The reach of the Octopus

I love being in Hong Kong. The food! The fabulous MTR system! My super funny and surprisingly close despite our far-flung-ed-ness extended family. The shopping! The awesome, awesome skincare and beauty products made specifically for Asian skin and helps my face look more normal and less like a pepperoni pizza.

Still, there are some inexplicable things about the culture here that I don’t fully understand. Here’s a list of the top 5 things that befuddle me:

1. The love of toothpicks.In every restaurant, from traditional Chinese to Western, from high class to food for the masses, there are toothpicks. These are used almost like a dessert. After the main meal, people just go at it at the table with toothpicks. I’m not as grossed out by it as say, an American first setting foot in Hong Kong. But I don’t contribute to the wood splinters in the mouth culture either. I prefer the smooth glide, wider tape floss in the privacy of my own bathroom, thank you. I also have a thought that the more one uses toothpicks, the bigger the gaps between your teeth, and the more stuff gets up there. But then, braces are a non-thing here, and I am a product of a good orthodontist’s work after all. Those toothpicks won’t do anything for me, even if I tried.

2. The obsession over the news, and in particular, the weather. Granted, it’s a good thing to keep abreast of current events in such a multi-cultural, hub of banking and commerce, and tropical location. A typhoon just landed just to the north of HK yesterday, and the wind was powerful enough to whip my foot around mid-step (but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the weather news reported). However, if you think the American 24-hour news cycle is crazy…well, then you are right. The Hong Kong 24-hour news cycle is less commentary and more plain reporting of events. But it. Is. Relentless. And it all comes from pretty much the same source. One can surf through half a dozen TA channels around the same time and they would all be reporting the same story, using the same wording, AND THE SAME IMAGES. There’s basically 3 sources of info here: China Central TV (CCTV) filtered from the mainland featuring anchors with sticks up their butts, the BBC filtered by the liberal western point of view, and everyone else who pulls from that mysterious same source (the AP? Reuters?) where all the job of news anchor is cheapened into the role of news reader. Jon Stewart, do you really have to retire?

3. Coins. Ok, this one takes a bit of explanation. I’ll start with the types of coins and bills that are currently in circulation on Hong Kong:

Hong Kong money is called the ‘Hong Kong dollar’ symbolized by ‘HK$.’ It has 7 types of coins – 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents, HK$1, HK$2, HK$5, and HK$10. It has 6 types of bills – HK$10, HK$20, HK$50, HK$100, HK$500, and HK$1000. Yes, there is both a coin and a bill for the HK$10. Why? Ask someone smarter than me.

When you go to a restaurant, or shop at most kinds of stores (with the exception of grocery or convenience stores – although wet markets, 街市, are exceptions), all prices are rounded to the nearest whole dollar. At standard grocery stores, Circle Ks, or Seven Elevens, prices are exact to the nearest tenth. Most sellers at wet markets do not accept denominations less than HK$1. Everyone else is ok with your 10 cent pieces, but it’s typically frowned upon to make your purchases with anything less than HK$1 because it’s rude to keep the people behind you waiting as you count out your change.

BUT. The people behind you will have to wait as the cashier counts out YOUR change anyway. Because of this, I think it’s a moot point, which is why I do the change counting myself. Then, at least I don’t have to do the waiting. I also won’t be saddled with a bunch of coins that are starting to be phased out of use, at least in the populace if it isn’t done so in the government.

BUT. Why doesn’t the government just stop minting the offensive 10, 20, and 50 cent coins then? They can do what the Canadians did.

INSERT: The Octopus Card is this awesome thing that 99% of Hong Kongers, both locals and travelers alike, use to pay for public transportation. It is similar to the Clipper card (used in the SF Bay area), or the Oyster card (used in Greater London). Unlike the Clipper, the Octopus can be used across all forms of transportation – rail, subway, bus, ferries, mini-bus. You can even purchase ferry tickets to Macau with the Octopus. Unlike the Oyster card, Octopus cards can also be used at convenience and grocery stores, a good number of cha chaang tengs, 茶餐廳, fast food restaurants, parking meters, and parking garages. Transport fares paid with an Octopus card are typically cheaper than those paid with a single-journey ticket. Some residential buildings also use this as your resident ID (like my parent’s place) and keyless entry into your building as well as the clubhouse facilities. I love the idea of the Octopus card.

4. I hate how I have to pay for it.

Many locals nowadays link their credit card with their Octopus card so that once their Octopus card balance reaches, or falls below, zero, it will automatically refill. For the other folks, like me, who do not have a Hong Kong credit card – either because they are staying in HK short-term and have no need for a foreign credit card, or because they can’t due to other economic reasons – they use either the add value machines in MTR stations, or go to a convenience store to refill their card. Which is no big deal, as these are all over the place. I once saw a Seven Eleven and a Circle K right next to each other.In an MTR station. With an add value machine sitting across from them.

Here comes my real gripe with this system: Add value machines take nothing except HK$100 or HK$50. And both add value machines and convenience store refills only do so in multiples of 50. Fares in HK transport system ranges from HK$2.20 to $47.50. So there is no practical way on the planet to use up the value stored on your Octopus card to an even zero. I suppose you can, but it’ll take more planning and more random journeys than it is worth for the average person.

Which means the MTR Corporation will always have some of your money that you will never use.

You can, of course, fall below zero. The Octopus card allows you to get to -HK$35 before it makes you add value, or else you can’t exit or enter the MTR gates. I kind of want to do this when I return to CA in August. It would be a literal finger at the corporate world.

I’m also going to save up coins so that I have HK$50 worth, and then shove it at the convenience store clerk – the grouchiest one that I can find – to refill my card the next time. That’s a finger at the convenience store corporate world as well.


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