Hong Kong: tropical hellhole?

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You'll see it pointed out occasionally in tourist brochures: Hong Kong has a 'seasonal' climate. The point of this, I guess, is to differentiate Hong Kong from tropical hellholes like Manila and Bangkok.

It's true that Hong Kong is not a tropical hellhole, although you'll never convince someone who's just arrived here in August of this. No, Hong Kong does indeed have four seasons -- it's just that they're not seasons as those of us from more temperate climes know them.

Without further ado, then, I'll introduce you to the Four Seasons of Hong Kong.

The Steamy. The Steamy is quite brief -- comprising just March and April most years -- but it brings its own special brand of unpleasantness. It's characterized by day after day of mild temperatures (usually hanging around in the low or mid 20s), but high, high humidity, mist and clouds. In Chinese this season is charmingly called 'the wall-sweating time', because they do just that. Now, speaking of sweat -- human, this time -- we move on to . . .

The Sweaty. Hong Kong is Sweaty from May through September. Daily highs average around 31 or 32 degrees, which doesn't sound all that bad, but it is. Part of the problem is that most nights the temperature doesn't drop much below 27 or 28, and overpowering humidity is a constant. The only variety is rain: some days (actually, for much of the summer, most days) it rains, but some days it doesn't, and then the sun shines. It's a devilish dilemma. The sun is cheerful to look at if you're safe within Fortress Air-Con, but it hits you like a hammer once you step out under it. Rainy days are a bit cooler, and seem to me more merciful, but rain in Hong Kong in the summer really is tropical, meaning it falls at apocalyptic rates I never imagined before arriving here. Oh, and there are occasional typhoons. The Sweaty, therefore, is a day-by-day torment. By August, I don't know what I'd rather suffer: the soaked shoes and fetid pools of the wet, or the solar Inferno of the dry. Either way, I sweat, and sweat, and despair, until . . . .

The Sensational. Sometime in mid or late September, just when you think you can stand no more, comes a day when, like a miracle, the wind changes. It's the first whisper of the northeast monsoon, which prevails over Hong Kong through the fall and winter, bringing cooler, drier air -- all the way from Siberia, sometimes. It takes a few weeks to turn the tide completely, but by late October the weather in Hong Kong is Sensational; this usually lasts right through the end of the year. Skies are clear, humidities are low -- sometimes it's so dry you get itchy -- and the temperatures drop back into the extremely comfortable high teens and 20s. This is the season for barbeques, hiking, junk trips and swimming in the sea (the water is still baby-bath warm, since it retains the blazing summer's heat). You think, why would anyone want to live anywhere else? until . . . .

The Sullen. All good things must end, and so must the Sensational. Gradually it gives way to Hong Kong's brief winter, which runs through January and February. Average winter days here aren't bad at all; the temperatures stay in the teens, and Sensational days still shine through now and again. Generally, though, there are a lot more clouds, and more drizzly, Sullen days. There are also -- somewhat shockingly, given Hong Kong's perch on the edge of the tropic of Cancer -- real cold spells when the temperatures drop to single digits. Hong Kong's all-time low temperature (at sea level) is an even zero degrees Celsius, and in many years Hong Kong's higher elevations have frosts. These cold spells are remarkably uncomfortable, given that almost no buildings in Hong Kong have heating. I'm from a rotten climatic zone in the American Midwest that features brutal winters, and I've never been colder than in I was in my New Territories flat in my first year here, when temperature dropped to nearly to zero at one point.

So getting to know Hong Kong's seasons takes some adjustment, but at least there's enough variety to give just about all of us something to savor -- and something to complain about!