Hong Kong sounds

Imagine it's been ten years since you've left Hong Kong.

What sound, as soon as you heard it, would make you think of Hong Kong?

Mahjong? Whether it's the swish of tiles being shuffled, or a the heated clack of a game in progress, mahjong sounds are a dead give-away.

Trams would also do it for me. I used to live near the Whitty Street tram depot, close to a couple of tight turns in the tram tracks. As far as I know a tram's wheels don't steer, so trams are simply forced, complaining, to make the turn. And complain they do. As the wheels grind around the bend they make a kind of stuck-pig squeal that you don't forget.

Then there's the ding-ding of the tram's bell, especially if combined with a few toots on the horn.

Doot. And you've just paid with your Octopus card. Would you still remember that noise after 10 years, or would it be lost among all the other electronic beeps that punctuate modern life?

Pigs! The tram story reminds me - When I lived near the tram depot, the Kennedy Town abbatoir was still in use. Lorries full of pigs would pass by, with the pigs squealing their hearts out - I think they knew where they were going. So add 'lorry of squealing pigs' to the list.

Central on a Sunday. As the domestic helpers gather to share food & gossip, the sound of their voices has a very distinctive sound. It reminds me of a spot in the UK on winter afternoons, where thousands of starlings gathered to roost. They'd be swirling in flocks and chattering to each other before settling to sleep. I wonder if it will work the other way too, with the birds' chatter making me feel homesick for HK?

Cantonese. Hmm, this is a rich one, including:

  • Cantonese itself, as it's not the most melodious of languages. How would you describe the sound of a good market argument? Like dropping a trayful of metal dishes perhaps?
  • Common phrases. Even if you've never been to Cantonese classes, there are surely a few stock phrases you'd recognise. As a baseline let's take the sum total of my mum's Cantonese vocabulary after visiting for 4-6 weeks each year for over ten years:
     - m'goi
     - jo san
     - kung hei fat choi (you can guess what time of year she visits!)
    And maybe:
     - sik jaw faan mei-a?
     - doot-doot doot-doot ching siu sum che moon!
  • Cantonese opera. Surely putting a language to music should make it sound better? Nope. For best recognition in ten years time, you'd want it played over tinny speakers on a $10 hand-held radio, as favoured by senior hikers throughout the territory.
  • Waai? The universal greeting when answering the phone.

Puffing and panting. I don't know why, but when a local child makes a small exertion, eg running up a gentle slope, it has to be accompanied by an exaggerated puffing and panting. Not something I've noticed with children in other countries, so I'd say that would work as a reminder.

There's an older version of this when we get into the whiny 'deh' sounds that some young women are prone to make. However that's as much an attitude as a sound, so I'm not sure if the sound alone could spark instant recognition. Probably best to leave that off the list.

How about you? What are the sounds of Hong Kong you'll remember?

Regards, MrB



The sound of at least one of the flats in your building being gutted and rebuilt from 8AM to 6pm

The clanging sound made by

The clanging sound made by traffic lights for pedestrians to cross.

Sun Hing Fast Food

The sound of metal spatulas on metal woks as you wait for your freshly made lunchbox - and one of my favourite sounds of all time, the whoosh of the highpower gas flame and the clang as the wok is moved around.


Their chicken curry is unparalleled!


Pile! Drive! ing!

Pile! Drive! ing!

Pile! Drive! ing!

[infuriatingly random pause]

Pile! Drive! ing!

Pile! Drive! ing!

Pile! Drive! ing!


Sounds - if you've never visited HK

Some of the sounds described above may seem an odd choice if you haven't lived here.

Odaiwai talks about flats being gutted. You're probably thinking "ok, when the neighbours were doing renovations it was pretty annoying, but would it remind me of a whole city?" Yes, if you and your neighbour live in one of Hong Kong's highrises. Their concrete construction is usually pretty good at cutting out the neighbours noise. Except if the noise involves power tools being applied to said concrete. Then it efficiently carries the noise throughout the building!

If it's happening on the other side of the building, it's something you note in passing. But if they are working on flats a couple of floors above or below you it's plain miserable. If you have to be in your flat at that time forget about sleeping, thinking, or maintaining your sanity.

Fiona catches another one I'd missed - the sound of the wok burner in a chinese restaurant kitchen. Forget the puny gas rings you're used to, this is a close relation of a jet fighter's afterburner. The cook steps on a pedal, and with a wonderful roar as the flames burst forth to let him stir fry whatever the last customer ordered.

Pile drivers. How could I overlook them?

When I was thinking about what noises to include, I thought to myself "Hmm, funny how there's a lot less construction noise than there used to be". At which point I stopped walking along the street, and listened properly. And all the usual noises of Hong Kong's demolition and construction leapt out from the background. In a sure sign of being here too long, they'd sunk into the background rumble, slipping below the conscious level of hearing.

Annoying as they are, (cue "when I were a lad..." reminiscence) at least there aren't many of the percussive versions still about. They relied on an explosion to lift the driver up, so you got double the bang for your buck.

What other sounds are we missing?



Yes, odaiwai's nailed the one sound that first came to my mind when you mentioned this topic: renovation noise.

When I lived in my first flat in HK, I was slumbering nicely one Sunday morning, when my world was shattered at about 6:45. There was a noise so vast, so harsh, so wall-shaking and window-rattling, I thought it was the apocalypse. I ran out of my flat into the lift lobby, wearing only my underpants. (Look, if the apocolypse is at hand, are the Four Horsemen going to care what you're wearing? 'Oh, sir, I was planning to smite you with pestilence, but that Armani suit is just so divine!' I think not.)

But in fact it was just my next-door neighbor, who'd decided to get a good healthy wholesome early start on the task of totally demolishing the innards of his flat using a DIY jackhammer. Thus commenced one of the longest couple of weeks of my life, as he worked his way methodically around the whole place -- walls, floors, everything. 

My wild-eyed, underpants-intensive protests did get him to put off the jackhammering until 8:00 on weekends, though.


Copy Watch

You know you are back in town when a stranger greets you with "Copy watch, sir?"


clang-clang....clang-clang.....clang-clang as the lorry-driver's cohort helps him to back his vehicle out of a confined space by striking the metal post on the back of the lorry with a metal hand-held metal rod, usually suspended there on a length of twine or string, ready for use.

noon chime

You have to be very close and attentive to hear it, but I think it is coming from the Fringe Club or FCC, at noon each day their is a lovely little clock chime.

poor primates

The whooping sound the poor primates make from the Zoological and botanical gardens.

The sounds of the white cockatoos flying around midlevels (especially just before dawn) 

caugh tdooo ... well

caugh tdooo ... well remembered custom of stpitting.

Mind The Gap

I have been away from HK for 9 years and think of many sounds, but I think this one will always stick in my mind.  I live in the SF Bay area where many people speak Mandarin Chinese, however, I can detect somebody speaking Cantonese immediately.


I very powerful jet engine right over you. Alas, that's long gone. Other sound already mentioned. But damn, somehow my "neighbors" always have to renovate?!? Why not just slow down and let the place age. Enjoy it.

Trams and constant

Trams and constant construction are the top two unique to HK.

I would say the ubiquitous "HalloWelcome!" and "ThankYouByeBye!" except those are cropping up in other places I've been, like Taipei.


Get a clump of large bamboo plants moving in the wind and it makes the creepiest sound, all creaks and groans like something out of a horror movie.

The monkeys on Wilson Trail.

The monkeys on Wilson Trail.