Like nearly everyone in Hong Kong, I sought solace from the noise.
Hong Kong is a city of superlatives. People in the busy Chinese metropolis work the most overtime in the world. The tightly-packed territory is also home to the world’s most crowded district and the most expensive housing market. And while capitalist Hong Kong enjoys a hefty GDP for its size, it’s only just slightly happier than Somalia.
So it’s no surprise that Hong Kongers are losing sleep. Amidst a population that exceeds 7.2 million, hundreds of thousands of people are wide-eyed between the sheets every night.
Wing Yun-kwok, a professor of psychiatry at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies insomnia, has been calculating just how many people in the city are affected by sleep disorders since 1999. Yun-kowk and his team concluded that up to 15 percent of Hong Kong’s adults and 30 percent of its adolescents suffer from chronic insomnia.
I’m one of them. I’ve tried medications like benzodiazepines—which are sold over the counter in Hong Kong—as well mild forms of meditation like controlled breathing, but these basic, short-term solutions haven’t worked. “Insomnia is a public health problem,” Wing says. Worse, very few people are seeking solutions. “In our latest study, only one in three adults [affected] had asked for help.”
Noise pollution is one of the leading causes of the problem, according to Wing, who also runs a medical department for sleep assessment at Shatin Hospital—one of the city’s major medical centers. No definitive data exists yet to prove that light and air pollution also play a role, but researchers are examining the cause and effect more closely. “My hunch yes, [they do] cause insomnia,” Wing says.
All three problems are only getting worse: The government is now battling potentially deafening noise pollution, and a recent study found the city’s light pollution to be the world’s worst. Thanks to factories in mainland China, Hong Kong has also fallen victim to toxic smog.
So that’s how I found myself chasing just one hour of undisturbed slumber inside of an isolation tank—mere feet from Hong Kong’s frenetic financial district.
I started with Float On Hong Kong, a spa that offers what’s known as “float therapy” in one of four massive sensory deprivation tanks. “The gist is that you get into a dark bath of warm water heated to your skin’s temperature and there are [1100 pounds] of salt in there, so you float in the water,” says Ciaran Hussey, the spa’s owner. When you close the door and turn off the lights, it’s pitch black. You can’t hear, smell, or taste anything.
During my one-hour session, however, I can’t manage to doze off. This isn’t unusual, Hussey says, and my timing is part of the problem. For those who want to sleep, it’s better to come at night, after limited exposure to screens and other stimuli. (I had answered a string of emails and text messages before I jumped in.)
What did happen, after about 15 minutes of floating, was that I mellowed out. My body felt warm—not just from the water, but more like a pleasant drug high. I checked out of my thoughts—which tend to keep me up at night. Dee Cheung, who works with Hussey at the spa, called this the “bliss state”—when you’re somewhere between fully awake and asleep. But at nearly $100 for just one hour of floating, the bliss state is also a comfort well beyond my budget. And those sixty minutes fell short of the refreshing night’s sleep that I was seeking.
“Sensory deprivation is essentially mindfulness, and mindfulness is quite controversial,” Wing says. “There are a lot of gimmicks—even with acupuncture, some data shows it works, while some shows it doesn’t.”
Float On isn’t the only business capitalizing off of Hong Kong’s sleep problem. There’s also Chillazy Nap Space—the lone survivor of the city’s “nap café” craze, which peaked in 2016. While most of those—which were basically just regular cafes with nap spaces built in—have since shut down, Chillazy remains in business due to its more unique conceit: It’s a place to do literally nothing but catch up on sleep.
Tucked away in a sprawling industrial space far from the financial district, Chillazy’s modestly sized room is decked out with hammocks, pillows, and a few desks. My first thought was that it reminded me a lot of a co-working space. I picked a red hammock by the window and paid about $6.50 for an hour of rest.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to sleep—and I’m not sure how anyone could. For one, it’s bright: There are no curtains on the windows. The air-conditioning unit rattled overhead, and the wobbly hammock was more challenging than relaxing. And there was the problem of the only other customer, who brought her lunch. As I tried to lull to sleep with a boring novel, my fellow patron loudly chomped on a toasted sandwich, crinkling her paper bag.
Despite my experience, however, Chillazy seems to be doing fine. (Owner Keevin Lee declined an interview, citing plenty of media attention lately.) From futuristic pods to hipster hammocks, I was running out of potential solutions to my sleep problems. The most effective remedy, it turns out, probably isn’t some gimmick, anyway. “The best treatment is CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy],” Wing says. “The major hypothesis is that those with insomnia tend to arouse themselves a lot—they’re very worried about sleep.”
But finding access to therapy in Hong Kong is no easy feat, as I reported last year. There are less than 400 registered psychiatrists and 500 registered psychologists in the city—alarmingly low numbers for such a crowded metropolis. Insurance plans also don’t cover mental health. Therapy, therefore, is largely a privilege for the wealthy—and even for those who can afford it, mental health in Chinese culture is rarely discussed. Like millions of other people, I simply can’t afford access to a mental health professional.
So is there any reasonable solution, will I and my fellow insomniacs need to commit our life savings to sleeping inside giant pods of temperate salt water? The silver lining, if there is one, is that it’s not as bad as it could be. When it comes to chronic insomnia, Hong Kong isn’t particularly worse off than other developed cities in Asia. In fact, Mainland China and Japan have it worse, and in South Korea, sleep disorders are on the rise.
In Japan, insomnia is even celebrated—to an extent. Inemuri, napping on the job instead of getting a good night’s sleep, is seen as a sign of diligence. People in Japan are even dying from lack of sleep—about 200 employees a year pass away from karoshi, or being overworked. Ultimately, the easiest solution for a good’s night sleep may be the most obvious: cutting down on bad habits. “People tend think alcohol helps, but in fact it creates more problems with insomnia—as does smoking and drinking too much coffee,” Wing says.
But for me, like so many others whose circuits have been burnt out by constant stimuli—and who consider sleep to be such a deeply precious commodity—overcoming even this small challenge remains a dream that’s just out of reach.