Hong Kong Edition

Freakonomics Radio

Stephen J. Dubner follows reader suggestions on his first trip to Hong Kong and finds cheap healthcare and data-driven laughs.

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I recently took a short trip to Hong Kong and, beforehand, asked you all for suggestions. Thanks. It was an interesting trip, and I thought I’d share a few impressions. We also produced a short podcast, a bit of a Hong Kong sampler. You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed here, or listen live via the box at right.

  • The transportation infrastructure is, as suggested, impressive. The airport, built on an island removed from the city in a massive land-reclamation project, is big, bright, and efficient, getting passengers into and out of the city without tying up traffic elsewhere. If I were the mayor of New York or Los Angeles, I would quiver with envy every time I flew into Hong Kong. There’s also a fast train from Central, the business district, and you can even check in with your airline at the train station. Overall, very low-hassle flying. The subways and buses were also good, and cheap; I was told that the Octopus smart card, used for transit credit as well as a debit card, has a 98% penetration rate in Hong Kong. And yes, the taxis are cheap, the least expensive I’ve ever experienced in a big city. My typical fare was roughly $5 U.S. for a trip that would have cost easily double that in New York (and more in London).
  • The density wasn’t surprising but, even for a New Yorker, occasionally breathtaking. The container-ship port was easily the largest I’d ever seen, acres upon acres. The apartment buildings, too, live cheek by jowl:
  • It’s not the easiest city to walk in: hilly, to be sure, but also with narrow sidewalks (or sometimes none) and lots of concrete (in Central especially) that cuts off direct routes. On the other hand, there’s great hiking even in the city hills, and some beautiful parkland.
  • As with any new place, I found even the mundane fascinating, like shopping in a pharmacy. I was particularly taken with the very large section of medicine devoted to treating grumpy bowels — as well as the Jackie Chan “Anti-Hair Fall Shampoo”:
  • Given Hong Kong’s bad recent history with bird flu and SARS, it wasn’t surprising to find an intense concentration on public hygiene. The moment I stepped off the plane, a man in a red uniform handed me a pamphlet: “Health Advice for Prevention of Human Swine Influenza.” There were disinfectant dispensers everywhere I went, with lots and lots of janitors and cleaning ladies on their hands and knees, especially in the hotels and shopping areas. Whether this is hygiene or simply hygiene theater, it is hard to say.
  • I spent some time at a large public hospital (voluntarily), interested to see the level of hygiene, as well as an acclaimed government-run health care system in action. (A sizable chunk of our podcast deals with this.) Once again, hygiene measures were evident everywhere: disinfectant dispensers, no-touch door openers, masks for everyone, and visual encouragement like the poster at right.

    In the waiting room at the E.R. (known there as “A&E,” for Accidents and Emergencies), there’s a separate area for respiratory patients, which seemed a bit counterproductive as the two areas were barely separated. I had lunch in the hospital’s canteen, where the slogans on a big mirrored wall proclaimed “Time of Your Life” and “Great Taste, Great Place.” I have never seen such encouraging messages in a hospital. All the food workers wore face masks, which seemed like a good idea — but they didn’t wear gloves to handle the food or the clean plates. Made me wonder if the face masks were more for their protection than ours.

    One doctor I interviewed at length, Karl Young, gave me a tour of the I.C.U., and made a pretty convincing argument that Hong Kong’s universal health care system, while far from perfect, is right to be admired. (Note that Hong Kong is a world leader in life expectancy; although that metric shouldn’t be leaned on as heavily as it is.) And it’s hard to argue with the price: residents pay about $12 U.S., all-in, for an A&E visit, treatment, and follow-up medication.

  • Unprompted, Young described himself to me at one point as “a banana — yellow on the outside and white on the inside.” (He was born in Taiwan but grew up mainly in the States.) One of the revelations of my visit was just how openly race is talked about in Hong Kong. Much of this talk (most of it?) is pejorative — it seems that the Hong Kong Chinese especially, but almost every group, have a regular slur for every other group, and the hierarchy of discrimination is well established. (We’ll be producing a future podcast concerning this topic, having to do with the economics of the Filipina nanny industry.) But rather than being consigned to the fringes, these slurs are part of casual conversation. I had an interesting talk about this with Christopher Hutton of the University of Hong Kong, a linguist and author of A Dictionary of Cantonese Slang: The Language of Hong Kong Movies, Street Gangs and City Life. A number of white expats I talked to routinely referred to themselves as gweilo, Cantonese for “ghost man,” a slur that’s been around long enough to become normative. One of these conversations was with Paul Zimmerman, a Dutch businessman and urban environmentalist — he wants to be the Jane Jacobs of Hong Kong — who recently ran for the Legislative Council, one of the few white men to do so. He lost.
  • I also heard a lot of race talk, not surprisingly, at TakeOut Comedy, which claims to be the first full-time comedy club in Asia. lt’s run by an engaging fellow (and good comedian) named Jami Gong, who grew up in New York’s Chinatown but now spends most of his time in Hong Kong, where his parents are from. (One frequent conversational topic during my visit: how everyone thought the 1997 handover from the U.K. to China would turn Hong Kong into a much more Communist, and therefore much less hospitable, place for many residents. This led a lot westerners in particular to leave for places like Canada, Australia, and the U.S. And then, when Hong Kong didn’t change much, the outflow reversed course. I asked one finance worker why this 1997 anxiety had been so pronounced. “You!” he said — i.e., the media.)

    In fact, nearly every routine at TakeOut Comedy was about some kind of language/culture/race clash. There was one joke about the state of green power in mainland China — that it consists of windmills that serve only as fans to blow the mainland pollution over to Hong Kong. (The newspapers print a pollution index every day; it was blessedly low when I visited but had recently been the highest in memory, and a lot of people were still coughing from it.) A comic named Smita Venkat, an Indian who grew up in Singapore (none of the comics on this night were Chinese except for Gong), made fun of Singapore’s official matchmaking agency, called (seriously) the Social Development Unit. She also made fun of India’s effort to get yoga into the Olympics — again, seriously.

    The biggest name performing that night was Vivek Mahbubani, the son of Indian immigrants, who has won contests as Hong Kong’s funniest person — in both English and Cantonese. (Here’s me with Gong, left, and Mahbubani. We were obviously looking at more than one camera at a time.)


    Mahbubani’s Cantonese is flawless because he grew up in Hong Kong; his English is unaccented because he watched a lot of American TV as a kid. (He’s also a successful web designer and a drummer in a thrash band.) One of Mahbubani’s best bits was about how Hong Kong Chinese don’t believe he can really speak Cantonese, and when he stops, they try to shut him up.

    But the most surprising comedian that night, at least from a Freakonomics perspective, was an American named Michael Dorsher. By day, he works for Bloomberg. At graduate school, he studied economics, and his thesis was called … “Humornomics.” From the introduction:

    Humor as a field is no stranger to scientific scrutiny: sociology, psychology, philosophy, physiology, anthropology, neurology, immunology, and language studies all have held humor under the microscope. Despite the wide swath of academic interest in the topic, there has not been a single published study, to this author’s knowledge, which has sought to quantify the elusive nature of humor. It is in this respect that the field of economics becomes appropriate for humor research. This paper will show that it is possible to quantify humor by measuring output laughter, and through the use of econometric tools quantification enables a clearer picture of the determinants of humor.

    You’ll hear from Dorsher, including some of his Humornomics conclusions, in the podcast as well.

    Thanks again to everyone for all the tips.


he's a twinkie - Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle


I was just in Hong Kong last week. The Octopus card is worth its own thesis paper. Yes, everyone uses it, but perhaps its because the same card that works for train can also be used at 7-11 to purchase a sandwich, a bottle of vodka, or anything else they sell. Its so popular, I've heard that the institution that custodies the octopus card deposits is one of the largest banks in Hong Kong.

Interestingly, you don't need to sign anything when you're using it to by goods. You just stick the card in your wallet, waive it in front of a sensor, and the money is debited from your account. I wonder how the credit card industry would feel about this if we tried it in the states . . . .


Regarding Dorsher's thesis introduction: "the illusive nature of humor" - does he mean "illusive" or "elusive"?


Indeed, Hong Kong people believe that you don't speak correctly cantonese if you spend too much time in another country. But it is not really exact. As many French people are fascinated by foreign student who speak very well French language, chinese people believe chinese language is one of the hardest of the world. And Cantonese even harder, but you just need a lot of will and time to learn a language to speak it correctly. Cantonese is not harder than English if we consider that cantonese culture have been massively diffused by the success of many movies and dramas. (Hong Kong International Film Festival is still a great place of international movie business). So although you cannot find cantonese language methods in every book shop, cantonese pop culture is very cheap, and settled in many countries which had links with colonization of China. San Francisco is the most significant place.

When a culture spread in other countries, consequence is you have certainly modifications. In US asian people is at least at 6-7th and even more generation of chinese people who live there. You might have accents. Here in France (I am French born Chinese) we are at 2nd or 3rd maximum generation of immigrants. We have to deal with 3-4 languages at least where US deal with one and Hong Kong with 3 only if we count Mandarin.



About the "racial slurs", like you say they've become quite normative and I don't think people really use them with much racial animus. Cantonese is a really colorful, colloquial language and it would sound rather stilted and formal if you say "white person" rather than "gwailo"

Wallace Kantai

I assume that, by saying Mabhubani's English is 'unaccented', you mean he has an American accent (going by your explanation, that he watched a lot of American TV growing up). Why do you presume the American accent to be the central one (hence your conclusion)? Isn't this a tad jingoistic?


Presumably, he's writing for a primarily American audience (this is a NYTimes Blog after all). I don't think it's jingoistic to adopt the frame of reference shared by the vast majority of your readers.


I happened to attend the same show at TakeOut comedy. Believe you wrongly attributed the yoga joke to Mr Mahbubani. It was Ms Venkat who cracked wise on the state of Indian sport.

Jeff #3

I think the concept of humornomics is an interesting one. I remember a 5 or so years ago during the first season of 'Last Comic Standing' it was revealed that one of the comics kept recordings of all of his performances and log them.

They showed stacks of notebooks he kept detailing laughs per minute/density/volume of every act her performed and how he used to find which methods of delivery and topics worked best and how he fine-tuned his performance based off of that. It did seem odd at the time (and all the other comics mad fun of him over it) but he did go on to win that season.

I' not sure how much of his success could be attributed to his analysis of his acts, but it was interesting to see such a quantitative approach applied to a traditionally qualitative subject.


Regarding "humornomics:" Operationalizing is fine, but one cannot measure humor through laughter any more than one could measure horror through screams; the relationship is far too indirect. Besides, that word has been used in a quote from Stephen Colbert.

On the other hand, something like "laffonomics" would be quite appropriate for comedy clubs (and perhaps film comedies), since the currency of the realm is laughter. No one minds much it the laughter is nervous or embarrassed, instead of mirthful.


This episode wasn't very good. Make them better, like the earlier episodes - I love what you're doing and hope it succeeds!

Michael Thorne

I am really enjoying your new podcast. I just went through and listened to all of the episodes so far. Getting people to see or to at least give consideration to the hidden consequences of actions is a very difficult thing, and very important. I'm glad you are trying to help with this.

The numbers you quote about the price of health care in Hong Kong are very impressive. I would love it if you could go into a bit more detail on this. Is this really the full price or is the health care system subsidized by taxes? (how much)? How are these costs controlled? Is there price setting involved?

I greatly admire the economic success that Hong Kong has achieved in such a short period of time. A large number of it's people have brought out of poverty and into a great amount of wealth. I would love to more clearly understand the factors that effect this success.


The Octopus card's popularity in HK probably has to do with it first being offered as a convenient alternative to regular magnetic metro tickets that existed before.

Magnetic tickets had this "troublesome" requirement of you needing to fish your ticket out of your bag/wallet, feed it into the turnstile, retrieve it, and put it back where it came from. Octopus cards on the other hand skip all the hassle as all you need to do is bring the card within the general vicinity of a card reader for it to work. Thus nowadays all that is required is that someone waves their wallet or bag over a reader and they are done. I've even read anecdotally that with an Octopus card in your pants pocket, that a small hop is capable of triggering the device!

After achieving market penetration through the metro system, it was a natural outgrowth that they be used for other forms of public transport like the bus and eventually to other small dollar purchases such as at convenience stores, supermarkets, cafes, parking meters, and using a slightly altered form that you attach to your windshield, to pay tollbooths like an AutoPass. It has gotten to the point that last time I was there; I saw it being used for non-financial purposes, namely as a form of ID to open gates in private residential complexes. There have been suggestions for some time to integrate Octopus with HK ID cards (which have also recently switched over to smart chip technology) though it has been met with sizable resistance from privacy advocates and a populace that is constantly looking over its shoulder for encroachments of civil liberties coming from Beijing.

There have been numerous attempts in the past to implement "smart card" technology in US cities with little success either because of resistance from banks and/or general inertia from the population. Without looking at the numbers, I also suspect that not even the likes of New York have a public transportation system as well integrated and heavily used as it is in HK so a marketing campaign for smart card technology would have to be launched from an entirely different angle.

And #1 is correct that 'twinkie' is the equivalent term that asians use on this side of the Pacific to describe themselves. The eponymous foodstuff never attained much of a foothold- and therefore any cultural significance-in place where pastries mean far more than the lard and sugar concotions that they are in the US. If you missed the chance to go to a Hong Kong bakery while there, try going to the Asian enclaves where you live to see what I mean.


Fred J

This episode was was funny. It was different than the earlier episodes - I love it and hope to see a great success!

Banners Stands


I live on the 46th floor of an apartment block complex just like the one you shown above, and there are another 24 stories above me.


I like to listen to Freakonomics, but what was this episode about? I thought these guys claimed to be neutral on issues, thinking only of economic impacts. But this episode was a shill for Obamacare! How can they, in good conscience, visit a HK hospital, ask a patient how much he's paying, and then simply conclude with something like, "how great is that?" No questions on how such low costs for such great care can be possible? No assessment whatsoever? What a crock! As intelligent and meticulous as the freakonomic guys are, the only conclusion I can come, after a very brief look at the facts from HK's perspective, is that they have an agenda. The truth is that HK's healthcare is in serious trouble and is currently unsustainable. Just read what the HK Health Secretary himself had to say about it in his paper entitled "Hong Kong Healthcare Reform Urgent" found at: http://www.genial.cn/31189-311276.aspx

So Stephen takes a trip to HK and just happens to wander into a hospital to comment on how great it is to pay almost nothing for great care--economics be damned. Give me a break; that's what the trip was designed to do. Not sure I can trust these guys anymore. Freakohypocrits.


Robyn Magalit Rodriguez

FYI on the freakonomics of the Philippine nanny (nurse, construction worker and more) industry see my recently published book MIGRANTS FOR EXPORT (http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/R/rodriguez_migrants.html).

Not-so-fun fact: The Philippine state (what I call a "labor brokerage" state) actually publishes brochures advertising the virtues of Filipina and Filipino workers to prospective employers.