Common courtesy isn't quite so common in Hong Kong

Yonden Lhatoo says daily encounters of uncivil behaviour and bad manners make it clear we're in no position to complain about rude mainland tourists

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 June, 2015, 5:22pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

Every time I use the lift in my residential building, I look at a sign that says, "Please do not spit". It seems incongruous in the settings of my estate, which is full of well-heeled residents sunning themselves by the clubhouse pool or driving fancy cars. But that sign is embarrassing testimony to the fact that some of those folks in my building did indeed spit in the lift at some stage and had to be reminded not to.

It gets me thinking about the shortage of basic civic sense and common courtesy in Hong Kong, starting with lift etiquette. What is the compunction to rush into a lift and hit the door-close button before you even press a floor number? Is it that important to ensure nobody else gets in?

Picture this, because it has happened to me so many times: I find the lift waiting on the ground floor, and when the doors open, there's a startled looking individual inside. I press the number for my floor and find he hasn't even punched in his own number - he was in such a hurry to hit the door-close button before anyone else got in, he forgot to press his own floor number. The startled look on his face when I stepped in was because he realised the lift hadn't moved.

Not holding the door open for someone is another display of bad manners endemic in Hong Kong. It's so basic: after you open a door, just hold it for whoever is directly behind you. The extra energy required is negligible and you earn a little goodwill. How hard can that be?

I've often experienced this peculiar scenario where three people are heading for a door, myself being the third person, and after the first one pushes or pulls it open, the second person quickly slips through while the door is in mid-swing, angling his or her body like a limbo dancer. The momentum generated by the first person doesn't last long enough to let a third person through, so I end up with the door in my face. It borders on the bizarre.

I dislike the rainy season in Hong Kong. It's the time when everyone unfurls their umbrellas and takes up twice as much space on our crowded pavements. I'm taller than the average Hongkonger, which means their umbrella spokes are at eye level. I'm not exaggerating when I say it's a dangerous time for me because people in this city don't feel the need to swing their umbrellas to the side to avoid scratching my face or even taking out an eye. I end up swatting aside umbrellas to protect myself, even though I admit "when in Rome" is not an excuse for joining in this mass celebration of rudeness.

And don't get me started on eating and drinking on public transport. I'm not the MTR police and it's not up to me to stop people from chomping on pineapple buns on the train, as if the plastic wrapping to hide them from disapproving eyes makes it OK. But I do have visions of enforcing the law with a baton, especially when they're sitting right under a sign that makes it clear it's the wrong venue for stuffing your face.

It's not all gloom and doom, though. I've seen many examples of civic sense among local people as well. Like the young man on the train who gave up his seat for my elderly mother when she was visiting. Or the couple I saw offering tissue wipes to a drunken man throwing up on the train, and making sure he was alright while other passengers fled in disgust. I could cite many more examples.

It's easy to condemn the behaviour of mainland tourists and lump them all together as "uncivilised", when in fact there are those who fall under that category and others who don't, just like there are well-mannered Hongkongers and others who need urgent refresher courses in common courtesy.

He's not much of a role model, I admit, but in the words of the late Rodney King: "Can we all get along?" And behave?

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post