The Weekly #2: Live-in Help, Fashion Statements, and Fear of the Number 4

Hope you enjoy a few more random observations about expat life and culture here in Hong Kong!


I have what I would term an anthropological interest in fashion. Wherever I go, I notice what people are wearing and how it is similar or different to what people wear elsewhere. The obsession with designer goods in Hong Kong is real, but part of what makes that so interesting is the juxtaposition of a Chanel bag with a very standard Hong Kong woman’s outfit – loose, wide-legged pants or culottes or a pleated midi skirt paired with a graphic or logo tee shirt (tucked in) and worn with tennis shoes.

Often the shirts are some sort of English nonsense, but equally often, they feature some sort of cartoon character or other age-inappropriate icon. My personal favorite was a middle-aged woman I found myself behind on the escalator leaving my apartment complex recently who was wearing this knee-length tunic covered in both Angry Birds characters and Peppa Pig. (I suppose it’s the British influence, but kids and adults alike are obsessed with Peppa Pig).

The best part of this is the tutu sleeves.


This look does no favors for my body type, but I can’t deny that it’s comfortable, so when in Hong Kong…

A purchase I made in attempt to blend in with the locals. Sorry I’m not modeling it. I wanted to show the details. I especially love the bar code.

Superstitions About the Number Four

Much like the number 13 in Western culture, the number 4 is considered bad luck in Chinese (and some other East Asian) cultures. This was actually something we encountered for the first time when we lived in Korea. I’ve been told this is because the word for “four” in Chinese is pronounced very similarly to the word for “death.”

I’ve occasionally noticed tall buildings in the US where there is no 13th floor, skipping straight from 12 to 14. In our apartment building in Korea, there was no 4th floor, so although it was only a 4 story building, the top floor was called the 5th floor. Here in Hong Kong I’ve noticed this on a whole other level.

The apartment complex I now live in has 53 floors. But does it? Not only did the builders skip the 4th floor, but they also skipped all floors ending in “4.” So no 14th or 24th or 34th floors. However, they kept the whole range of floors in the 40’s (with the exception of the dreaded 44th) because I guess you have to draw the line somewhere.

Also notice the hygienic plastic covering on the buttons.

Live-In Help

Nearly everyone I know of with children has a live-in domestic helper to take care of the kids and do some of the housework. The helper is usually a woman from the Philippines or another Southeast Asian country. These jobs are closely regulated by the Hong Kong government and these domestic workers are all registered with the government to help ensure legal work and fair wages. Having said that, the wages are still very, very low.

Because of this, having a helper is not a luxury reserved for the elite, but rather seems to be the standard for even lower middle class families. Part of the reason why helpers’ salaries are so low is that a huge part of their compensation is room and board with the family. In a city like Hong Kong, consistently rated in the top 3 most expensive cities in the world for real estate, this is a huge financial benefit.

The thing I personally find strange about this arrangement is the live-in part and the lack of privacy involved in that. For example, the apartment we live in is about 450 sq feet and has 2 small bedrooms, one of which we mainly use for storage because there are no closets. The family who lived there before us were a young couple with their baby and their helper. I know that it’s very Western of me, but I just can’t imagine living with that lack of privacy. You couldn’t walk around your house with no pants on (I mean, not that I do that…it’s whatever) or have a disagreement with your partner or have a meltdown because you are hangry without your helper knowing about it.

I’m sure in the best case scenarios these women become members of the family, but the idea of a relative stranger being in my home with me ALL THE TIME still gives me the sweats.

Typhoon Signals and Rainstorm Warnings

We’re heading towards the end of the rainy season here in Hong Kong and have been through a few weeks of heavy rain along with a few typhoon warnings.

There’s a whole complex system of weather gauges and warning systems that I don’t pretend to understand, but I was told that if we ever get to Typhoon Warning No. 8, work would be cancelled. My first thought was, “Good gosh, it has to get to No. 8 before you close schools?” I later learned that although this is true, there are only 5 total levels – No.1, No. 3, No. 8, No. 9, and No. 10.  I have no idea what happened to all the numbers in between, but apparently we only use those five.

In addition, the rainstorm warnings are color-coded in some arbitrary and inexplicable way, the most common one being an Amber Rainstorm Warning.

The lobby of my office building always has signs out when I come in the door alerting visitors to the current weather. This morning I was greeted with a sign that said “Typhoon Standby Signal No. 1 is Hoisted” but by the time I left work it was “Typhoon Signal No. 3 is Hoisted” So I am standing by and staying apprised of any more hoisting.






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