Commuters on the Hong Kong subway.

Hong Kong wants its people to smile more

May 23, 2019

Hong Kong has a problem. Its people aren’t smiling enough.

At least, that’s the conclusion of the city’s top tourism promoter.

The head of Hong Kong’s tourism board, which promotes the city, said last week that unfriendly cab drivers, restaurant servers, and sales staff were the top complaints by tourists last year, when a record 65 million people visited the city.

As one of the most densely populated places in the world, Hong Kong has long held a reputation for its dower demeanor.

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A so-called “smiling report” conducted by the market research company Better Business in 2018 found that Hong Kong was one of the world’s grimmest cities.

Of the 29 cities surveyed for service quality, Hong Kong came in 25th—a slight improvement from 2016, when it came in dead last in a list of 37 cities.

Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world.
Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. / Photo: Shutterstock

And when it came to shopper feedback, Hong Kong scored 66 out of 100, the high school equivalent of a D-minus.

Now, Hong Kong is trying to boost its tourism sector by encouraging business owners and workers to smile more.

“A smile is free, why not give it away?,” said Pang Yiu-kai, chairman of the Hong Kong Tourism Board. “The more you smile, the greater the chance tourists will give tips and so, more income.”

Tourism aside, Hong Kongers’ notoriously sour mood may be a symptom of larger mental health issues and a culture that emphasizes material pursuit.

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Hong Kong is one of the world’s most expensive cities to live in, routinely making the top five in The Economists’ annual ranking of cities.

Yet wages have failed to keep up with rising costs. The minimum hourly wage in Hong Kong is set to go up to $4.80 this month, but a study by Oxfam found that Hong Kongers need to earn at least $7 an hour to ensure a basic standard of living in the city, the South China Morning Post reported.

Many minimum-wage earners are elderly and work long hours.
Many minimum-wage earners are elderly and work long hours. / Photo: Dickson Lee/SCMP

Most minimum-wage earners are low-skilled service workers. Many of them are elderly and work 10 to 13 hours a day, leaving little time for family, friends, and entertainment.

Compounding this is Hong Kong’s notoriously high rent. Many spend as much as 50 percent of their total monthly income on rent and get very little space in return.

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Culturally, Hong Kong has developed a reputation for being surly. A quick search on Google will yield a laundry list of forums discussing the rudeness of Hong Kongers.

One TripAdvisor thread, titled “People rude in Hong Kong?,” garnered 80 responses within three months, including some citing short-tongued taxi drivers and their no-nonsense attitude.

But this gruffness is also celebrated as a cultural phenomenon in its own right, one that defines Hong Kong as a city, and sometimes even acts as a draw for tourists.

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One example is Lin Heung Tea House, one of Hong Kong’s oldest dim sum restaurants.

Here, the servers are notoriously brusque, and the environment is rough and tumble. The dim sum is served in a cart in the middle of the room—which people have to then fight over.

At Lin Heung Tea House, customers have to fight for their dim sum.
At Lin Heung Tea House, customers have to fight for their dim sum. / Photo: Winson Wong/SCMP

But it’s precisely this rambunctious energy that gets many customers coming back.

For them, the scowl—not the smile—is part of the experience.

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

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