Three weeks after my arrival in Hong Kong, I had hoped to wow
the UW community with insights into Hong Kong’s struggle for
democracy and free elections in 2007 and 2008. But shortly after my
arrival, a little thing called Asian flu started popping up all
over the region, and everyone’s concern shifted, at least
temporarily, to that. So, although the political insights will have
to wait, I can regale you with a wondrous (though much less
opinionated) tale of Hong Kong technology.

Hong Kong citizens, especially my fellow students here at the
University of Science and Technology, are as up to date with latest
advances in personal electronics as students at UW are with the
latest East Coast fashions and the latest NCAA basketball poll.
I’ve seen cameras, cell phones and MP3 players here that won’t
filter into the United States for at least a year or two.

Hong Kong is also on the cutting edge with another, far more
versatile little piece of technology: the Octopus card.

This is the most useful piece of plastic I own in Hong Kong,
surpassing my Visa (well, in most cases) and my student ID (which
is incredibly advanced itself) to claim that title. My love affair
began two weeks ago, when, after a night of dancing and general
merrymaking, I found myself moneyless and slightly turned around in
the subway. Thanks to the Octopus card, I made it back to campus
safe and sound despite a couple of wrong stops on the subway. I
even boasted a full stomach as I strode back to my dorm at 6:45
a.m., thanks to 7-Eleven and my Octopus card.

This card is amazing. I am convinced that one could live quite
well for weeks using nothing but the card. It can purchase soda and
food from vending machines, anything from 7-Eleven, bus fares,
newspapers, food in the school cafeteria, subway fares, groceries
at the supermarket, movies, fast food … the list goes on and on
and is growing constantly. You name it, the Octopus card can
probably purchase it.

In fact, the card that started as an easy way to pay subway
fares is fast becoming as essential as a Hong Kong residence card
(think U.S. driver’s license). An Octopus card is needed to access
certain parking ramps, office buildings, residential properties,
schools and parks. If you don’t have one, you’re out of luck. Not
that that’s ever a problem for local residents. Almost everyone has
one, even brand-new exchange students.

And for the fashion-conscious, the Octopus technology has
recently branched out beyond cards. There are now Octopus wrist and
pocket watches, as well as mobile-phone covers with all the same
capabilities as the Octopus card. Just wave your hand or your phone
past the sensor and you’re on your way through the subway, into the
office, or out of the 7-Eleven toting a six-pack of San Miguel.
It’s straight out of a James Bond movie.

Major U.S. cities should look into adopting the Octopus card or
a similar program. There is solid blueprint available in the form
of the Hong Kong program and the advantages are numerous, including
increased use of public transportation and therefore increased
revenues, reduced overhead by reducing the number of monetary
transactions, and more-efficient flow of human and vehicular
traffic in public-transportation stations. Merchants such as
7-Eleven who are part of such a program would also see increased
sales via the Octopus card. The advantages of such a program extend
far into the future and far outweigh the initial investment and
logistical requirements of set up.

Already I feel spoiled. After only three weeks, I find myself
automatically scanning my card, or my wallet, or my entire purse
(scanners can read the card through almost anything), and not
thinking twice about how amazing that act really is. But no matter
how much I come to take the technology in the Octopus card for
granted during the next four months, I’m sure I’ll get a strong
reminder of the magic of the card the first time I dig out my
change at a bus stop back in Madison. For now, add the Octopus card
to the list of Asian technology that the United States will not see
anytime soon.

Laura Rego ([email protected]) is a senior studying
marketing and management at the University of Science and
Technology in Hong Kong. She is the former Advertising Director of
the Badger Herald.