There is an age old debate about which city is the best: Singapore vs Hong Kong? While we might be a bit biased, Chatteris’ own Amanda Thomspson has lived in both, and tells us her take on the argument.
Around the time I was choosing where to spend my semester abroad, two things happened: 1. My older brother returned from Hong Kong, where he had spent a year teaching English with Chatteris and 2. The movie “Crazy Rich Asians” came out.
Admittedly, Asia had never been high on my places to visit, let alone be somewhere to live for an extended amount of time. I had dreamed of eating tapas in Spain, strolling along the Seine in Paris, or viewing Renaissance art in Italy. But as my family watched “Crazy Rich Asians” together, my brother regaled us with tales of Hong Kong and the numerous places he traveled during the year, including Singapore (where the movie is set). Any previous thought I had of Europe was erased within the movie’s 2 hours and 1 minute runtime, which wasn’t even accounting for all the pauses during which my brother would point out all the iconic spots he had recently been in Singapore – Marina Bay Sands, the Supertree Grove, hawker stalls galore, etc. With every story and picture shown, I fell for places I had never even been: hook, line, and sinker.
Little did I know that in about a year’s time after I finished my term at the National University of Singapore, I would be working and living in another global Asian city: Hong Kong. As both are former British colonies, top financial centers, and among the top busiest port cities in the world, there are a lot of comparisons that are made between Hong Kong and Singapore. So without further ado, here I am to weigh in on the age-old debate: Hong Kong vs. Singapore.
My first couple of weeks in Hong Kong had many people looking at me funny as I kept accidentally calling Hong Kong’s transit system the wrong name. Can you really blame me though? Hong Kong’s transport acronym, MTR (Mass Transit Railway), is just a one letter switch from Singapore’s transport acronym, MRT (Mass Rapid Transport). The similarities don’t stop there though. Both the MTR and MRT are some of the quickest, cleanest, most efficient, and most developed systems in the world. Even for someone as directionally challenged as me, navigating the different systems and stations are made easy, with signs in English pointing you where to go.
While the MTR and MRT are the more common modes of transit, Hong Kong also has a variety of transit methods – from being whisked away in minibuses to riding the iconic Star Ferry across the harbour or leisuring your way across the island in a ding ding (tram), you won’t ever be bored with Hong Kong’s transportation.
I will admit that while Hong Kong may have a slight edge over Singapore when it comes to transport due to having a variety of transit methods and the MTR’s high frequency/punctuality rates, Singapore should get a shout out for banning all of the (stinky) durian fruit from public transport.
Markets & Shopping
“Shop ‘til you drop” is more than just a saying in Hong Kong and Singapore – it’s a practice, and a lifestyle. When the weather makes partaking in outdoor activities too unbearable (which is more often than not in both places), both populations alike seek refuge in the air conditioning of the shopping malls. For those who aren’t interested in the opulence of Orchard Road in Singapore or one of the many luxury shopping malls in Hong Kong, you can find all sorts of street markets around. Singapore’s Little India Arcade has saved me on multiple occasions after deciding to visit a pagoda or a temple on a last-minute whim but not having the appropriate clothing to enter. And speaking of temples, Hong Kong’s Temple Street Night Market is renowned for shopping, food, and even getting your fortune told. Markets like these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to shopping in these financial hubs. I dare you to walk through one of them and leave empty-handed – it’s easier said than done.
It’d be a disgrace to talk about either Hong Kong or Singapore and not mention their food. Singapore’s cuisines vary due to a cross-cultural mix of food that includes Chinese, Malay, and Indian. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s cuisine is mainly influenced by Cantonese, non-Cantonese Chinese, and European (especially British) cuisines.
A hawker center is a must when you visit Singapore. In these open-air complexes, you’ll find a variety of different stalls selling a variety of famous Singaporean foods: Hainanese chicken rice, nasi lemak, laksa, roti prata, satay skewers, chilli crab, and so much more. And for a snack, don’t forget to seek out some kaya toast with a kopi (Nanyang coffee).
Meanwhile, I’d say dim sum is a necessity while visiting Hong Kong. It’s an easy and somewhat cheap option, since it’s served in a family-style with 3-4 pieces of food coming in each dim sum dish. It’d be easy to talk about dishes all day, since apparently there ranges over 1,000 of them! But I will say for our meat-loving friends that char siu bao (barbeque pork bun), siu mai (wrapped meat dumpling), and lo mai gai (sticky glutinous rice in a lotus leaf) are some of my favorites. If you want to dine like a local, try the chicken feet too!
Lastly, cha chaan tengs are also a must while visiting Hong Kong. These Hong Kong diners are known for their fast service and high efficiency, with customers sitting for only 10-20 minutes. From Hong Kong-style french toast to congee or macaroni in soup, you’ll find all sorts of classic Hong Kong dishes and drinks here, including Hong Kong-style milk tea and yuenyueng (a mixture of coffee and tea).
While Hong Kong has a sub-tropical climate with four seasons throughout the year, Singapore’s proximity to the equator and tropical climate means you’ll just be getting one – humid. This meant I didn’t have to wear layers once while in Singapore. Even when it rains, there’s no relief from the heat. However, in Hong Kong, you get rewarded for the humid summers with a cool, dry winter. Either way, make sure to invest in an umbrella for either place you go – you’ll need it.
Since it’s perpetually hot year round (or at least to someone who grew up with gruelling Chicago winters), there is no shortage of outdoor activities in either Singapore or Hong Kong. Singapore has nearly as many green spaces as there are skyscrapers, which makes for amazing scenic runs/walks through the city or further out in the countryside. Hong Kong also has a variety of good places, whether it’s along the harbor front or up/down a mountain trail.
Speaking of mountain trails, hiking in Hong Kong beats hiking in Singapore, hands down. Hong Kong boasts a multitude of mountains, while Singapore is relatively flat with a few hills that are more mounds than mountains. To put it into perspective, Singapore’s highest point is Bukit Timah Hill, which sits at a whopping… 164 m (538 ft) above sea level while Hong Kong’s Tai Mo Shan is 957 m (3139 ft) above sea level. Although Singapore doesn’t compare in terms of scenic hiking viewpoints, don’t completely count out their nature and wildlife scenes because the further you get from the city center, the more nature reserves and swampy wetlands there are to explore. This includes the Macritchie Treetop Walk, a suspension bridge that connects the two highest points of Macritchie while offering you a birdseye view of the forest canopy below.
If hikes, runs, and walks just aren’t cutting it for you, you can enjoy water sports (dragon boating, kayaking, rowing, windsurfing, sailing, etc.), beaches, and island hopping galore between both places as well. I will say that when it comes to outdoor activities, don’t forget to load up on sunscreen if you burn as easily as I do (yes, that includes cloudy days too).
Being global port cities, Singapore and Hong Kong both have an array of languages and dialects. When I chose to study abroad, I knew I wanted to be pushed out of my comfort zone, but wasn’t quite sure if I was ready to go to Asia since I had grown up taking Spanish classes rather than a language that could be found in the region.
Luckily for me, Singapore’s official languages include English, which means that all the public signs and my daily encounters were in English. This isn’t to say that “Singlish” doesn’t exist, lah. Since Singapore’s other official languages include Chinese, Malay, and Tamil, it’s a mix of elements of those languages with English. To my relief (and my family’s annoyance), this means that I didn’t have to stop using my favorite Singlish phrases like “lah” or “aiyoh” since Cantonese uses “la” and “aiya” as well.
Hong Kong also has a couple official languages, with Cantonese being the principal Chinese dialect. Although English is also considered a top language here, be ready to perfect your “Yau lok” (Next stop)for all of the minibus adventures.
To learn more about the languages and dialects of Hong Kong, check out this post!
When people ask me about growing up in the suburbs of Chicago and how Chicago compares to New York City, I like to say it’s a “nicer, cleaner” version of the latter. I’d say the same about Singapore to Hong Kong – it’s a nicer, cleaner version of Hong Kong.
If you’re a rule follower and yearn for structure, Singapore is perfect. After all, “Fine City” isn’t amongst its repertoire of nicknames for nothing. For example, something as simple as chewing gum is banned in Singapore and could warrant you paying a fine if caught importing it.
However, if you prefer the grit and dynamicity of city life, then Hong Kong is exactly where to find it. The peeling paint on some of Hong Kong’s buildings isn’t something you would normally find on the sleek, modern architecture of Singapore’s landscapes. But, that just adds to the character of the Fragrant Harbor, in my opinion.
I always thought parents lied about not having a favorite just to pacify their children. But after living in both Hong Kong and Singapore, I get it. I love both of these places for different reasons and am grateful for the time I have spent in the Fragrant Harbor and the Lion City, as I have had the opportunity to travel around Asia, experience different cultures, and learn invaluable lessons and life skills. Although I didn’t exactly end the debate on which one is better, I hope you get the chance to experience both and decide for yourself which one you prefer.
Want to explore one of Asia’s most iconic cities like Amanda? Join us in Hong Kong!