As I started my travels to Asia at the developing SE end of the spectrum, Hong Kong represented the first real stay (I don't count airport layovers) in a successful, highly efficient, dynamic city where everything works. It was a breath of fresh air to be able to walk along (albeit at a quick pace, to keep up with everyone) and just trust that there will be order.
The city wasn't even as loud as I thought it would be. And if you walk along the very pleasant pathway by the water in Central, it can actually be quiet. Amazing considering the density of the population around you. I wondered whether the elderly fisherman I saw there actually ate what they caught. Was also surprised with the number of fairly serious looking runners pounding it out on the path at lunch time.
I was also expecting an energy of aggressiveness from the population in general, as I had assumed that the "time is money" belief would translate into behaviour. However that was not the case. I found the energy of most people to be very private, even when they were motoring along at a really quick pace. Didn't get jostled around either, on the MRT or even at the busy Mong Kok markets. Found people to be productive, busy doing their own thing.
Even facial expressions rarely revealed discontent or exhaustion as I had heard about the typically long work hours. Impatience sometimes, when I couldn't make up my mind what to order or when I wasn't able to express with hand motion what I wanted when our languages didn't match.
Speaking of language, Cantonese can definitely come across as harsh, even if the message wasn't intended to be. That didn't discourage me from going for what I wanted. In general, this isn't a culture of overt welcomes and smiles (unless you are at a higher end establishment), like you come to expect in North America. You may be taken back from what may come across as a "take it or leave it" attitude but it didn't bother me. They seem to be doing fine just the way they are.
On the weekend, I noticed high numbers of mainland China visitors, which changed the feel of the city somewhat in the more touristic areas such as Tsim Sha Tsui. The amazement I saw in their eyes reminded me of how I felt walking along Bloor St in Toronto after my music classes at the conservatory. Back then I dreamt of being able to shop at those exclusive shops.
There exists a huge discrepancy between the rich and the poor, and it was common to see elderly men and women (80+ yr old) working as sidewalk cleaners, garbage sorters, even pushing large carts. At first it bothered me until I realized that most, if not all of them were in good spirits. I was told later that people would rather work than to accept social assistance whereby there is a strong negative connotation.
Hong Kongers seem to be fairly pragmatic and resilient with no negative stigma with respect to working at an advanced age. When I walked through Sham Shui Po, an area known for early government public housing initiatives, there were historical narratives scattered around proudly showcasing their historical area development.
The dense and tall towers there were a stark contrast from the neighbouring affluent Kowloon Tong
district, where streets are named after flowers. If I did my
conversion properly, I saw a real estate ad for a 100 square meter condo for the
equivalent of 3 million USD.
With respect to education. I believe it is fairly common knowledge that the school system and curriculum in Hong Kong is quite advanced and there is very high pressure to succeed academically, to the point where suicides can occur if key exam scores are not high enough. Apparently it has since been realized that the death of driven and smart young people isn't great for societal future so it is supposed to have improved.
Because competition into university is extremely tough, with very limited spots, there are a great number of young people, highly intelligent who do not get accepted and cannot afford to go to school abroad. And a lot of those bright young adults end up in the service, hospitality, sales industries with systems in place to reward great performance. Being helped by ones who could easily kick my behind academically was an unusual realization.