Yonden Lhatoo
SCMP Columnist
Just Saying
by Yonden Lhatoo
Just Saying
by Yonden Lhatoo

Hong Kong’s queueing culture: how to waste away your life

Yonden Lhatoo marvels at people’s penchant for joining the long lines for just about anything in the city, with some appearing to actually enjoy it

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” the poet T.S. Eliot once wrote. We’re doing the same in Hong Kong, but our yardstick is the amount of time we spend lining up for anything and everything.

If you look at past research around the world, humans in general are said to spend anywhere between six months and five years or more joining queues.

Sports fans in Hong Kong line up for tickets to see China’s visiting Olympic champions. Photo: Nora Tam

Americans in total spend 37 billion hours a year waiting in line, according to one estimate. Other research suggests the average American lifespan uses up two years in queues.

Some studies put the average Briton’s queueing total in a lifetime at around six months on average, which seems rather low, considering how it is said that a lone Englishman – or woman – waiting at a bus stop will form a queue of one.

I’m not aware of any equivalent research conducted in Hong Kong but I sat down recently with a friend who excels at maths to calculate how much of my own life I’ve wasted in queues. We worked it out to two years and three months.

That’s 821 days that are never coming back. This from a man who shuns lining up like the plague and often wishes there were more than 24 hours in a day to get things done. Imagine what the statistics must be like for Hongkongers who are drawn to long queues like moths to a flame.

I find waiting in line to be a taxing, dehumanising ordeal that people should only have to endure as punishment. Especially here in Hong Kong, where we have over seven million people crammed into limited urban accommodation, and chances are that every time you think of something different to do, far from the madding crowd, a million people will have had the same brilliant idea – you’ll end up in the inevitable queue.

Customers queue at an Apple store for the latest iPhone in annual rituals that often bring out bad behaviour. Photo: Felix Wong

There are some lines that I refuse to join on pain of death. Apple gadget runs are the worst when the US tech giant doesn’t include mainland China in the first batch of countries to release its overpriced iPhones and iPads.

That brings the scalpers out of the woodwork and puts all the unpleasantness of the human condition on full public display. The privileged send their domestic helpers to line up outside Apple stores in the heat and rain, while South Asian gangs squabble with scalpers from the mainland for queueing space. It becomes a standing ovation to naked greed and crass consumerism.

A queue for lottery tickets in Hong Kong. Photo: Sam Tsang

Ocean Park and Disneyland lines are hell, too. Especially when our compatriots from across the border break new records in the queue-jumping Olympics. I’ve been stupid enough to visit those theme parks on a Sunday, and you’d have to parachute me in to make me go through that again.

One aspect of popular Hong Kong culture that I’ve never been able to embrace is lining up outside restaurants, day after day, night after night. I can understand refugees having no choice in bread lines, but affluent folk in a city with a million dining choices?

I suppose queueing is a necessary evil when it comes to matters such as public transport, but it’s also common for people in this city to join a long line just because, like Mount Everest, “it’s there”. And many seem to actually enjoy it. There must be a shared sense of camaraderie in it, some sort of satisfaction or fulfilment that I’m obviously missing.

A service disruption turns the usual wait for trains into a total nightmare for MTR commuters. Photo: Felix Wong

Did you know that “queue” is the only word in the English language that is still pronounced the same way when the last four letters are removed? And that “queueing” is the only word with five consecutive vowels?

Utterly useless food for thought, I suppose, especially when you have something better to do with your life. Like stand in line.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Hong Kong’s queueing culture, or how to waste away your life