Ten Minutes

I never used to care about  ten minutes, but in Hong Kong, ten minutes is the deal-maker or breaker.

As I dash into a cabin at the very front of the train, I scan the serene blue-green car to find an empty window seat and quickly claim it, swinging my carry-on bag onto the luggage rack.  I flop down on the seat and exhale deeply, claiming the aisle seat, as well, with my briefcase.

Phew, made it,” I silently exclaim just as the doors of the Airport Express train glide shut following the iconic nine electronic beeps that sound in rapid succession.

I look around, secretly smug about snagging a seat on a prime train car closest to the exit turnstile and the taxi queues at Hong Kong Station, my destination.  My heartbeat slows a bit and I stop sweating from the 400-meter dash to the train from the immigration line.  I steal a glance at the others around me, half checking out my competition for the taxi queue, and half out of curiosity.  Meh, nothing interesting (translation: no cute guys,) just old hands who know the drill.  Most are travelers on the way home on a Friday night.  Everyone is checking their Blackberries, making plans for the evening.  Hopefully, some of my fellow passengers will get off before the last stop, but I am ready to beat them to the taxi queue so that I can make it home ten minutes earlier.

The train’s welcome broadcast to all passengers travelling from Hong Kong International Airport into town repeats itself in three standard languages: Cantonese, English and Mandarin.  The recorded English message is broadcast via a soothing female voice tinged with a British accent: “Welcome to the Airport Express.  This train will stop at Tsing Yi, Kowloon, and Central Hong Kong.  We hope you’ll have a pleasant journey.  Next Stop: Tsing-Yi.”

My phone vibrates with a new text message from my friend, Jennifer:

“Hey did u just land?  We r meeting in SoHo at 8 for din.  Girls nite out!  U can make it if u hurry!”

My posse of girlfriends was going out and I didn’t want to miss out again.  It was 6:45 pm, and I’d just have enough time to make it home, drop off my luggage, clean up, and change.  SoHo was a five-minute walk from my flat.  Perfect.

And we’re off.  The faint swooshing sounds of modern high-speed rapid transit whir by as we smoothly hurtle our way from the airport through the massive suburban housing estates, and finally into the Central Business District of Hong Kong at 80 miles per hour.  I’m headed to the train’s final stop in Central, and the ride from the airport to Hong Kong Station takes 24 minutes and costs just under 13 dollars US.  The best part about the ride: zero traffic.  In addition to reigning as the world’s freest economy since 1995, Hong Kong is also the world’s most efficient city.  The public transit systems shuttle millions of people daily in modern trains, buses, and taxis.  Even the air-conditioned subway stations are vermin-free and clean, unlike the subway stations in New York, Paris or London.

I start to relax and gaze out the window onto a night scene showcasing a wall of humanity as we near Tsing Yi, lit and pulsing along the train line.  On the other side of the train lies the container terminal for the Port of Hong Kong, one of the busiest ports in the world, teeming with cranes and container yards.  The throbbing energy, even out in the boon-dock industrial and suburban areas, is palpable and intensifies closer into the city.  But the density of people living and working so closely together wears me down.  I must fight for every inch, every dollar, every second, all the time.  It is exhausting.  While Hong Kong is exciting and energetic, it is simultaneously annoying and belligerent.  I love and I loathe Hong Kong, and feel nothing less than both of those contradictory extremes much of the time.

The race back home on the Airport Express is standard protocol for most Hong Kong people.  The last thing you want to do after you’ve gotten off the plane and train is to wait at the back of an endless line for a taxi that doesn’t come soon enough.  Time is money, and nowhere is that more apparent than in a place like Hong Kong.  In this environment, ten minutes is a fortune.

The footrace actually starts much earlier when airline passengers are all still strapped in, just after the plane has safely landed.  Perhaps Hong Kong people are particularly disobedient—as I’ve never seen this behavior at other airports—and you will always be able to spot who is the true Hong Kong person by watching what they do when the plane lands.  As soon as the plane has safely touched down and is taxiing towards the gate and certainly before the pilot has turned off the “fasten seat belt” sign, most Hong Kong people have already: 1) unbuckled their seat belts, 2) walked down the aisles and retrieved their luggage out of the overhead bins, and 3) completed a full conversation on their mobile phones, all as the plane is inching towards the gate.  The Cathay Pacific stewardesses say nothing, feigning disinterest.

Why the rush?  Well, similar to other large metropolises like New York, (though Hong Kong is even more densely populated compared with Manhattan) the two minutes you save beating out your neighbor on the plane to Immigration and Passport Control is precious because you amplify that time to five minutes by dusting him/her en route to the train into town, so that you can get a place ahead of him/her in the taxi line so that you can make it home ten minutes earlier.  If you ask anyone living in Hong Kong whether being rude on the plane is worth a tradeoff of ten minutes with loved ones at home, I’d wager that the ten minutes is well worth shamelessly shoving granny out of your way down the plane aisle.

“Next stop: Hong Kong Station.”  That’s my signal.  I gather my belongings, stand up, grab my luggage from the rack, and make my way towards the door so that I’m in position to be one of the first ones out.  My ticket is clutched in my right hand ready to insert into the turnstile slot at the exit, and I’m set to bolt.  The other passengers who “get it” are also doing the same.  As soon as the door slides open, we are off to the races.  Ticket into the turnstile scanner, check.  Run towards the taxi queues, check.  Make way to the last queue to get to the shortest line, check.  Victory.  I’m first in line at the last taxi queue and I jump into the iconic red Toyota Crown taxi with all my bags.

“Kin-do, mng-goi.” I say in passable Cantonese to the driver.  (Translation: “Caine Road, please.”)

The driver looks at me through the rear view mirror and asks me in English, “Where are you from? Korea?  Wait, no, Singapore?”

I look at him, and smile.  “Actually, no, I’m Chinese, but from US.”

“Ahhh… USA.  Why you don’t speak Cantonese?”

“Oh, I can’t, but I speak Mandarin.”

“Hmmm.  Not the same la.  Hong Kong is good place to work and make money, but you should learn Cantonese!”

I smile sheepishly at him, “Yeah, I know….”

We speed up Garden Road and make the right hand turn onto Caine Road.  I’m almost home.  We pull up to my building and I jump out, pay, and collect my receipt.  It’s Friday night, I’m home and free, and I’ve just got enough time to clean up before meeting up with my friends.

The ten minutes made all the difference.