It fills your room the moment you open the door. It hits you in the face like a wall when you exit your car. It makes it hard to breathe, disrupts your vision and comes crashing down to the ground every couple of days.
Nope, I’m not talking about the legendary smog of China. I’m talking about the other thing in the air: humidity.
“So what? A little water?” you’re thinking. “How bad can it really be?”
The funny thing about the humidity here in Southeast Asia is that it isn’t the San Francisco humidity that I’m accustomed to. You know, the type that is cold, but wet. Here, it’s hot. Very hot and wet. My glasses fog up almost every time I leave a building.
Junior Manson Tung will be teaching at Hong Kong Summerbridge from June 21-August 15. He will be writing periodic blogs about his experience living, working, and traveling around Asia.
Think of walking into a bathroom where someone just took a long hot shower. But living in it.
Everything smells. The sewers give out that unmistakable Chinatown stench relentlessly, even in Causeway Bay where rent for storefronts goes into the millions of dollars. Food left out for more than a day goes bad.
To go to war with the heat, locals have armed themselves with the most American of machines: the air conditioner.
But people use them a little differently here.
First, don’t even think about cooling a room that you aren’t actually in. Instead, shut the doors, and cool room by room. Whatever room you are in gets the cold treatment, but those first 10 minutes are downright unbearable.
Second, get an ally. Oftentimes, they only cool rooms to 80 degrees Fahrenheit or so. To aid in the cooling process, an army of fans is employed to move the air around.
Third, learn to sweat and love it.
Instead of in America, where people flick on the A/C to staunch the sweat, locals do it just to keep the worst of the perspiration away.
In fact, in Mainland China, the government has mandated that the optimal temperature to set your thermostat to is 27 degrees Celsius (80 Fahrenheit). Sorry, Mrs. Ma. If the electricity bill doubles this month, it’s because the American couldn’t sleep until the room went below 23 degrees Celsius (74 Fahrenheit).
But that’s in Mainland China. Across the border in Hong Kong, people have a totally different philosophy, aided in part by the way that the utility providers bill for electricity. Unlike in the States where the amount varies directly with the amount of electricity you use, here the more you use, the cheaper the electricity becomes. Think of it as the Costco philosophy of utilities.
Walking through Causeway Bay, you could be forgiven for thinking that the ocean was offering something in the way of a cold breeze. The first time I walked by Forever 21, I thought I was feeling Victoria Harbor. Instead, I was feeling the gaping 10-foot-by-25-foot hole in the wall.
Hong Kong is the antithesis of the Mainland in many respects, and electricity use is just another point of contrast. Here in Hong Kong, it isn’t strange to feel a store from 20, 30, even 50 feet away. The relentless stream of cold air contrasts with the eco-friendly nature of electricity use in China.
Times Square in Causeway Bay, for example, opens directly to the outside world. The air conditioning literally pours out of the building.
Wasteful? Yes. Comfortable? Hell, yes. Does it attract me into the store? Definitely.
I walked into G2000 just to escape the heat, and I ended up buying three polos I neither wanted nor needed. I have to say, that my shopping exploits here have been crazy. But that’s for another blog.
The most indulgent air conditioner of all was Hysan Place in Causeway Bay. Floors 1, 2, and 3 are open to the outside. But don’t expect any traces of the tropical heat inside. The cool air pours out on all sides, only to be replenished by the massive vents that rim the ceiling.
This has led to an interesting phenomenon. The freeze-to-sweat-to-freeze and repeat. I experienced this first hand when shopping yesterday. My body seemed to be in a perpetual state of confusion. One moment, sweat was dripping off my body, but the next, I was frozen by the air conditioning. This is most apparent in Causeway Bay because a lot of the stores are on the street and not in malls (Times Square, Hysan Place, Lee Garden, and Sogo notwithstanding).
But looking at the difference in air-conditioning philosophies between China and Hong Kong, I’m glad that I’m staying here in Hong Kong, where consumerism has vanquished the heat—even if for just a moment.