Why People Wear Face Masks in Hong Kong

From Preventing Infectious Diseases to Filtering Air Pollution

Woman wearing hygiene mask in fast food restaurant
Peter Cade/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Face masks in Hong Kong seem to be all the fashion, and you’ll find quite a few people sporting them around town. However, the reason so many people wear face masks in Hong Kong is due to lessons learned during the outbreaks of SARS and Avian Flu in the city.

In a city as densely populated as Hong Kong infectious diseases tend to spread rapidly, as was the case with both SARS and Avian Flu. As a result, Hong Kong residents are, quite understandably, obsessed with germs. So, when Hong Kong residents get a cold or flu they tend to don their face mask, both to stop the disease spreading and in case they are carrying something more serious than a simple cold.

Other measures you’ll find in place is the regular swabbing of elevator buttons and escalator handrails and finding disinfectant dispensers in building lobbies and major Hong Kong shopping malls.

These measures, especially face masks, can sometimes be a little alarming for travelers, but they only make Hong Kong safer from diseases. If you yourself find you’re suffering from the sniffles, do like the locals and put on a mask, which can be picked up in pharmacies such as Watsons, local hospitals, and some mall reception desks.

Reasons for Concern: Infectious Diseases and Air Quality

Ever since the 2002 SARS outbreak and the 2006 bird flu panic, the residents of Hong Kong have been on high alert for infectious diseases, leading to an increased number of people wearing face masks and taking other preventative measures to prevent the spread of sickness in this densely populated city.

However, the tradition of donning these masks has an even earlier origin in Asian countries, starting with the outbreak of influenza in 1918 that killed 50 to 100 million around the world after infecting over 500 million people. As a result, people began to cover their faces with scarves, veils, and masks to attempt to stop the spread of the disease.

An alternative theory as to why these masks rose in popularity was that the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 caused ash and smoke to fill the air in Japan for weeks, causing Japanese citizens to wear these masks to help them breathe. Later, when the Industrial Revolution led to air pollution—especially in East Asian countries like China, India, and Japan—people began wearing masks daily to help them breathe through the increasingly toxic air pollution.

The Culture of Facemasks

Since the Industrial Revolution, face masks have become the norm in many Asian countries, especially in city centers where air pollution makes it harder to breathe and residents are constantly afraid of spreading infectious diseases.

Fortunately, a majority of Hong Kong residents don't just wear the typical blue surgical face mask found in most hospitals. Instead, fashion-forward  Hong Kongers opt to don custom-decorated or designed masks, some of which feature special air filters that remove harmful toxins when breathing through them.

Everyone from mass production manufacturers to high-end couture designers is now getting into the market of these trendy and useful masks, so if you're planning to travel to Hong Kong (or most East Asian countries), consider stopping into a specialty shop and buying a cute mask that goes with your outfit.