Facebook Twitter



When they say "the check is in the mail" here, people look at their watches. In Hong Kong, the post office delivers mail twice a day. A letter sent in the morning arrives in the afternoon.

Many people can't wait that long. They fax it."Hong Kong is one of the most stressful places in the world," said Dr. David Lam, a clinical psychologist at Hong Kong University.

Excluding war zones such as Beirut, Hong Kong topped the list of stressful cities in a study published in last month's Psychology Today.

Hong Kong runs on greed and fear. Low taxes and a freewheeling stock market fuel the greed. The 1997 deadline, when Britain hands this nerve-center of capitalism to Beijing, breeds the fear.

In this duty-free port, where skyscrapers sprout from the rock like quills on a porcupine's back, people walk fast and talk fast. Hong Kong is perhaps more frenetic than New York, more workaholic than Tokyo.

"This is one part of the world where you can call up somebody at midnight to talk business and they'll thank you for it," said Robert McBain, 38, an investment banker who has worked in both Tokyo and New York.

On Wall Street, most people quit at the end of the day. In Tokyo, people let you out of elevators before barreling in.

In Hong Kong, elevator doors are finely tuned to open and shut within three seconds, one-third the time it usually takes in North America, according to Otis Elevator Co. (HK) Ltd.

"If you adjust the doors slower, the owner complains," said Henry Leung, Otis sales manager in Hong Kong.

To accommodate sluggish tourists, hotel elevators usually open and shut in six seconds.

Even shopping, the major Hong Kong sport, isn't relaxing. Almost everything, from groceries to Gucci bags, is negotiable. Buying a simple item, such as a shirt, can turn into a battle of nerves.

Hong Kong works hard. Stores open daily. The typical work week includes Saturday morning. Many offices are still humming at 7:30 p.m.

"You don't talk about overtime in Hong Kong," said Kai Sun Tso, property manager at Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., one of Hong Kong's biggest diversified companies. "Overtime is expected. That's how we survive in Hong Kong."

It's the survival of the fittest. As in Japan, the stress starts in childhood, when 6-year-olds compete to get into the best schools. Unlike Japan, Hong Kong has only two universities serving 5.6 million people.

To be sure, some people thrive on the stress.

"You think the place will slow down in 1997? We certainly do not look at it that way," Tso said. "If you're scared, you might as well pack up and go to Canada."

Many have. With the brain drain stripping the colony of its professional managers, companies are forced to promote junior-level people. "Many feel over their heads. They can't cope," Lam said.

For those who stay, the 1997 deadline has sharpened anxieties about the future. With starkly opposite political systems and China's track record in Tibet, people have to make a choice: to stay or to leave and, if so, when?

All this stress has spawned new industries. No firm statistics are available, but psychologists estimate the number of stress management companies doubled in the past year.

Other growth industries reflect Hong Kong's mania for speed. This is the beeper capital of the world: One in 20 people has one. It's also the fax capital, with one facsimile machine for every 100 people, compared with one for every 3,000 in most industrialized nations.

"If you don't have a fax, you're nobody," said Robert Desjardins, an officer at the Commission for Canada.

People have an insatiable need to be plugged in. The latest gadget is a portable phone. They cost about 20,000 Hong Kong dollars ($2,500 U.S. dollars). Already there are eight such phones for every 1,000 people, and the number is growing.

Alfonso Hsu, an investment manager, bought his a few weeks ago. Between nibbles on his salad at a hotel bar the other day, he made a couple of calls.

"I always bring it to lunch," said Hsu, 32, a University of Toronto graduate. "I have to keep in touch with the markets."