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Hong Kong – the flight from quality

When I found out I was going to have to leave Hong Kong early I was sad so I thought I would do some posts on what I wouldn’t miss. Hence the posts on the tourist trap of the Peninsula and the heinous waste that is the Ritz-Carlton.

Whilst I could keep ranting about similar places or make the typical complaints about manners on the MTR or the way in which people walk I don’t want to as I have too many places to rave about. After this post I want to start talking about my favourite places in Hong Kong; the ones which will make me lie awake at night thinking “I wish I . . .“. And, more importantly, any of those “bad” places are just symptoms of the underlying problem.

Materialism lives in Central, Hong Kong

So instead of focusing on the symptoms let’s cut through it all and go to the diagnosis: the underlying reason for places like the Peninsula, the Ritz-Carlton, the expat ghetto of Soho and the Mid-Levels, the trend towards the destruction of all that is historical and “local” about Hong Kong and the fungal infection of malls and luxury shops – capitalism.

Hong Kong is the perfect storm of capitalism. It is what happens when you take a small mercantile island, have an inappropriate tax system, allow Developers to do whatever they want, put it underneath the world’s biggest and fastest growing Commu-capitalistic society (which also happens to have a tax on luxury goods), pile on 3 generations of family-run cartels and take a hands off approach.

Walking around Central, Hong Kong
What old men are forced to do on a Sunday afternoon - work

Whilst this whole post might seem a bit off topic for a food blog there reaches a point when it grates just that bit too much when you see another family run business gutted to make way for a mall or luxury goods shop. And it does impact the food because this trend means that Hong Kong’s wet markets or local restaurants are replaced with high turnover chains or … wait… another shopping mall.

Every crappy Italian meal you have here, every time you are hustled in and out of a bare bones restaurant so they can pack 30 people in behind you in rapid succession, every time you see the flight from quality to turnover, it’s capitalism.

You may ask yourself why is this different from the US or Europe? They are also capitalist societies. Well… a bit. However, Hong Kong has certain structural issues which make it more extreme. So here is why it is so bad in Hong Kong right now:

The Tax System

Hong Kong has a tax system that disincentivises culture or history. Don’t worry this won’t get too boring as it is a pretty simple tax system. The Government collects a large chunk of its revenues from land. If a Developer wants to build something, it has to pay the Government. If it wants to build a 100 storey building all it has to do is to pay to breach the planning permissions or land covenants and it is done.

Walking around Central, Hong Kong
A building site next to an 80 year old man in one of the world's richest socities but no pension or social security

All those “Western” ideas of whether it is suitable, rights of light, nature of the neighbourhood, historical context; bin them. Also forget any Marxist ideas you have about redistribution of wealth. Income tax here barely exists. If you earn money you keep it, buy property and laugh at those less well off.

Property Prices

The knock effect on effect of raising your tax money by selling, well, everything to Developers and letting them control the market means that the property market here is grosteque.

I live in what would be considered a very moderate flat by English standards. However, in Hong Kong this costs the average yearly salary for an English person.

What this means is two things: First, people have to focus on material matters as they have to make money, as much as possible, to pay these ridiculous rents. This is especially true as the property prices go up by something like 10% a year here. Second, forget anything creative, historical, or cultural because that doesn’t pay. You want to do something small, heartfelt? No chance. How are you going to afford your rent?

Walking around Central, Hong Kong
Doesn't look much, isn't much, the rents are

Cartels

And capitalism unrestrained means cartels. Or here it means sprawling family businesses that own everything from the land to the food suppliers. If you want to rent a property, open a restaurant, buy supplies, you have to do so on their terms.

Because Hong Kong doesn’t have any effective competition law (yet) it means that those who got rich first have stayed rich. And they set the prices and the agenda and can (legally) crush any competitiors. Thus most places you eat are owned by mass restaurant groups like Maxims or Dining Concepts (instead of a concept can’t I have good food?).

China

We have all been told China will inevitably be the world’s only superpower. I have certain issues with that analysis but its power is evident to see in Hong Kong.

I am a relatively serious man, I do a serious job and I work above a shopping mall. In fact most people you meet in Hong Kong will work in or above a shopping mall. Everywhere you go there are corridors connecting complexes which sell bits of Italian leather. Whilst this is partly driven by Hong Kong’s own avariciousness most of it is by tourists flooding in from China and literally throwing their money at shop assistants.

If you read Hong Kong’s media you can glimpse the conflicted attitude of locals towards this. On one hand the raw money which is coming in from China is welcomed with open arms. On the other hand the media rants about the ill manners of its Chinese guests and mocks them. Whatever the merits or demerits of this love-hate relationship the effect is corrupting. There is just so much money to be made from selling leathered crap.

And the ironic thing is there are simply not enough luxury goods in Hong Kong despite, well, the fact that whole swathes of the Island and Kowloon are luxury goods malls. Whilst there might be 30 or so Chanel/ Gucci/ Paul Smith/ LV etc stores clumped in infections all around Hong Kong there are still queues outside them.

Queuing for luxury, Kowloon, Hong Kong
An average queue for a bit of Italian leather

People actually queue up to deposit money into multi-national corporations which are selling goods made in China, shipped to Italy and then shipped back to China, Hong Kong branch.

Culture

Much has been written about Hong Kong is a cultural desert. Some even spell that wrong and say Hong Kong is a cultural dessert (puddings here do rock though). That isn’t strictly true. There is culture here, it is just shipped in and then sold for high prices.

Hong Kong is full of art galleries selling art not made in Hong Kong. The problem is there are barely any resources dedicated to creating art or maintaining culture on a local level. All of the factors set out above positively rule against it.

Eventually the West Kowloon cultural district will be built and if, perchance, that doesn’t become a mall it will help. But what Hong Kong needs so it doesn’t become Singapore is to fund, protect and stimulate its culture. Prevent its old tea houses being ripped down, provide centres and fund them. Have a look at Shanghai Street Studios for a grass roots version of this.

Walking around Central, Hong Kong
What I would call Hong Kong "culture" - Central wet market. See it before it goes

The Positives

The good thing is there are slight trembles that this *might* not continue. Some of the underlying factors I’ve ranted about above are currently being stress tested. China is muting lowering the tax on luxury goods, people are sensibly talking about China being a bubble, the Western Kowloon cultural district might actually get built, an anti-competition law is planed and there is a sense of outrage in the populace at the bloody inequality of it all..

In the end, what Hong Kong has done has worked. It is rich, some people are very rich. The poor are discarded to push trolleys around and recycle the Gucci shopping bags as they don’t have pensions. The problem with this is that it, even in the year I have been here, is losing what makes it unique. All of its muddled history and messy streets and cha chaan teng heritage are what makes it not Singapore, not a bland financial hub.

HK national day protest march in Hong Kong
Locals protesting on HK national day against the Developers (and probably Article 23)

I write this in full knowledge that my homeland (the UK) is one big glass house. Whilst I agree with the adage that one shouldn’t throw stones, Hong Kong could become or least remain something quite unique. It’s chaotic East/ West history and vertiginal streets combined with the Cantonese sensability and a proper constitution (the Basic Law) means that it could combine dissent with progress.

Ironically the other countries in the region which want to copy it – Singapore etc. – have the problem that they don’t have the culture or history of Hong Kong and are throwing money at the problem to try and buy culture. Hong Kong doesn’t have to do that, it just needs to revell in what it has.

* PS the header picture is a slightly photoshopped picture of an exhibit by Dan Perjovschi which was at Para/Site Art Space in Sheung Wan in Hong Kong and sponsored by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council

PPS for some posts on the positive side of things, see HK’s best click here.

24 Comments

  1. This post makes me so impressed with you two, with all you have written about this past year. Despite the frustrating, overwhelming problems that it sounds like are plaguing Hong Kong, you two have found fascinating bits of light & fun & beauty to share with the rest of us. I respect that so much. When you see the deep flaws in your home so clearly, it is very easy to become sour, I know. You’ve kept the bitterness at bay, and celebrated the places and people that could be Hong Kong’s saving grace. And made me very hungry.

    • I don’t know, once you stop eating in bad Italian restaurants it is a pretty easy place to love :) So much easier to do and see stuff than any Western city I’ve ever lived in as well! Can’t believe you didn’t visit. Can we tempt you with Seoul?

  2. superb post. you couldn’t be more spot on. in other news, i don’t think i’ve met “serious Tom”? does he really exist? heh :P

  3. Excellent post! You’re so spot on why HK is the way it is.

    From being a semi-regular visitor to both HK and Singapore, I do see a creeping Singaporification of HK. in particular, all those bloody signs and notices telling you ‘how to’ and ‘don’t do’. These are classic Singapore nanny state, and I certainly don’t remember seeing so many in HK, a decade ago. FFS, I’ve even seen detailed instructions on how to wash your hands when I was in the toilets of, you’ve guessed it, a shopping mall. On my most recent visit, I was incredulous at the sight of MTR-wardens and their STOP signs. Where the hell did they appear from?

    • Luckily HK people love to protest and get angry so I think it keeps some of it at bay. I do worry about the corrosive effect of the materialism on HK though. It soon might be only some of the more out of touch islands which keep the old strange vintage heritage going.

  4. Awesome post and very well said. Also agree with e_ting. There’s a serious Tom?!?

  5. Hilarious comments above “problems plaguing hong kong?” we have it good compared to the UK and US right now, particularly because we are partly in denial and we have no sales tax. (and other things)
    I am very impressed over what you have absorbed in such a short time as I had no idea you moved there so recently (i thought you had lived there previously!) its a shame you never saw it pre 97 or even post 9/11 and it was VERY different very colonial/post-UK depression anyway as a born and bred hong kong-er i’m sure the small little island will miss you. ! Where are you both off to out of interest?

    • Hmmm HK has it very good economically but I am not sure that it can be cut down as simply as that. Take away the luxury goods tax in the mainland, have the PRC govt tell financial institutions that they need to headquarter in the mainland and what does HK have left? The bits it hasn’t ripped down to make malls of IFCs/ICCs. And it needs to protect those.

  6. Good post and really hits the nail on the head.
    I’m hoping it’s only in Hong Kong that the developers have control on what a restaurant can serve. It’s amazing that so few people have so much control on what food you can or cannot eat.
    When we were there for that month, we noticed a lot of nanny state style instructions, but mainly in those new sparkly shopping malls.
    I’m hoping the wet markets get to stay, and not turned into another Prada shop as they are a part of daily life in HK.

    • I think HK’s salvation may strangely come at the hands of the mainland growing in economic power and their money being spent elsewhere as it opens up. Though it does slightly scare me to think of 1 million more tourists descending on other vulnerable areas. Think of places like Cambridge or Salamanca or other beautiful little towns being carpet bombed by mass tourism? Parts of London are already ruined by selling out to it… oh well, given the UK’s economy, we probably need all the help we can get

  7. Best post yet! Gonna miss you in HK Tom!

  8. sunfug

    Tom, a left-field and insightful post. I’m with you on much of your analysis but HK has always been an odd place; when it’s good it’s very, very good and when it’s bad…well I guess your point is that the latter is getting the upper hand.

    I complained of many of the same things as you (though without the same eloquence) when I left in 1998. I return regularly to my hometown and I still don’t know whether it’s going to the dogs (culturally, food-wise, whatever) or not. From a purely business perspective it was looking a bit dicey post-handover with the Asian crash, SARs and rise of Shanghai etc. That particular fate has yet to transpire.

    And while on the one hand the SAR is all about the quick buck short-termism of the prop/stock/futures market etc. It also exhibits some genius long-term thinking. Look at the incredible transport infrastructure (err, ok, at the expense of the Environment), whacko schemes like the central Escalator (man did we hate that whilst it was being built) that turn out brilliant. And it also allows interesting stuff to trundle along under the radar.

    Things like the Shanghai Street Studios you mentioned and the street art gallery Start From Zero (http://startfromzero.org/about/). My friend who is involved in the latter went to a punk concert in an alley in Kwun Tong recently (well attended he said) and while I am way past the age for that kind of shit it makes me think that the niches of culture that made HK interesting when I was growing up continue and indeed are growing.

    The fact that people were able to put a stop to the development out in the beautiful bay of Tai Long Wan also makes me hopeful. It would not have happened when I was there. Though I wish that the HK government had used a miniscule amount if its revenue to buy back the country park land owned by villagers in order to safeguard the future of the HK countryside instead of giving 6000 bucks to permanent ID card holders to use as they wish.

    All the best in Seoul, looking forward to reading about it.

    • Hey, thanks for the great comment.

      HK has definitely left the dicey business bit behind. It is thriving now, which is what I think causes so many problems. Well only problems to people who like the vintage nature of it.

      The infrastructure is something which amazes. I love swimming and HK has a whole heap of amazing 50m outdoor pools. What I don’t understand is that these were obviously built when a colony in the 60s or 70s and none were built back home in London; more’s the pity.

      As for Shanghai Street Studios and SFZ, I know the guys behind them both. One of the truly great things about HK is that almost because the cultural scene is small you can plug right into and contribute as much as you want. One slightly worrying thing, which I didn’t flag in the article, is that both SSS and SFZ are both essentially run by non HKers (a returnee Cantonese-Brit and a Japanese guy respectively). The culture of HK is such that I think those who are born and bred in HK have a hard time having access to the education and mentality that culture needs to thrive.

      Oh well who knows… one can but help.

      As for the excess revenues, I would love some community projects instead of cheap bribes (which I was sad not to receive as a non permanent resident)… maybe next time. Apparently the govt has enough funds to run for 2 years without needing any taxes, they should lend some to the US..

  9. As a native Hong Konger, I have to say that you have hit the nail precisely on the head. Hong Kong suffers from all these problems, but to me, the biggest issue is the collusion between government in HK and property developers.

    The dependency of the govt on real estate for tax revenue is unsustainable and gives the big developers too much power.

    The high residential rents discourage individuals from taking entrepreneurial risks or taking creative but low-paying jobs (we’re all office drones).

    The high commercial rents ensure that small companies, stores, restaurants that are not backed by big money have a miniscule chance of surviving and succeeding.

    In return, Hong Kongers “enjoy” a low personal income tax rate, but frankly, most of the costs are hidden in the exorbitant prices on the property market and by our lack of consumer choices due to the dominance of a few big players.

    That is why every mall in Hong Kong is almost exactly the same — the same shops, the same restaurants, the same look.

    • I remember when I first heard about the design mall I got crazy excited thinking it was going to be cutting edge but… same old same old with a few young designers co-opted in.

      I still really like Star St and Tung St areas despite the fact they are essentially flash-hipster zones…

  10. David

    I spent two years living (and eating) in Hong Kong, and this certainly hit home with me. When I was there you could see the first stirrings of a conservation movement with the fight to save Gage St markets and the old police station. I don’t know what the ultimate outcome was, but I imagine the developers got their way.

    One interesting tension in HK is that the government is basically run in the interests of the wealthy, but that ‘the people’ are beginning to find a voice – a reflection of the limited democratic process and the rough-and-tumble local press. I thought about that again when I saw the stories about the introduction of a minimum wage. Compare HK’s messy public discourse with the state-run tranquility of Singapore. I know which model Beijing would prefer!

    Incidentally, I only came across this blog today – love the pictures. Brought back many happy memories. Great to see you went to some of my favourites, especially the dai pa dong. Though when I went back this year they’d cleaned them all up so they looked shiny and new.

    Two places on Kowloon side that your photographic skills would do justice to (if you still have time). Cafe Mido nr the temple in Jordan – a classic old-school HK cafe – sit upstairs and watch the world go by. And the fruit market (you have to be up – or still out – at 5am to see it at its best). And there’s a place that sells snake soup up near Sham Shui Po – loved it.

    • Thanks for the comment. I have only visited Singapore once and want to visit again. I am really curious to know if there is a hidden counterculture or something…

      I have run out of time for this portion however I guess I’ll be back a fair bit as all my friends and, at the moment world possessions, are there! Will give your suggestions a go.

  11. Have just moved here for one week. It really breaks my heart to see the elderly push the trolleys and picking up garbage. In USA where there are food stamps there and Medicare, there are so many people cheating the system. Living in million dollar houses, drive luxury cars and yet use food stamps and free Medicare.
    There should be a middle ground like say once you are 65 the government will give you a pension and Medicare so that you grow old with dignity.

    • Yup it is strange to see people who would be in retirement homes on drips out doing most of the manual labour. Still, the problem is there is no perfect answer. In the US there are whole communities of people who live in trailers etc and in the UK we have had the riots. Whatever, HK can and should do more.

  12. JC

    Am late this post as it now Feb 2012, but I have to stop and offer this: Holy crap. You totally nailed it.

    My husband and I moved to Beijing from the U.S. in 2008, then to Shanghai in 2009, and to Hong Kong in 2010 where we will remain for another 2-3 years. We were fairly well-travelled before our China tour, too, are seasoned urbanites, and I studied extensively in China in my college years. Eyes wide open.

    But, wow. WOW. I am really struggling with Hong Kong. And I never thought I would – so dissapointed by all the sterility and the increasing and voluntary cultural numbness. Who knew?

    On the surface, moving here seemed a huge improvement over Shanghai – no phlegm/poo minefield to traverse on every pavement, access to beef that is actually beef, the ability to buy pints of name-brand ice cream that have not been melted and re-frozen several times before appearing on a freezer shelf at RMB120. Proper size 14 ladies cotton underwear from Marks and Spencer. Not getting dragged our of your flat in your nightgown at 6am to the local police station to “re-register” because your suspicious next-door neighbor complained to them about your habit of making late night phone calls (SKYPING with our parents in the U.S.).

    Yes, the prospect of Hong Kong was grand. But almost 2 years into it and we are so, so, so deeply bored, seriously exhausted by monotony, the shallowness, the conservatism. This city could be AMAZING. But they are blowing it. I can’t wait to move away or go back to Beijing!

    • JC thanks for your big reply and it was actually timely as I am going through that stage in Seoul where I am missing the food and weather of HK.

      In retrospect I love HK and think the food scene is probably the best in the world. Still that cultural vacuum is fairly painful. The only good thing is that those who want to do something new and interesting are easy to meet up with and try to do new things with. It means you really can get involved.

      Still what a waste – insane landscape, incredible food, great produce, history and it all becomes… MONEY.

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