Humming, honking, beeping and babbling: 10 noises you will hear in Hong Kong
The full surround sound, orchestral experience of Hong Kong is only complete when little sounds are added to the already boisterously screaming melody
The cacophony of life in Hong Kong is recognisable to many: the omnipresent hum of rushing cars and honking horns, the unrestrained babble in local restaurants and the chaos on the pavement of street markets.
However, these are the big things – they’re the overt explosions of noise that form the base of this symphony. Rather, the full surround sound, orchestral experience of Hong Kong is only complete when the little sounds are added to the already boisterously screaming melody and to the ears of Hongkongers.
City Weekend explores these sounds – human and unhuman, the subtle and the overt – that any Hongkonger could pinpoint in their sleep.
The “beep beep beep” of the MTR
No list of iconic Hong Kong noises would be complete without the rhythmic beeping of the city’s railway doors. Any Hong Kong kid has the full narration of the MTR memorised so well that even the pauses and the high-pitched “beep beep beep” of the closing doors can be recalled. More than 4 million people take the train every day – exposing more than half of the city to the MTR’s beeping.
Fog horns of ferries and cruise ships
It’s almost impossible to be near the harbour for any substantial amount of time and not hear the long and deep honk of local ferries and international cruise ships passing through the narrow stretch of ocean between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. Anyone who has lived by the harbour will recognise the feeling of being rudely awoken early in the morning by a passing ship. With the cross harbour ferry as one of the city’s icons, how can the noise they add to the explosive symphony not be an emblematic Hong Kong sound?
The “duuut” of an Octopus card hitting the machine
The omnipresent “duuut” of Octopus cards hitting payment machines is undeniably classic Hong Kong. With different sounds representing different card types and purchases, all Hongkongers have gone through the progression of the higher double “duuut” of a kids Octopus to the lower, single beat of the adult card. Not only do these “duuuts” fill the air around MTR turnstiles, trams exits and bus entrances, but all convenience stores, grocery stores and many fast food eateries add their share of the “duuuting” to Hong Kong’s orchestral ensemble.
Pedestrian crossing tick
Pausing at any pedestrian crossing in Hong Kong brings the signature warning ticking to the ears of Hongkongers. The telltale rattle, that sounds like something between a bell and click, is the auditory symbol of safety – when the ticking stops, the cars come. This sound can somehow always be heard over the honking horns, chattering pedestrians and the shouts of street hawkers.
Unlike the universally standard honking of cars and buses, Hong Kong’s street trams add an utterly unique sound to the symphony of the city. The high-pitched ring, or the “ding ding”, alerts pedestrians and vehicles nearby of the oncoming tram, and is the reason Hong Kong’s trams are dubbed “Ding Ding” by locals.
Clanging of dishes being put down with haste
Listen beyond the ceaseless chatter and shouting workers that overwhelm the ears in any local restaurant and the clatter of dishes hitting the table can be heard in the backdrop. Be it the sound the clanging of glass dishes and metal cutlery against table surfaces as a hearty meal ensues, or the ruckus made when staff hurriedly place a clean sets in front of hungry customers, the clanging is unmissable.
Though it can be used with different intonations and in different contexts – as a long, drawn out “aaiiiyaaaah” that symbolises someone’s annoyance towards their companion, or as a short, snappy “aiyah!” upon realisation that something has been forgotten – the phrase is common in the Cantonese language. To have a conversation with a Hongkonger and not have the words come up would be as rare as finding a four-leaf clover.
The guttural clearing of throats and ensuing spit
As crude and unhygienic as it may be, the sound of clearing throats and the purge of spit play their role in the fabric of Hong Kong’s soundscape. The noise most closely resembles a “kwaaat-puuut”, and can be found on almost any street – often, though not limited to, a guttural sound emerging from Hong Kong men decked out in white tank tops.
The sound of a knife coming down at a wet market butchery
Walking through any Hong Kong wet market will inevitably put you face to face – or ear to ear – with the dull sound of heavy steel slamming into a cutting board of wood. Upon slicing through the meat, the sharpened knife produces the recognisable sound of slicing metal, culminating in a loud thud as the tool reaches the wood. As menacing and ominous as it sounds, the thought of freshly cooked delicacies makes the noise worth it.
The whirring of overhead storefront air conditioners
In the sweltering blanket of summer humidity, the whirring of overhead air conditioners is a constant presence. In an effort to entice shoppers, some gush gloriously chilly air onto the street from open storefronts, while others drip onto the heads of pedestrians walking along the crowded streets below. The whirring of the machines, struggling against the heavy summer heat, provides the more subtle accompaniment to Hong Kong’s orchestral performance.