Hello from Hong Kong! I’ve been here for a few days, and I must say that the city has the same exciting buzz that it did six years ago. Some things have changed, some thanks to Jack Ma. Some things remain the same.
After a few days of buzzing around the city, I finally snuck away to a barre class this morning, and have a moment to sit down and write.
The First Rule in Hong Kong is…
We’re staying with my god-parents, and first piece of advice that we were given was this:
“Worry about yourself. Don’t worry about anyone else.”
That’s the Hong Kong way: less courtesy; more efficiency. Hundreds of thousands of people are, at any point in time, faces immersed in their phones. They move through crowded streets, through the highly efficient MTR system (their commuter train), and up crazy fast escalators. Had we engaged in our usual Canadian courtesy, we’d never make it anywhere. So, we did as the locals did: gradually merged and inserted our way into the funnel of folk headed up to street level. The escalators, by the way, run at almost double speed, compared to any other escalator I’ve ever experienced anywhere else in the world, and certainly in Canada.
On a related note, I’ve been impressed at how my 6 yr old has been able to assimilate so well to the city. A couple days into the trip, we were taking the MTR back home, and Zane spotted an open spot on the bench. He beelined through the crowd and beat a local woman to the seat even before she could make her move. She started for it; he sat down already. Looked up and grinned at us. Lawrence and I exchanged knowing smiles, “Yep. He’s fitting into Hong Kong.”
The Human Side of the Most Capitalistic City in the World
Hong Kong has been long known worldwide as the city with the most capitalistic economy on the planet. Income tax rates are a maximum of 15%. Even then a huge segment of the population works for cash, and pays zero tax. In such a pure market economy, there is a huge disparity from the elite rich, all the way down the spectrum of socio-economic power.
Here, most every middle class family engages domestic help, usually sponsored from surrounding southeast asian countries like Indonesia and the Philippines. They all get one day off: Sunday. That afternoon (because nothing opens before 11), we were walking along an overpass in Mongkok. I suddenly noticed an extraordinary number of young to middle-aged women from Indonesia, Philippines, and other southeast asian countries. As we strolled down the overpass to catch the train we noticed an endless line of tarps along both edges of the overpass. There had to have been over a thousand women just hanging out here, chatting with each other, napping under umbrellas as makeshift privacy screens. It was amazing to see. Check out this video I snapped:
Even in the upscale financial district of Central which is lined with shops such as Cartier and Chanel, this same phenomenon occurs. Streets are closed to traffic to accommodate the day of rest for the ‘aunties,’ as my godmother referred to them. To me, it’s warm to see that sometimes it’s not all about cold-hearted money making, as one might think. Society creates a spot for everyone in its own way. Sunday is ‘auntie’ gathering day. It’s a part of Hong Kong culture.
And if you look more closely, you can see that capitalism exists at all levels in Hong Kong. Every so often you will chance upon an enterprising Indonesian mama with a buffet of fresh ingredients and a tiny round stone hot plate. She’s preparing dinner items to serve her sisters. Later on, I learned that commerce extends past food and beverage here. Someone will offer spa services, manicure, pedicures. Anything that strikes a woman’s fancy will be available for sale.
Here’s another example. After visiting the Night Market on Temple Street one night, we were hungry and wandered into a McDonald’s. It’s always fun to experience another culture’s McDonald’s for menu items that cater to local tastes. We ordered our food, and one of us proceeded to look for a table in the dining area. Given that it was almost 1am, patrons were expectedly of a different sort. He came back and reported that there were some tables in the far section of the restaurant. However, there were also 15 people sleeping there as well. Interesting. Why wouldn’t the restaurant kick them out? A question we discussed with our hosts the next morning. Yes, ubiquitous watering holes like McDonald’s and the locally owned international chain Café de Coral allow the needy to take rest in the back of their restaurants. At the end of the night, Café de Coral would actually distribute some of their unsold food to the homeless. That’s just good karma.
Sentiment to Change
If ever anyone goes to Hong Kong, an Octopus card is a must. The Octopus card was introduced some thirty years ago, and its uses have extended far beyond transit. All vendors in the MTR stations accept Octopus as a form of payment, as do most mid to larger merchants. However, I was surprised to see that few other payment platforms were as widely accepted. It turns out that Octopus corp has quite the lobbying power to keep barriers of entry high, if not impossible to new competitors. As a result, Octopus, while it may have been super advanced for its time in the 90’s, has become surprisingly archaic in our digital age.
Here’s what I mean: To purchase an Octopus card, you need to do so in person at a customer service station in an MTR station. You can’t buy it online. To reload the card there are only a few ways: cash submission at an MTR station, or via a credit card that has been pre-connected and pre-authorized via your bank. This means that as a tourist, there is only one way to use the Octopus card. You needed to show up in person at a train station, with cash in hand. Oh, and they only accept $50’s and $100 denominations. In a place that has long prided itself in being a leader in the Asian free world, it’s surprising how backward something as ubiquitous as this has become.
Juxtapose this with what’s gone on in China in the same time period. Just before I left for Hong Kong, I was listening to Alibaba: The House that Jack Built by Duncan Clark . Duncan Clark was an advisor to Alibaba in the years leading up to its IPO. I was floored to learn that a large part of Alibaba’s financial success has been largely due to AliPay, which is Alibaba’s answer to Paypal in China. Responding to a long time gap in the Chinese market, Alipay has filled the void where the three state-owned banks have been severely lacking in customer service. If ever you have purchased anything on the widely known Aliexpress, you’ll have encountered Alipay, which protects customers’ payments until they have received their goods from vendors. Online shopping and online grocery shopping accounts for more than half of all domestic purchases in China. It’s a little bit sad to see that Hong Kong, the financial epicenter of Asia, the city that deals in the most IPO’s in China and for China, suffers from hubris….a hubris that could be the death knell of commercial leadership, if they don’t get with the program. Also sad to hear that Clark declined his opportunity to buy Alibaba IPO shares at $0.30, an error he refers to as his $30 million mistake. Ouch. I digress.
Alibaba or not, in any industry, no matter what your profession is, hubris creates downfall. No matter how advanced you have been, no matter how cutting edge you were, if you don’t keep up with what’s going on around you presently, you fall behind. And sometimes you can’t recover.