Smoking: a tale of two Chinas

Part One: The fastidious smoker in Hong Kong

In an expansive and nearly empty public space — the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade — he stood boxed between metal barricades and a tall chain-link fence. An R2-D2-sized, bright orange trash bin was his sole companion in this smoker’s exile.

Smoking in park's "Designated Smoking Zone" in Hong Kong

He was surrounded by vacant green lawns and ventilated by the breeze off of Victoria Harbor, yet he remained strictly within the confines of the two-meter by two-meter plot officially allocated for public smoking.

He is one stunning example of both the strength of Hong Kong’s rule of law and the speed at which perception about public smoking has changed.


Smoking rates in Hong Kong are among the very lowest in the world at 11%, down from 23% in 1982 (Hong Kong’s Department of Health). Acceptance of smoking bans in public spaces is generally high.

Part Two: The Chinese “non-smoking” hotel room

Recently, a friend visited Mainland China for business. He has traveled to China many times and speaks decent Mandarin. He was not surprised when, upon entering his mid-market “no-smoking” hotel room, he inhaled the scent of stale smoke.

He called the front desk to complain and they promptly sent someone up to his room.

A porter arrived, entered, collected the room’s several glass ashtrays, and exited.

The room was now deemed to be non-smoking.


Smoking rates in Mainland China are high (Gallup) and what smoking bans do exist are often ignored. Further,

there’s actually a popular myth that tobacco harms other nationalities, but not Chinese people.”

(I wonder what marketing genius at the state-owned China Tobacco Corporation planted that seed in the public’s mind.)

In May, officials banned smoking in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Wind of change?

Smoking in Tiananmen Square
Related post: “Lord of the Flies” in mid-air, or “smoke ’em if you got ’em”

11 responses to “Smoking: a tale of two Chinas

    • It was so nice when they got rid of smoking in restaurants and bars in the US. Coming home from a night out without smelling like stale smoke was so wonderful!

      Didn’t they try to cut down on smoking in public places in Shanghai before the expo? Did it have an impact?

  1. Jen, I’ve had the complete opposite experience in Hong Kong. I find there to be an appallingly high number of smokers, particularly of the 20-something set, wherever I end up (Tsim Sha Tsui towards Mong Kok, Central through Causeway Bay on the island, the Sheung Shui KCR, nay MTR station). Even if the official rate is 11%, the urban cores are packed to the gills, making the percentage seem moot.

    Walk into most any video game parlor (not that you would!) and you’ll immediately notice the miasma of cigarette smoke. There’s a fine of HK$5000 but the only customers are the ones who smoke so what’s a proprietor to do (same idea with beer at “Muslim” restaurants in China, me thinks). Then, go to a nightclub and you’ll see smokers handed glass cups to extinguish their smokes. Smoking isn’t actually legal but hey, those smokers are drinkers too. Not to mention, more and more mainlanders are coming in, so that can’t help the case.

    I can relate to the mainland non-smoking room protocol too. At the rare hotel that knows me, I just call up someone to spray some pseudo-Febreze. It’s probably just as dangerous as the cig. smoke (don’t forget where you are!), but at least it doesn’t have the same odor… I’ll give the Hanting hotel in Yangzhou a bit of credit though- they had a room very detached from every other one (pretty much on top of the emergency stairwell), so if you’re ever in that part of Jiangsu, let me know.

    • I become more and more curious about what you do for work and how you spend your time!

      After Zhuhai, I don’t find the smoking in Hong Kong bad at all, but I’m sure it’s also because of the places I spend time: mainly Tai Po and Sai Kung where even if people are smoking I barely notice because there is more space in general. But I also recognize that there have been a few articles in the SCMP about places that ignore the smoking ban. Similar stories pop up in Washington State, in certain bars and bingo halls.

  2. Nice article. I think even since Hong Kong has imposed smoking ban in indoor areas (restaurants, bars, hotel rooms etc), there’s more public awareness of “if you go smoking, go to places where other smokers also go without disturbing non smokers”. But in China, smokers don’t seem to care about how their smoking can affect non smokers and most importantly they don’t care about the laws and rules. I remember a professor told me, “penalty of law violation in China is very heavy, but officials are very lax in executing the laws”.

  3. Did I ever mention that in China very early on I used to jog in this local park, and everyday there was a guy in a wife beater (ie. Yellowing, thin undershirt/tank), old loafers and a toupee jogging around the park smoking a cigarette? The first time I saw him, I see this trail of smoke coming out of him (like he’s on fire). The toupee on his head wasn’t “tied down” and it was kind of *waving* at me each time he jogged. Took me a while to figure out it was a toupee. Have to admire the man’s dedication – to smoking and to maintaining a head of hair.

    • I’m digging both his dedication to health/hair/tobacco and his “take it or leave it/this is how I roll/screw you all” attitude. Truly fantastic.

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