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Hong Kong’s great shoe removal debate

By: Olivia Visser

When I first moved to Hong Kong just a few short years ago, I found the ritual of being asked to remove my shoes at the threshold of a house or apartment a little odd. Few of us here have carpets, after all, and the Hong Kong climate means we are rarely dragging mud in. Also, back home, asking someone to remove his or her shoes would rate you as a rather naff and overly house-proud hostess!

I also felt rather exposed, not to mention unfashionable, walking around in my stocking soles at dinner parties; what exactly was the point spending thousands of dollars of my husband’s hard-earned cash on ‘to die for’ Jimmy Choos if they were just to furnish a friend’s doormat?

Coffee mornings were a constant source of worry. In the winter, I had the awful feeling that I might slip off my boots to discover holes in my mismatched socks and, in the summer, there was the dread that everyone would be looking at my cracked heels and dodgy toes.

When I really started to ponder the great shoe removal debate, I canvassed opinion from long-term Hong Kongers, new arrivals and the olds back home. Newbies were totally in tune with my way of thinking, admitting that they too felt vulnerable and exposed when being asked to expose their tootsies. My father, ex-army and something of a stickler for etiquette, was outraged! He played the class issue card, claiming that only those lower down the ladder asked visitors to take their shoes off at home and that it is the height of rudeness on behalf of any host.

Shoe removal in a large crowd, I have discovered, can also become quite inconvenient and troublesome. At my child’s third birthday party, there was a pile of mini crocs and sandals sitting at the front door. Suddenly the happy game of musical bumps was interrupted with a mother storming through our living room shouting, ‘Someone has stolen my daughter’s Mary Janes – they’re brand new, and they came all the way from Milan!’ Everyone started looking at their little one’s feet, wondering if their three-year-old had developed an early shoe fetish and a penchant for petty thieving. Party time well and truly over!

It was my old-timer Hong Kong friend and font of all knowledge who made everything crystal clear. While shoe removal has been a normal custom in Asian culture for centuries, she told me that it was really the onset of SARS in Hong Kong that started the expats following suit. That period of almost-Armageddon in Hong Kong’s recent history resulted in a mass addiction to cleanliness and hygiene and an unofficial overnight ban on transporting gritty grime through the homes of friends and family – not to mention the 66 million organisms that one study has suggested can be found on the bottom of our shoes.

Now, nearly three years in, I am fully in tune with Hong Kong’s shoe etiquette. I slip off my pumps and wedges with gay abandon outside any door. As a result, my pedicure budget has never been higher – and that can’t be a bad thing either.

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