The sounds of Hong Kong

The sounds of Hong Kong

As one man attempts to document Hong Kong's soundscape, we search out the defining aspects of the city's acoustic character
hong kong sound
Sound is part of our cultural make-up, influencing perceptions and shaping experiences.

Hong Kong is rich in visual symbols: a glittering skyline, red market lamps, green trams. But when you close your eyes and think of Hong Kong, what do you hear? That's what Lawal Marafa, a professor of geography at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is trying to figure out by studying Hong Kong's soundscape.

Together with another CUHK professor, Lam Kin-che, Marafa is trying to chart Hong Kong's sounds and identify those that people like the most, with the goal of making the city a more tolerable place to live. It all comes down to the issue of noise pollution: the cacophony of roaring buses, endless jackhammering and mobile phone chatter that seems to dominate so much of Hong Kong. Instead of trying to make everything quieter, Marafa hopes that particularly pleasant sounds can be isolated and used to design better parks and urban spaces.

He points to Diamond Hill's Nan Lian Garden as an example of how sound can be used to mask noise. Located next to Lung Chung Road, one of Kowloon's busiest thoroughfares, the Tang Dynasty-style garden makes abundant use of fountains and waterfalls to fight the din of traffic. Even though the environment is still loud, says Marafa, the sound of rushing water puts people at ease, whereas the sound of traffic stresses them out.

Noise vs sound

But it's hard to draw clear lines between what constitutes noise and what is a pleasant sound. Sounds that some people enjoy can be considered abrasive and unpleasant to others, as the organizers of recent outdoor rock concerts have discovered. "It's a matter of perception," says Marafa, sitting in his quiet university office. "One professor I know argues that sound is actually part of heritage -- you grow up listening to a particular type of sound, people selling in the wet market, the festivals that come in occasionally, and so on, which shapes our experience and makes for a sense of place."

Although the term "soundscape" was coined by the Canadian composer Raymond Murray Schafer in 1969, the study of soundscapes is still underdeveloped, and only recently has there been a concerted effort to document the unique sounds of different cities. Much has been made of the disappearing sounds of Beijing, like the songs that hawkers sing as they bike around hutongs, and the British Library has compiled a database of world soundscapes.

So what about Hong Kong? Most of Larafa and Lam's research has focused on the soundscapes of parks and rural areas, so we decided to put our ears to the ground of Hong Kong's busy streets. Here's what we heard.

hong kong sound

Victoria Harbour

Sloshing water, the grumble of passing boats: the sounds of Victoria Harbour are the sounds at the heart of Hong Kong, both literally and figuratively. Recorded on the Kennedy Town waterfront.






hong kong sound

Ding ding

Hong Kong's trams have rattled down its streets for over 100 years, the most tangible link between the city's present and past. Recorded in a tram on Johnston Road, Wan Chai.





hong kong sound

Closing time at the market

As street markets wind down, hawkers try to lure passersby with reduced prices: "Ten dollars! Ten dollars!"
Recorded in Fa Yuen Street, Mongkok.





hong kong sound

Cross quickly

Ostensibly, they are there to make life easier to the visually impaired, but you can't help but think that the insistent beeps of the sound signals at Hong Kong crosswalks are really meant to speed people up. Recorded on Queen's Road Central.




hong kong sound

Mahjong clatter

Notice it once and soon you'll be hearing it everywhere: the clatter of mahjong tiles being shuffled, wafting through open windows and the doors of mahjong parlors. Recorded in a laneway near Playing Field Road, Mongkok.






hong kong sound


Few cities are torn down, rebuilt and town down again as quickly or ferociously as Hong Kong. If one sound defines the Hong Kong landscape, it's drills and jackhammers. Recorded on Shanghai Street, Mongkok.






hong kong sound


Since the Octopus card was introduced in 1997, the sounds made by card readers have become so ubiquitous that a new word has entered the Hong Kong vocabulary: "doot." Recorded in Mongkok MTR.







hong kong sound

Cantonese opera

You're walking down the street, past a lonely market stall, a half-open shop shutter, a window left ajar, when you hear it: tinny Cantonese opera warbling out of an old radio. Recorded on Graham Street, Central.