Hong Kong Smells

I can't see that as the HK Tourist Board's 2008 slogan, but it's still true - a visit to Hong Kong will give your nose a good workout.

The sensory extravaganza used to start when you stepped off the plane. There's a great line in James Clavell's 'Noble House', when one of the main characters flies into Kai Tak for the first time. As the plane door opened, they're told "That's the smell of money". I remember that moment too, but I don't remember anything that smelled like money... I think the human & industrial waste flowing into the nullah alongside the runway was a more likely source!

Visit Hong Kong today, and you'll find the new Chek Lap Kok airport positively fragrant. It doesn't last though. Hit the streets and there are smells aplenty.

Restaurants make a lot of them. Can you smell that sickly-sweet blast of warm air as you walk past a large restaurant's kitchens? Or how about the rush of steamy air from a small restaurant's noodle kitchen? And what's that? Ah yes, they've got a cauldron of beef brisket hubbling and bubbling away, adding its perfume to the air.

Snack foods are part of the experience too. Head into deepest Mongkok, and you may detect a stinky beancurd vendor - probably from several blocks away. Not one of my favourites - in fact any of the 'wok of boiling year-old oil' snacks I'd happily live without. Barbecued dried squid isn't too bad, and I quite like the smell of waffles from a little hawker's cart. The ones I like best are the wintry smells of chestnuts roasting in a grimy old wok, and sweet potatoes roasting in a repurposed oil drum.

In some parts of Hong Kong, whole areas have their own distinctive smell, usually when there's a bunch of similar shops grouped together. The dried herbs wholesalers on Queen's Road East are a good example. Now that buses are airconditioned and hermetically sealed, you can whiz past oblivious. But on the older draughty buses there used to be a whiff of liquorice as it drove by there. A couple of roads over is Des Voeux Rd West, dried seafood centre of the universe. It's another place you could pass through blindfolded, but know exactly where you are.

Back at home, high-rise living means yet more smells. Mealtimes, and you'll usually have a pretty good idea of what the neighbours are eating. Even if you don't want to. There are a few of the Chinese dishes I find especially pungent - anything that involves frying black beans or salty dried fish springs to mind. Take a deep breath after mealtimes, and you might be able to catch a few more hints of what's happening nearby. Hmm, is someone boiling up Chinese medicine? Let's hope they get well soon. And there's a happier smell, boiling ginger, bones, eggs, and vinegar, traditional food for new mums, and a sure sign of a newborn baby somewhere nearby.

What does your nose remember as its most memorable moment in Hong Kong?




I've already mentioned a couple of my favorite, or otherwise, Hong Kong smells elsewhere on the site, but since you've evoked them, here goes again:

In our Hongkongness thread, I mentioned that I think one of the most distinctive smells in HK is a typical Chinese temple:

50% burning joss sticks/incense, 25% dust, 20% jasmine and other flowers, and 5% sweaty temple attendant.

Also, in my list of 10 things in HK I really could do without, number 5 is a distinctive smell: the stench of improperly dried laundry:

. . . most Hong Kong flats don't have space for a clothes dryer, much less a real laundry room, so people hang out their just-washed clothes wherever they can. This doesn't always work so well, in terms of actually getting them to dry out, especially in Hong Kong's humid springtime and summer months. The result is an instantly-recognizable and quite horrible stench. I've been a culprit myself. The problem is, you don't notice this smell right away; it only emerges once you're wearing the clothing in question and have body-heated it up a bit. By then you're usually on the way to work, and unwittingly engaged in making the lives of everyone in your MTR carriage a little less pleasant.

A couple of other HK smells I really like:

  • Cooking dong gu, i.e. those big dried Chinese mushrooms. They are distinctively musky and pungent when being stewed.
  • The complex, almost indescribable smell of a Chinese pharmacy -- as Homer Simpson might say, 'Mmmmmm, medicine-y!'

I'm sure I'll inhale some more in upcoming days . . . .


Hong Kong Smells?

I think that saying Hong Kong smells is an understatement, Hong Kong used to smell but now it just plain stinks. They was a time in Hong Kong when it was filled with a plethora of fragrances from fine Chinese cuisine (prior to all good chefs leaving for Canada) to Chinese medicine shops and other odor emanating business. Of course we had the occasional foul smell that would creep up from the sewers or chow-tofu vendor down the street, but in general Hong Kong was fragrant...even the seasons had a smell of their own.

Today's Hong Kong however just stinks, Chinese cooking smells are often repulsive while Chinese medicine still retains some of its olfactory charm it often singes the hairs in your nose. Let's not forget the constant foul stench of pollution and exhaust from all the buses, minibuses and other vehicles on the road. Sewer stench is still present only now its accompanied by nauseating odors from piled up trash oozing the day's refuse from the nearby dai pai dongs. Then there's people smells, like the ones you encounter early morning in the MTR off of people who woke without giving a "wash up" or "deodorant" a second thought...those are enough to make anyone upchuck their breakfast.

As for the seasons, Autumn is in the air and although faint due to pollution and exhaust fumes one can still distinguish the subtle fragrance it brings....and with that, although early, I'd like to wish all a Happy Mooncake Day ;) and for those more ethnically inclined a good Mid-Autumn Festival.

Most memorable smell.

The one I like most is the smell inside a Disney store. It smells exactly the same as the Disney store in Canada and when I miss home I go into one of them.

Hong Kong Smells

The smell of mothballs as the winter woolies come out...not long now :)

Not nearly as wonderful as the scent of an open camphorwood chest - we had a few at home when I was growing up

Hong Kong Smells

The heart-stomping and "breathtaking" feeling of flying over Kowloon City and landing at Kai Tak soon disappeared with the greeting upon arrival of the obnoxious smell of the Kai Tak Nullah. A 'Welcome Home' whiff that one could never forget!

Hong Kong Smells

I agree...I miss Kai Tak and its 'Welcome Home' smell when the aircraft vented after landing. The new airport is nice as airports go, and possibly one of the best in the world, but Kai Tak gave Hong Kong an certain something that has been lost.

Hong Kong Smells

"but Kai Tak gave Hong Kong an certain something that has been lost."
I miss two things about Kai Tak. In the old days, people could walk up to the top level of the terminal to wave their friends and relatives good-bye (many for good because of immigration), and they in return turned around to wave back.
The second thing is the old old runway which had a road cutting through it. As a child, my bus often had to stop to let the airplanes take off or land.

Kai Tak.

I grew up in Tokwawan and the noise of the planes had always been part of my life. My primary school was in Shek Kip Mei and I remember teachers had to stop teaching every 5 minutes when planes passes by. Primary school then had no air conditioners. Those were the days :)

Just something off topic, I fly my rc planes at KT: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8AzE8ksZbjw

Hong Kong's burning

There's a whole range of burning smells to watch out for too.

Mr Tall mentioned the heavy smell of burning incense, especially at a busy temple like Wong Tai Sin or Man Mo. There's also the more subtle hint of incense you can catch out on the streets. Just if you happen to pass a shop when the staff have planted today's quota of incense sticks in the little earth-god shrine by the door.

Plenty of paper gets burnt too, en route to various gods and spirits. We've just passed the Hungry Ghost Festival, when the orgy of paper burning reaches its peak, and a swim in an outdoor swimming pool can leave a smoky taste in your mouth. But all through the year you'll catch the smell of burning paper. Usually the mini bonfire goes on at the edge of the road, sometimes just in the gutter, or sometimes in a battered old tin, kept specially for the purpose.

The nearest I ever got to this pre-Hong Kong was sending my shopping list to Father Christmas via the living room fireplace. Was St Nick chinese?

Barbeques! The smell of burning charcoal isn't unique to Hong Kong, but later there's a definite local smell as all the food gets smothered in honey for the final roasting.

Lately there's a new burning smell to contend with, a sort of faint burning plastic smell when the pollution is bad. That's one I'll be happy to never smell again.


Talking about smell and smoke - Tai Hang Dragan Dance parade

Hi there,

If you folks have never seen it, you should consider going there. It's probably in the news already as it started last night and would continue tonight and tomorrow night. A Dragon decorated with incense from the tip of it's nose to it's tail.......

Be warned, thing is going to be very smoky and choky if you are watching in close quarters. I remember two decades ago when I tried to take some pictures of the parade the smoke was so intense that the tears just wouldn't stop. And beware of incense sticks flying out of the Dragon, as well as the spinning Dragon Ball leading it.

Best Regards,

Smells bringing people together!!!

Been away from Hong Kong for a few months now but can relate to almost every one of those smells that people are talking about - that's the uniqueness of Hong Kong...we're one of the busiest cities in the world but everyone can still relate to the same things!!! Mmmmm..the wonderful smell of Hong Kong!

As for one of the most memorable "aromas"...the excess soy sauce you get wth chaa siu fann and the confusing mix of plants and pollution when walking down Haiphong Road next to Kowloon Park! O..and in the vicinity...the corn in a cup being sold in the tiny little stores along Haiphong Road.

Whenever describing living

Whenever describing living in Hong Kong to someone for the first time, I always take care to mention this:

"The name means 'Fragrant Harbor' but no one ever said that it was a nice fragrance!"

Pak Fa Yau, on the crowded

Pak Fa Yau, on the crowded MTR and buses