Can You Identify These Unique Hong Kong Sounds and Smells
Every city has its distinct sounds and smells, but we like to think there’s nowhere that offers such a sensory overload as Hong Kong. And they’re not just regular sounds and smells. Behind every one of these unique aromas and noises is a story, illustrating the colourful day-to-day life in Hong Kong and its rich history.
When you’re walking around town, see how many of them you can identify. Some are great, some not so much – but one thing’s guaranteed: you’re unlikely to smell or hear them anywhere else.
HONG KONG SOUNDS
Check out our pro tips for what to say when you want to join in on the fun…
The unmistakably loud voices of elderly people chattering in parks
Hear the octogenarians screaming at each other in the park? No, they’re not having an argument. They’re just talking. No one is about to accuse Hongkongers of being quiet any time soon, and the city’s elderly are a special kind of breed when it comes to noise. Grandpas and grannies love to congregate at the park for a game of chess, some bird-watching and of course, banter – and the decibels they create is unmistakable. Look out for them next time you take a stroll through Victoria Park in Causeway Bay.
How do I join the conversation?
Joh sun! (“Good morning!”)
Sik jor fan mei ah? (“Have you eaten yet?”, a warm Cantonese greeting that basically means “how’s it going”)
OK lah (“I’m doing well”. Only say this when they actually ask you how you are)
Jau seen lah, bye bye! (“Gonna head off, bye!”)
Vendors and shoppers haggling at the Ladies’ Market
Don’t know how to haggle? You’d better start learning because at street markets across Hong Kong, haggling is part of the fun. At the famous Ladies’ Market in Mong Kok, which sells everything from little tourist knick-knacks and knock-off handbags to sex toys and trashy lingerie, the noise from haggling takes centre stage.
How can I get the best deal possible?
Dim mai ah? (Literally “how do you sell this?”, meaning “how much is it”)
Gum gwai geh! (“So expensive!”)
Hm hai ah ma! (“Are you serious!?”)
Peng dee ah? (“Can you make it cheaper?”)
Pro tip: Call the shop owner leng zhai (handsome boy) or leng jeh (pretty lady), especially if they’re older – they’ll love it.
The quick-fire Cantonese horseracing commentary on the radio
Hongkongers love horseracing – a fun day out combining a colonial hangover with the Chinese’s love of gambling. The Happy Valley Racecourse puts on horseraces on Wednesday evenings, which is why you’ll often hear any given horseracing commentator’s rapid-fire drawl mid-week on the radio – the Happy Valley Racecourse puts on races every Wednesday evening. Intrigued? Go and check out the races yourself – it’s only $10 to enter and you’ll have the opportunity to place your bets, down a ton of beer – and hear even more crazy fast horseracing commentary.
What can I say to join in on the fun at the racecourse?
Fai di! Fai di! (“Faster! Faster!”)
HONG KONG SMELLS
Dried seafood around Sheung Wan on a hot, humid day
You might know Sheung Wan as one of the hippest neighbourhoods in Hong Kong, what with speakeasies and private kitchens aplenty. But since time immemorial, it’s been an area where Chinese seafood and herbal medicine outlets set up shop. Dried seafood hang in windows and on pavements outside shops, which is why on a hot, sticky day – that’s about 360 days out of the year – you’ll get a whiff of a distinct fishy smell rising when you’re in area. Go ahead and take a closer look, if you dare.
Sweet egg waffles as you walk by a street food stall
Hong Kong’s famous street food classic egg waffles might have recently made its way to the UK, but here you’ll get the very real deal at stalls in districts like Mong Kok, Causeway Bay and Wan Chai. Known as gaai dan zhai in Cantonese, these delicious fluffy morsels are made with egg batter in a griddle and heated over coals, forming a “waffle” shape. For every Hong Kong kid, this is one of the best smells from our childhoods. We dare you to resist trying one.
Salty sea smell that sticks with you after spending a day at the beach or on a junk
One of the best things about Hong Kong summers is spending the day on a junk – a Chinese boat – out on the water. These awesome days out see junks stop by one of the beautiful beaches dotted throughout the city, and typically involve free-flowing booze, food, and Hong Kong’s glorious sunshine (when we’re not hit by a tropical rainstorm, that is). After a day at sea, though, you inevitably end up with a salty smell that pretty much just stays with you – until you manage to crawl into a shower. Still, we love it, and if you’re in town during summer we’d recommend junk days all day, every day.
Andrea Lo is a freelance journalist and translator based in Hong Kong. After cutting her teeth in the industry as a staff writer at a lifestyle magazine, she embraced the freelance life in 2015 and hasn’t looked back. She spends her time exploring the best of Hong Kong’s dining and nightlife scene, trialling new fitness trends, and travelling to exotic locales – all in the name of “research”.