Many new arrivals passionately loved Hong Kong on first sight; others – just as ardently – loathed the place, sometimes before they even walked down the gangplank. Griping is a recognised part of culture shock – the liverish stage that comes when initial wonder at the new and different turns to querulous complaint. Some never even experience that first stage – they didn’t want to relocate in the first place, but economic necessity, or a spouse’s career, drove the move. From its earliest urban beginnings, Hong Kong has never lacked full-throttle moaners, and we’ve all heard them down the years: wedged beside someone at the dinner table, stuck with a droning specimen on a boat trip, or cornered like a trapped animal at a drinks party. These noisome pests grumble their way through other people’s lives without pity or respite. What did disgruntled long-term residents grouse about in the past? And were there any variants on seemingly perennial themes? The chronic moaner’s repertoire of complaint doesn’t vary much, and as various period memoirs vividly attest, their inventory of bile-infused whining hasn’t shifted gear in a century. They don’t like the climate; they can’t stand the people; the language is incomprehensible; the food makes them ill; everything is overpriced and poor value, or else unavailable; public transport is impossibly packed, and chock-full of “them” anyway; and the street-side smells make them queasy, if not actually retch on the spot. “What a dreadful, overrated dump Hong Kong is,” they dolefully opine. “Why we chose to come here I will never fully comprehend! How anyone could possibly take to it only proves beyond a shadow of doubt their own debilitated mental state! And the sooner I can leave the wretched place and its awful inhabitants behind me forever, the better!” So there! A biliously amusing poem first published in 1937, but which had already done the dinner party and cocktail circuit rounds in China for some years, epitomises the frustrations and annoyances common to life in the Far East. Couched in language that many present-day gripers might also like to use – if political correctness considerations did not stifle their speech – certain views remain unaltered. For many, the simple fact of being surrounded by visible ethnic difference was enough to make them uneasy, hostile and defensive. I’m sick of the Chink and the Tartar, I’m sick of the Jap and Malay … Whisper it softly, but many contemporary moaners in Hong Kong still use similar terminology – especially when alcohol and pent-up frustrations combine to loosen inhibitions, tongues and tempers. Domestic servants are a perennial gripe; only the names have changed. The latest ludicrous, inexplicable or infuriating thing that Imelda or Sukawati perpetrated, instead of Ah Kam or Ah Fung, remains unaltered, as do routine complaints about high-priced, low-quality food. I’ve had enough undersized chicken, And milk that comes out of a can … A key difference – current pandemic to one side – were the everyday health risks that a life in Asia brought forth nearly a century ago. Infectious disease was rampant, general sanitation levels were rudimentary and antibiotics and other “miracle cures” were as yet unknown. Rigorous preventive hygiene was the main line of defence against potentially fatal illnesses. To eat without fear of infection To sleep without using a net And throw away all my collection Of iodine, quinine, et cet. I’m weary of bathing with Lysol And washing with carbolic soap I’m tired of itch skin diseases, Mosquitoes and vermin and flies The chronic moaner’s main refrain – then and now – was usually a toxic combination of jaded disappointment and pining homesickness: They sing of the East as “enthralling” And that’s why I started to roam, But I hear the Occident calling – Oh Lord, but I want to go home!