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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.