20 things you didn't know about life in Hong Kong before the 1997 handover

By YP cadet Hayley Chow

A lot can change in 20 years. Here's a flashback to what Hong Kong looked like two decades ago

By YP cadet Hayley Chow |

Latest Articles

Hong Kong teens create app to help SEN students cope during the Covid-19 pandemic

Imagine rush hour at Admiralty with no Octopus card!

1. The Octopus card hadn't been launched yet. Every time you went on the MTR, you purchased a plastic ticket from the machines or counters; like what you do now if you left your Octopus at home for the day.

2. Government departments often had "Royal" in their name.

3. Hong Kong's aiport was in Kai Tak, Kowloon Bay instead of Chek Lap Kok. It was smack bang in the middle of one of the most crowded areas of the Kowloon Peninsula, and as planes took off or landed they weren't too far off from the surrounding buildings!

You can almost wave hello or goodbye to passengers on the plane from the rooftop!
Photo: Oliver Tsang/SCMP

4. ​The Cheung Chau Bun Festival used real buns instead of fake ones, which were introduced in 2007 for "aesthetic and environmental" reasons.

5. Disneyland Hong Kong had not been built yet. People just went to Ocean Park. Or Water World, which was next door. WHY DID THEY CLOSE WATER WORLD???

6. The internet was dial-up, not broadband, at a scorching speed of 28.8kps. Forget streaming Netflix: streaming a gif would probably take an hour. Also, if someone is using the internet, no one else can make a call on the land-line. You know, the phone that's not a mobile but an actual telephone in a home plugged into a wall? That thing.

7. Buddha's Birthday was not a public holiday.

8. There was a spike in emigration in the years leading up to 1997, and residents more often moved to America, Britain, Canada, Australia or New Zealand.

9. The British national anthem was played before the TV channels closed for the day.

10. People listened to music on CDs or even cassette tapes. Yup, like the ones in Guardians of the Galaxy. With cassette tapes, you listened to one side, popped it out, flipped it over, and listened to the other side. You could also record yourself, the radio or another casette tape on it. If someone made you a mixed tape of songs, that person must really love you. They either painstakingly rigged two cassette players to play and record simultaneously, or recorded songs individually from the radio station playing it. That used to be #couplegoals 

11. Taxis had built-in ashtrays ... but no seatbelts.

12. The MTR only had three lines in operation: Kwun Tong, Tsuen Wan, and Island. We're spoilt now!

All gifs via GIPHY

13. Hong Kong didn't have any resident pandas yet. They came to live with us in 1999.

14. Smoking indoors in a public space, like a restaurant or a mall, was totally okay.  

15. Computer monitors were shaped like a cube. A really heavy and ugly cube.

Nope! Definitely wouldn't be carrying THAT around in your backpack!
Photo: SCMP

16. According to The Economist's Big Mac index, the iconic sandwich only cost $HKD9.9 in 1996. Time to build a time machine.

17. The ten-dollar note used to be green, not purple. Oh, and it used to be made of paper too. The $10 coin wasn't introduced until 1994.

Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

18. Mobile phones didn't have a touchscreen. You entered numbers on a ... number pad, and the screen was ... just a screen. Oh, and there were no colours. Just the greyish-green background and black text. 

19. ​If you wanted to get to Lantau Island, you had to take a boat. Or swim.

20. Around 20 years ago was when karaoke became super popular in Hong Kong. The 80s and 90s were considered the golden age of Cantopop music, and thousands sang their hearts out at karaoke bars every opportunity they had. Theme songs to TV shows were also incredibly popular and in demand at these establishments at the time.