Remember when walking around Hong Kong was a year-round assault on the senses, with an overpowering whiff for every season? In summer it was rancid drains. Waiting outside in the summer heat of a UA Queensway cinema queue for tickets was memorable for the rising wafts of noxious drain smells. Not any more, it’s all indoors now. Then about this time of year, you knew winter had officially started because out came the street hawkers selling stinky tofu. And boy did it stink – more so than now, or is that just my memory? I recall rounding the corner to the old Blake’s Pier from Central Post Office and being hit in the nostrils by a ghastly blast. All tidied away now by the environmental hygiene killjoys, of course. Along with that too sweet sickly pong of instant shopping mall waffles were nice smells, like roasting chestnuts and sweet potatoes.
But now there’s nothing natural about the nasal assaults. Apart from the boiled–over cooked milk smell from Starbucks, or “Charbucks” as the kids call it, and the stale-deep fat-frying oil smell from many MacDonald’s, which never seem to go away, most smells now seem artificial in origin.
All-pervading smell of Subway
Trudging up from the Star Ferry walkway to Central you are hit by the sickly Subway stench. It’s smelled like no known bread you’ve ever tasted, yet bread smell it is, apparently, billowing from the vents in saccharine gusts. It smells like it comes in a bottle and gets added to the air conditioning, but no, we are told. It’s not just me – whole internet sites are devoted to this topic. Food Republic describes the Subway stench as a “sweet-sour odor that doesn’t smell like any other bread ever baked in an oven, but it's undeniably bread-like.” Children live it, adults describe it as putrid and plastic, the writer adds. Polly Gillespie, a New Zealand radio personality, mused that it smells like “little elves baking perfect treats.” Oh please.
Just admit it – it smells chemical and vile. Food Republic called up Subway headquarters in Milford, Connecticut and spoke to Mark Christiano, Subway's "Global Baking Technologist," the man who’s responsible for churning out two billion loaves of bread each year. According to Christiano, the smell is not intentionally pumped outside to entice, although he says: “We are proud of the smell. Any baked product smells good. And we want you to catch that bread aroma.” You can’t miss it, it’s like a blanket. He claimed there was no deliberate plan to make it smell as it does, and that it’s just the result of “a combination of the baking process and the percentage of different ingredients.”
Christiano did hint that perhaps the caramelization smell of the sugar might be a factor in the bread smell. “There’s nothing artificial in there,” he insisted. I must be in the minority. As food Republic concludes: How could two billion loaves of bread be wrong?
Abercrombie & Fitch nasal assault
If Subway isn’t nauseating enough, don’t venture near Pedder Street before breakfast. What belches out of Abercrombie & Fitch is truly air pollution. They pump out gusts of noxious cologne which pervades the whole street, and once in your nose, sticks there for hours, like a tune you can’t stop humming.
Psychology of smell
Branding expert Martin Lindstom, author of “Buyology, Truth and Lies About Why We Buy.” reckons it’s all about primal instincts. By brand shopping, we’re satisfying a primordial desire to enhance our social standing and, in turn, the probability of our successfully mating and reproducing. Well that’s what he says. He points to teen-targeting clothes brands like Abercrombie & Fitch, who exploit this desire. The “clothing mecca for teens and tweens,” he argues, combines erotic wall art, attractive employees and an instantly-recognizable scent to suggest to customers that buying the brand’s clothes will catapult them into the ranks of cool and sexy.” Well you could have fooled me. It turns my stomach. “Between your mirror neurons making you feel sexy and attractive,” Lindstrom writes, “and your dopamine creating that near-orgasmic anticipation of reward, your rational mind doesn’t stand a chance.” Well in the case of A & F, my rational mind makes me speed up and dive into Marks and Spencer for a change of smell. M & S smells pleasantly of nothing much. I checked with my 13 year old daughter to see if industrial strength cologne worked for her – she indicated not with an in-vogue rude word, adding she crosses the street to avoid it. But it’s not just clothes shops – though Shanghai Tang’s signature ginger lily pong reaches out and grabs you, like sticky hands, when you pass their airport shop. And even the Shangri-La hotels have ramped up their lobby smells – always faint and quite pleasing, most of them have ramped it up to be full-blast these days. It’s obviously more expensive, but much classier if hotels make a natural flower their signature scent, instead of a chemical concoction.
But I think generally we in Hong Kong are suckers for all this. In a Connecticut shopping mall recently, I braced myself to pass A & F, but there was only the faintest hint of cologne, light years from the industrial strength wave they are allowed to emit here. And Starbucks. Likewise, there was no clinging odour of burnt milk. Hong Kong people should object to all this air pollution, for that is what it is.