Keeping snakes has become increasingly popular in the densely-populated city in recent years as animal lovers seek out less space-hungry pets.
And with the spotlight firmly on the reptile in the lead-up to the Lunar New Year on Sunday, sales have surged.
At Reptile Paradise, a store which first opened its doors in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok neighbourhood in 1994, dozens of baby snakes, not more than a few weeks old, frantically try to climb their way out of small plastic boxes.
As well as turtles and lizards the shop sells milk snakes, corn snakes, king snakes and ball pythons, plus containers of live white mice to feed them.
Its director Vincent Cheung said snake sales have been rising steadily for several months prior to the arrival of the new year.
“The increase for the past month and what I expect for the coming month is about 20 percent to 25 percent, compared with the last year,” Cheung told AFP.
He has sold 100 to 150 snakes in the past three months and remembers a similar spike in 2001, the previous Year of the Snake, with twenty- and thirty-something Hong Kongers the most eager customers.
“When the Year of the Snake comes, they really want to save their money to buy a snake for it. Keeping snakes is very simple compared to keeping other types of reptiles,” said Cheung, adding that clients often learn how to raise and breed them on the Internet.
With real estate at a premium and rentals sky high, snakes appear to fit with the compact high-rise lifestyle of most of the city’s residents – popular breeds in Hong Kong like the North American corn snake and milk snake only measure 10 inches (25 centimetres) when they are young, growing to around 47 inches.
But while popular pet reptiles such as the turtle represent luck, longevity and fortune, the snake has a mixed reputation in Chinese culture.
Although it can signify intelligence and happiness, it is also associated with tragedy – some believe that if a snake is found in the home it means impending disaster for the family concerned, though others feel that such a discovery brings good luck and peace.
In culinary terms it is held up as a delicacy in southern Chinese cuisine as well as a health booster, with thick soup made from snake meat thought to quicken the blood and ward off illness in winter.
In Hong Kong, practicality and a certain cool factor are fuelling sales, as well as money-making potential.
“Some people think it’s a good idea to impress the girls with snakes and some people want to keep them to make money through breeding,” Gourry Chan, a director at Mong Kok’s Turtle Park pet store, told AFP.
Demand has also spiked in his shop in the lead up to new year, though he criticised those who simply want to get on the Year of the Snake bandwagon.