.

Taking all this into consideration, according to Terry Hoff at Metro Vancouver’s Planning, Policy, and Environmental Development, just 840 square kilometres of the Vancouver region is developable for urban uses.

While larger than Hong Kong, Metro Vancouver is generally a small geographical area – much smaller than most major cities in North America and around the world. Like Hong Kong, the future for geographically challenged Metro Vancouver is “up.”

There are certainly some geographical similarities with Hong Kong, but it’s obviously much more spacious here in Vancouver – the density is nowhere close to Hong Kong’s. In Hong Kong, highrises are everywhere with as many as eight apartments or more on one small floor. Privacy is rare in Hong Kong but much more easier to find in Vancouver.

Some Vancouverites like to complain about the city’s growing density, that we’re becoming “Hongcouver.” While dense for North American standards, even our densest neighbourhoods in downtown Vancouver are anything but like Hong Kong’s archaic concrete jungle density. The comparison is just absurd.

And it’s not like we’ve decided to fill in Coal Harbour and the rest of False Creek to make way for more condo towers. Well, at least not yet (although the vast majority of False Creek, including east of Science World up to Clark Street, was reclaimed for the resource industry and factory space needed for World War I).

For Hong Kong, on a serious note, it won’t be too long before the focus on terraforming for new housing and economic development turns from ocean reclamation to flattening the city’s mountainous terrain within its natural reserves. It’s not a far fetched idea nor is it unique with the Mainland Chinese Gobi Desert city of Lanzhou’s plan to flatten 700 mountains to make way for a new super city centre.

A map showing reclamation of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour over time for development on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

Image: Government of Hong Kong.

The “reclamation” of land (a.k.a. filling in the ocean) from the sea has been common practice in mountainous Hong Kong to ameliorate the limited supply of developable land. This map shows reclamation as of 2006.

Image: New School Atlas of Hong Kong

 

Hong Kong’s Housing Crisis

With land scarcity comes another issue both cities have in common: affordability (or the lack thereof). It’s a common problem that both Vancouver and Hong Kong share, and it’s particularly a troublesome crisis for the Chinese city. In Hong Kong, $1.5 million buys you just 500 square feet (a similar sized apartment within the City of Vancouver would cost approximately $250,000). It is the world’s most expensive place to buy a home, and historically high housing and living costs have also forced the Hong Kong Government to play a key role in providing basic housing to many of its citizens.

Currently, about one-third of the city’s 7.1 million people live in public rental housing flats. These citizens have a roof over their heads because of the local government’s mass affordable housing program for low-income residents. Without government assistance, Hong Kong would be a highly despotic place to live.

With that said, public housing blocks are not ideal places to make a home. They are amongst the most cramped residential units in the city, with recent building complexes containing as many as 40 storeys of small compact units. It’s not uncommon for an entire family of three or even four people (parents and young children) to sleep in one bedroom.

The 2003-built Kin Ming Estate consists of approximately 10 closely clustered apartment blocks housing more than 22,000 people. This is just one of many public housing blocks in Hong Kong.

In contrast, Concord Pacific Place (the Expo ’86 site) in False Creek houses 20,000 people in 10,000 residential units inside 50 buildings over an spacious area of 200 acres that is dispersed with large parks, community amenities, and daycares. Ironically, Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka Shing was responsible for Vancouver’s Concord Pacific Place development. It was the single development that ignited Vancouver’s love affair with residential development and urban density.

Canyons of public housing skyscrapers in Hong Kong on reclaimed land from the sea houses tens of thousands of people in small, tall clusters.

Image: wirralwater.

Image: David Woo.

Image: Teddy Kwok.

Currently, there are 210,000 people in Hong Kong on the waiting list for affordable government housing. Those who are on the waiting list are literally living in caged homes with other people. Families living in spaces as small as 50 square feet are even an occurrence. This past year, the story of a 67-year old former butcher paying HK$1,300 (CAD$167) a month to live in wire mesh cage resembling a rabbit hutch sparked much public outcry over the worsening housing climate.

There is also growing discontent in Hong Kong with the growing wealth gap, PRC Communist Party-influenced education policies, and chronic housing shortages causing flaring tensions between the Hong Kong public and the PRC Communist Party-controlled Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government. The “one country, two systems” model of governance under Chinese rule, as agreed upon prior to Britain’s departure, is quickly being eroded; the political lines between Central Hong Kong’s Government House and Beijing’s Great Hall are being blurred.

Public concerns over the increasing cultural and economic influence of the Mainland Chinese are also at issue, with blame being put on the Mainland Chinese for driving up prices, using city taxpayer healthcare services (which are higher in standard to Mainland Chinese medical facilities), and straining the ability of the city’s transportation infrastructure to cope. In 2011, more than 28 million Mainland Chinese alone visited Hong Kong – this figure doesn’t even include visitors from around the world.

In response to the housing crisis, Hong Kong’s newly PRC-appointed Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying recently announced plans to build 142,000 units (75,000 rental flats and 67,000 private homes) over the next five years. In addition, 17,000 subsidized flats for sale will be built and ready by 2017.

According to a recent survey, of the 337 major global cities analyzed, Hong Kong remained as the least affordable housing market. Vancouver wasn’t too far behind as the second least affordable in the survey’s findings. With these global findings, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Vancouver also remains as the least affordable housing market in Canada.

Surely, to Vancouverites, all of this must sound familiar with the memory of harsh local attitudes to the overnight surge in Hong Kong Chinese residents during the 1990s and with the recent major increase in arrivals of Mainland Chinese. During the mid-1980s and especially during the 1990s, there were also complaints over out-of-place “monster” homes being built by the Hong Kongese in traditionally caucasian-dominated neighbourhoods. These days, the complaints lie mainly with the city’s need for densification.

And who could forget UBC, the “University of a Billion Chinese”? The University of British Columbia’s student make-up changed almost overnight to the outcry of locals as it led to much tougher competition for their entry into the institution. On the other hand, UBC has since embraced this international student aspect as part of its strategic plan to become one of the world’s greatest global universities.

 

Etiquette

Saying “thank you” to the bus driver while getting off the bus is something I really respect about Vancouver. I picked up the habit and brought it back to Hong Kong, but the bus driver told me to get off the bus because I was wasting his time.

If you take too long to get on or off the bus or if you ask the driver too many questions, you also put yourself at the risk of getting yelled at.

This is particularly the case with the Light Public Bus and taxi drivers (LPB’s and taxis are further explained below). They are fast drivers so that they can get to their next fare; the drivers are intensely competitive, and when it comes to the public bus drivers they barely stop to let you get on.

Most Vancouverites are very well-mannered and respectful to people. On the other hand, if you tried to pick up a conversation with someone on the train in Hong Kong, expect to be ignored, judged and avoided.

There are also little things like holding doors open for strangers, which Vancouverites are generally great at doing. But when it comes to etiquette on public transit, not a chance – Hong Kong trumps Vancouver. This includes general practices of not eating and drinking aboard transit (which causes many sticky spills) or not bringing smelly packaged foods onboard, talking softly and quietly, turning down the music emitting from your earphones, letting passengers exit a train or bus first before trying to embark the vehicle yourself, one seat per person, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and bathing and washing your clothes regularly (the absence of smelly transit riders).

A Hong Kong tram and a double decker bus, side by side.

Image: Carlton Holls.

 

Transportation

The MTR, the core of Hong Kong’s world-class transit system

There is no doubt that Hong Kong’s transportation is world-class with buses coming no longer than every 10 minutes and trains coming in every 3 minutes. The transportation system is highly efficient, reliable, comprehensive, and multi-layered. For such a small and dense city that is one of the world’s largest economic players, efficiency is a must.

Moreover, what the road system is to Vancouver is what the public transit system is to Hong Kong: with 90% of all daily transportation trips are made on rail, trams, buses, and ferries, Hong Kong’s social and economic vitality depends on a highly functional public transit system. In contrast, 25% of the City of Vancouver’s daily trips are made on public transit (13% across Metro Vancouver as a whole).

Hong Kong’s public transit system is not just one of the world’s best public transit systems, it’s also a trend setting system and a role model for many other cities. With its impeccable operations, the MTR Corporation (the company that runs Hong Kong’s comprehensive MTR subway and commuter rail lines) has won contracts to operate rapid transit systems around the world, including systems in Beijing, Hangzhou, London, Melbourne, Shenzhen, and Stockholm. The MTR Corporation was also among the partners of a failed bid to build and operate Vancouver’s SkyTrain Canada Line.

It’s also an extremely clean system with workers frequently cleaning stations and vehicles. No sticky messes, no garbage, and no strange and putrid smells. No urine, either.

There is also a zero tolerance for eating and drinking on the public transit system: strict laws on maintaining environmental hygiene exist especially after the 2003 outbreak of SARS when fear gripped the city, the normally crowded streets were emptied, and the economy came to a stalling halt.

It’s not the world’s longest system, but it easily covers every neighbourhood of the city given the relatively small size of urbanized Hong Kong.

Image: MTR Corporation.

A “no food and drink” advertisement aboard an MTR train. Maybe this should also be a TransLink policy.

Image: One Day In The Life of Drew.

 

Want to own a car in Hong Kong? Good luck!

Hong Kong’s bus network is operated by several private bus companies and they all utilize the same universal transit fare system. Bus stops are spaced much further apart than what we’re used to in Vancouver (it’s a walkable city; people are certainly able and more wiling to walk short distances). More importantly, with their wide bus stop spacing, it’s efficient and saves much time: they believe they’ve achieved the balance between efficiency and convenience. The bus network as a whole complements the MTR’s subway and rail services as well as the White Star ferry across Victoria Harbour (similar to the SeaBus across Burrard Inlet between downtown Vancouver and North Vancouver).

Hong Kong’s buses are mainly double-decked (a legacy of British colonialism) and are so frequent that you can either choose buses that are air conditioned (at a premium fare) or those without any air conditioning (cheaper). Of special mention are the Light Public Buses (mini-buses; LPB), a larger version of TransLink’s local community shuttle vehicles. In fact, there are nearly 3,000 LPB vehicles in Hong Kong serving local neighbourhoods and these are small buses seating no more than about a dozen people. On the other hand, Vancouver’s TransLink has just under 1,500 buses for its entire regional bus fleet.

Light Public Buses line a Hong Kong road.

Image: Life in AsiaNZ.

There’s so much competition between the various private bus and taxi companies, to the point that the Hong Kong government is having trouble with controlling the growth of these franchised bus and taxi fleets.

If you do need a car to quickly get to your destination, no problem – hailing a taxi is quick and easy. There’s no need to make a phone call to the cab company, taxi’s are plentiful everywhere. There are *only* 18,131 taxi vehicles in Hong Kong. You’re more likely to see a taxi on the road than a personal vehicle.

When it comes to owning and driving your own car, unless you’re a multi-millionaire you’re probably quite out of luck. It is extremely expensive to own and drive a car in Hong Kong due to the government’s strategy for reducing air pollution, road congestion, and the city’s chronic shortage of space. Where would these cars even be parked? North American-style gas stations and parkades inside a building are very rare in Hong Kong.

A street full of taxi’s in Hong Kong. They’re the most common vehicles on the road.

Image: Kevin Poh.

This brings us to the subject of Hong Kong’s roads. With so little space in this dense city and with the reliability of the bus network playing a important factor in the city’s vitality, the road system needs to be multi-layered, comprehensive, and efficient. After all, buses and taxis are among the vehicles that rely on good working roads. That means well-designed arterial roads and urban freeways to ensure the quick movement of not only people but also commercial goods to Mainland China, the Port of Hong (one of the busiest ports in the world), and Hong Kong International Airport (one of the busiest airports in the world). Given Hong Kong’s population and density, its road congestion is remarkably low.

Whereas with Vancouver’s road and public transportation network, none are particularly superior. Metro Vancouver lacks the advanced development of road infrastructure after the 1970s anti-freeway campaigns abolished plans to build freeways throughout the city. Instead, to make up for the lack in sufficient road capacity, local officials committed the region into building a comprehensive, frequent, and high-capacity public transit system. So far, we’re about 30 years behind on this public transit.

SkyTrain and bus coverage is relatively sparse considering the region’s lack of arterial road infrastructure. And with few well-built arterial roads such as highways, regional and cross-town traffic has spilled onto city streets, making city streets less pedestrian and cyclist friendly

Like Hong Kong, Vancouver is also a major port and gateway city – the Port of Vancouver is the largest port in Canada and the largest port on the West Coast of North America by metric tons of cargo. Vancouver International Airport, like Hong Kong International Airport, is also a major strategic air hub for the region’s size and is Canada’s second busiest airport after Toronto’s Pearson Airport. While they are quite different in size, both of Hong Kong and Vancouver’s airports are ranked among the world’s best (#4 Hong Kong; #8 for YVR and 1st in North America).

A highway going through Hong Kong’s Central District, the “Downtown” and business centre of the city where most of the city’s most renowned office tower landmarks are located. This is Hong Kong’s most urbanized highway with skyscrapers flanking the road on either side.

Image: Yuu.

 

Octopus vs. Compass

Life in Hong Kong revolves around the Octopus smart card. Literally. It’s used by 95% of the population between the ages of 16 to 65.

The card was first introduced in 1997 as the fare payment system for the city’s public transit network. However, it has since evolved to much more than just that – it has become an automated debit card for most retail shops, businesses, and services in the city: fast food restaurants (including the all-popular McDonald’s), convenience stores (including the universal 7-11, with one store located every few city blocks), supermarkets, apparel shops, department stores, cake stores, book stores, movie theatres, schools, on-street parking metres, car parks, vending machines, photocopiers, online merchants, theme parks, sports facilities, private club houses, racecourses, swimming pools, government services, and city attractions. *Deep breath.*

Because whipping out your wallet to quickly scan your Octopus card can be slightly inconvenient, the Octopus “card” now includes an optional smaller size for attaching onto key chains or even watches.

You can use your Octopus card for everything – even for using a set of observation binoculars! 

Image: moohaha.

Of course, this widespread acceptance of the Octopus as a payment method for businesses and services is made possible by the very fact that 90% of all trips are made on public transit and the Octopus card just so happens to be the most convenient way to go about on your transit commutes. It’s also the cheapest way to travel – cash payment for transit fares are still accepted, but you won’t get the discounted price you’d normally get through the Octopus.

Hong Kong’s transit system runs on a fair and equitable distance-traveled pricing system. Unlike Vancouver’s highly arbitrary zone system, in Hong Kong you pay for the distance you have traveled by “tapping in” and “tapping out” your Octopus card at rail stations and buses.

In addition, Hong Kong was very much a pioneer with the usage of smart cards for public transport, whereas in Vancouver is only just catching up now with the introduction of TransLink’s Compass smart card and SkyTrain fare gates in fall 2013. That’s more than a decade and a half since the introduction of the Octopus card in Hong Kong.

To TransLink’s credit, the transportation authority plans on following the footsteps of Hong Kong. The Compass card will allow for the zone system to be abolished and replaced with a distance-traveled pricing system in the coming years. It also intends to go far beyond that: smartphones and your everyday chip-embedded credit card could also be a payment method on the Vancouver transit system in the near future. And like the Octopus, the Compass card could also become the payment method at some of the region’s local retailers. Can you imagine using your Compass to pay for your latte at your local neighbourhood Starbucks, Blenz, Tim Hortons, Subway, McDonald’s, and 7-11?

 

MTR Corporation vs. TransLink

TransLink also hopes to create a real estate development component to its operations as a means of creating a new revenue source. Dense developments near SkyTrain stations will also serve to increase the population in these rapid transit supported areas and in turn will also increase transit ridership. Certainly, a sustainable future for the small geographical region of Metro Vancouver lies with sustainable development (density) around transit nodes to encourage transit ridership and discourage car use.

Real estate development is also one of the MTR Corporation’s largest operations, aside from operating and building Hong Kong’s public transit system. The MTR is also quite serious with equating density with ridership, to the point that it has built major residential developments over its massive train maintenance and storage yards. The MTR Corporation is among Hong Kong’s largest property developers and landlords and is listed on Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index. Although it is publicly shared, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government retains a controlling stake and rightly so for the interest of the public. It is one of the world’s few profitable public transit systems and its assets total to HK$1.979 trillion (CAD$260 billion).

MTR stations are also mini-shopping malls at the concourse levels as these spaces are lined with shops, bakeries, book stores, convenience stores (particularly 7-11), and fast food restaurants. They’re a huge success, despite the ban on food and drinks in the areas beyond the fare gates and on transit vehicles. TransLink hopes to mimic some of this retail success inside its SkyTrain stations to provide passengers with amenities and a more hospitable and safer environment. Convenience stores are located inside several SkyTrain stations, and Jugo Juice outlets dot the underground stations of the Canada Line.

The MTR’s train vehicles utilize side seating to maximize standing area, accessibility, and the total capacity of the train. The seats are also hard metal and plastic surfaces (not fabric or leather) for hygienic and ease of cleaning reasons. The trains are, of course, much longer than and wider than SkyTrain and they also run on faster speeds. Signage inside stations and trains are plentiful, very helpful, and self-explanatory for the everyday user or visitor.

Image: Chung Jen.

 

The Hustle & Bustle of Hong Kong vs. Laidback Vancouver

If it weren’t for the pollution and stress from the long work hours, the Hong Kongese as a group could quite possibly be among the healthiest people on Earth. Unlike North Americans, the vast majority of Hong Kongese do not drive. They walk a whole lot to get from one place to another, so it might not be surprising that they’re also fast walkers. More importantly though, time is also money in this workaholic and wealth-centric culture.

You can even tell when you step off the plane and onto the gangway of Hong Kong International Airport – it’s always a mad rush to get out of the airport (which is frequently rated as among the world’s best). There’s always a sense of urgency, a hustle and bustle like New York and London.

On the MTR, if the train stops for even less than a minute, transit workers will go on the public announcement system and apologize on the speakers for the delay. Whereas in Vancouver, travelling around isn’t that bad but waiting for certain buses and then having to transfer onto SkyTrain (particularly the Canada Line in Richmond, which comes every 20-minutes at night) can waste a lot of your time. It’s simply not that convenient; like it or not, the car gives you freedom in Vancouver.

Overall though, apart from the Canada Line along its southern sections at Vancouver International Airport and Richmond, SkyTrain’s frequency isn’t all that bad. It was the global pioneer for a fully-automated train network and up until recently retained the title as the world’s longest computer-driven train system. The driverless design of SkyTrain allows for low frequencies, as low as every 90-seconds but an average of every 2-4 minutes throughout the day.

There are very few cyclists on Hong Kong’s roads as it’s a slow and unsafe way of getting around. Public transit and walking to your destination (from public transit) is key in this city.

Altogether, this is food for thought for further discussion on Vancouver’s similarities and differences with Hong Kong. We’ve covered a lot, although it only scratches the surface.

Have you been to Hong Kong before? Is Vancouver anything like Hong Kong to you? Let us know by commenting below.

 

The underground platform of one of many MTR stations.

Image: David Leo Veksler.

Breaking stereotypes of Hong Kong: 70% of its land area is undeveloped nature.

Image: sean_in_hk.

Featured image credit: Ed Coyle Photography.

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Kenneth Chan Deputy Editor & Social Media Manager at Vancity Buzz. He covers stories pertaining to local architecture, urban issues, politics, business, retail, economic development, transportation, infrastructure, and anything else that makes a difference in the lives of Vancouverites. Kenneth is also a Co-Founder of New Year's Eve Vancouver. Connect with him at kenneth[at]vancitybuzz.com
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