Tuesday, December 29, 2009

When a nickel is not worth a dime: Hong Kong experience

By Tula Dlamini

Hong Kong is an economic hub in Asia. It exists under the Chinese flag as a Special Administrative Region (SAR). The business district is a version of New York – bar the fact that it is administered significantly by Asians.

Money proffers respect and legitimacy in this society; it buys happiness – luxury cars – expensive jewelry – designer clothing and accessories. It is money that feeds the overwhelming obsession with wealth and status – seen on television - movies and in ‘hyper-commercial’ magazines.

It is common to see shoppers lined up outside the GUCCI department store or at the Louis Vuitton. It is late at night – around 10pm - and these young Chinese boys and girls want their piece of the designer brand – not the ‘Fong Kong’ – at term used to describe brand imitations of luxury goods.

Despite being part of traditional communist China – Hong Kong enjoys autonomy in its conduct of business activities and has a significant measure of internal dialogue around critical issues.

Down Central – I coincidental find myself in the middle of a civil protest. Opponents of a multibillion-dollar high-speed rail line cheer Lawmakers of the Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats after they succeed in delaying the proposed construction. The HK$66.9 billion Express Link will not be built by the end of 2009 as scheduled. Students mull around – other walk up and down banners up. Significantly - there is no Police firing of rubber bullets.

Debate is tolerated in Hong Kong - that is if my visit to a local art gallery is anything to go by. It is a group exhibition at ‘Contemporary’ Art Gallery by Angela Li titled ‘I am Rich’. Six artists explore the anxiety that accompanies the ‘get rich syndrome’ among Chinese nationals. The exhibition is full of contradiction and questions – highlighting the psychological imbalance of the new-rich Chinese and bemoaning the perceived lack of business ethics. It is a frank discussion on the various phenomenon caused by the rapid economic growth in China.

As Angela’s exhibit shows - behind this fa├žade of the daily synchronized pyrotechnic fireworks firing out from skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island every night - is a bubble waiting to explode. The excessive consumerism is unsustainable – not least owing to the current global recession.

For now – life seems good and the economy appears robust. The administration has poured a lot of dollars to corporate entities and citizens - as an intervention against the global economic slow-down. The likes of Richard Duncan - a professional fund manager – engineer and author – hold no hope for the future.

“China’s stimulus is like drinking a quart of Red Bull. When it wears off – you have to drink two quarts to keep going. Either way – you get sick’. Duncan argues in his new book – The Corruption of Capitalism – that since 40% of China’s economy depends on exporting to the US – the picture is gloomy should US consumers opt to tighten their belts. In short – assuming the aggregate demand for Chinese exports fall due to a drop in the US appetite for imports – China and indeed the rest of world would be thrown into a painful recession. Hong Kong – an integral part of China is no exception.

It is a ticking time-bomb – one that is compounded by the failure of its people to prepare for their financial retirement – says researchers like Kate Watson - pointing to the lack of retirement funds within the ageing population.

“The culture in Hong Kong is such that people focus on the short-term – and even with their Mandatory Medical Fund (MPF) investments – tend to favor risky investment strategies”.

Latest statistics from the Census and Statistics Department say about 93 000 baby boomers will turn 60 years by 2010, while the city’s population of people aged 65 is expected to increase to 25% by 2033. Unless radical interventions are made now – Hong Kong is a bad dream waiting to happen.

But then again – who knows what the future brings. My search carries me to Man Mo -one of Hong Kong’s oldest and most important places of worship dating as far back as before the arrival of the British in 1841.

Once inside – I light an incense stick out of respect (not worship) for the two deities: Man the god of civil servants and literature, and Mo – the god of war and martial arts. The act is complimented by the huge cone-shaped spirals of incense hanging from the ceiling – burning and adding to the smoky atmosphere. And because of its accessible location – Man Mo hosts an almost constant stream of tourists and worshipers but remains tranquil at the same time.

There are more than a hundred deities in Hong Kong – some more popular than others and each honored by different sections of the community for their redeeming qualities. For instance – students honor certain gods who are viewed as scholarly; fishermen go for gods who are believed to protect them from the dangers of the seas and so on.

Essentially – religion in Hong Kong is protected by the Basic Law and relevant legislation. There is a large variety of religious groups including practicing Christians and Jews.

Courtesy of the Leisure and Cultural Services – I am part of an audience at a theatrical performance at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre. Fuji no yama Ondekoza – the Japanese drum group made a resounding debut by giving a concert immediately after taking part in the Boston Marathon in 1975.

The following year, they joined up with the Boston Symphony Orchestra directed by Seiji Ozawa, and this collaboration gave them international recognition. Za Ondekoza’s performance is based on the philosophy of “Sogakuron” - or that ‘running and music are one’, which is considered a reflection of the drama and energy of life. The first scene – is a spirited drum and dance routine - includes a character who performs with a flute - the Christian hymn ‘Amazing Grace.’ Yes – there is a large body of Christians here. Estimates put the number of practicing Christians at more than 300 000 thousand.

The final day – I am up on a tram to the peak of the nearby mountain. Up lies a range of tourism targeted entertainment and of course – shopping options. I chose a restaurant themed after the famous Forrest Gump – remember the US guy – “In the land of China - people hardly got nothing at all”. For those not in the know - Forrest Gump is a 1994 American comedy-drama film based on the 1986 novel of the same name by Winston Groom. The story evolves around Forrest Gump - a simple man and his journey through life meeting historical figures - influencing popular culture - and with a ringside seat for many of the most memorable events of the second half of the 20th century. The table at which I am seated is inscribed with Gump’s famous quote – “My momma always said - life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."

View from the Tram

I stayed at the Royal Plaza Hotel - situated in Mongkok in the heart of Kowloon. The hotel sits atop the Metro Rail Mong Kok East Station and is only 45 minutes by rail from China as well as the Hong Kong International Airport. It is directly linked to Grand Century Place - one of the largest shopping centers in Hong Kong with over 200 shops and an 8-screen cinema. The Hotel is surrounded by several tourist attractions and amusement venues that will charm even the most skeptical or classy visitors.

Sadly - I can smell the stench of decay not so far from the Hotel and after a few minutes walk – I am confronted by the much publicized socioeconomic success in public housing in Hong Kong. Although this perception is popular – I see nothing to support the success thesis – only high rise buildings – lumped together - accommodating over-crowded tenants. It is a sort of glorified urban slum characterized by busy shops underneath - what late singer Bob Marley refers to as the ‘concrete jungle’. I wonder as to the actual household experiences of these public housing tenants. Rentals - commodities – including food are relatively pricey here.

Returning back – am concerned about this development trajectory – one that looks at citizens as consumers – whose primary value – one might argue - is their appetite for consumer goods. Inspite of it all – Hong Kong is truly an experiential location. Just being among more than seven million people - loud – crowded and pushy - all squeezed in approximately 300 sq km – is a sufficient stimulus for a lot of people.

Image Sources:
Shopping for the Loius Vuitton - Image by Tula Dlamini
Up the tram - Image by Tula Dlamini
Slum city - Image by Shelagh Magadza
Man Mo Temple - Image by Google
Fuji no yama Ondekoza - Image by Google