Soul in the City

Compared to the US, the correlation between income and happiness is negative and steep in HK.

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Just one of many Filipina gatherings in Central on Sunday.

At the top of the happiness hierarchy are the Filipina housekeepers.  Sunday is the housekeeper’s day off, and every Sunday they come to Central en masse, put cardboard down on the walkways, and eat, talk and be merry.  Big, beautiful smiles and hearty laughs all around.  I have Sunday off too; so every Sunday that I’ve been here so far, I’ve gone to Central to spend some time with the Filipinas, even if only for a half-hour on my way somewhere else.  When Filipinos bump into me on the street, it’s completely different from when a Chinese person does so.  When a Chinese person bumps into me, they just keep moving.  No big deal, my gas bladder adjusted to that a long time ago.  But when Filipinos, and particularly Filipinas, bump into me, they always turn around, say sorry and give me a big, genuine smile.  I love them.  (It helps that they seem to love me too, I pretty much never get hit on in bars, except by Filipinas.)  The Filipinas in Central bring me back to life every week.  I don’t know what I’d do without them.  Filipinas got soul.

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A rare a status-free scene in Causeway Bay

At the bottom are the bankers.  These miserable assholes wear thick, black business suits in the hot, humid summer, and drive manual-transmission Ferraris down some of the busiest, most pedestrian packed streets I’ve ever seen.  They spend 80-90 hours per week working feverishly to transfer as much wealth as possible up the economic ladder.  And somehow they seem to feel unfulfilled.  Go figure.

In between are people like me.  We wear a “business casual” wardrobe.  In HK, this means wearing long pants and long sleeves even when it’s way too hot to be comfortable in such clothes.  It’s certainly true that the correlation between misery and income is strongest in the summer.  But even as the weather gets more bearable, there just aren’t many smiles amongst the middle class.  My multi-cultural office actually has a really great, amiable atmosphere.  But I think we’re actually the exception, not the rule.

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Middle-class malaise

The construction workers and other manual laborers get to wear whatever they want, and this usually means wearing shorts and no shirt, and making the bankers and I feel insecure about our body fat.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the money to buy a Ferrari to compensate, so I’m trying to work out more.  Not really because of the construction workers, but because I do feel fat in HK (and I didn’t really feel that way at all in Boulder, which is one of the thinnest cities in the US).

Even though I believe this negative correlation does exist, there are certainly outliers, obviously.  I’m just saying that if you were to actually graph people’s happiness vs. income on x and y coordinates; it’s definitely not what standard economic theory would predict.  The homeless people seem pretty miserable; though it’s no worse than US cities, and everyone has access to health care here that’s so cheap it’s practically free, so that mitigates their misery a bit.  And there are people here who make good livings doing engaging, creative work.  This is not a linear data set, to be sure (in either the positive or the negative direction).  But I think that the extreme unhappiness and extreme wealth of the bankers pulls the slope downward.

Outside of my office, I rarely see Chinese people smile unless there’s a camera pointed at them.  I rarely see anger either.  Compared to Westerners, the Chinese have strong social taboos against showing emotion in public; this is seen as something that children do.  I’m sure that part of my experience is that I just don’t know many Chinese people (besides my co-workers) well enough to see them really smile.  And since the taboo against public displays of emotion doesn’t apply to minorities as much, I see them smile more.

It shouldn’t be surprising that as a level 2 gweilo, I’m also expected to show emotion from time to time.  Which is good, because I’ve been emotional lately.  I don’t know why, but I get choked up a lot in this city (and not just because of the pollution).  For example, when I was standing on a street corner recently, a bus went by belching black smoke.  A man with a baby carriage quickly tried to turn around and get his baby away from the smoke.  But he didn’t make it, and the smoke completely enveloped the baby carriage.  The gesture was so beautiful, and the pollution so ugly, I was emotionally overloaded.  I’ve always been a pretty emotional, Scotch-Irish type of guy, but it’s different in HK.  It’s like I have permanent PMS.

Considering that it’s easily a top 5 World City, Hong Kong is deeply insecure, and it may be this insecurity that causes some of the status-obsession, and its consequent misery.  HK has NYC envy.  There’s a Times Square, but no Times.  There’s also a SoHo (South of Hollywood Road instead of South of Houston Street).  HK Times Square is pretty lame by the way, but SoHo is a very cool neighborhood, very popular with the gweilo.  In addition to NYC envy, HK has Shanghaiphobia.  HK is worried that Shanghai will usurp its role as the economic and cultural capital of Greater China.  Unlike NYC envy, there’s actually good reason for Shanghaiphobia, since Shanghai is also a deep water port, it’s at the mouth of the Yangtze river, it’s closer to Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul, and it has roughly three times HK’s population.

Because of the English language, HK has an inherent advantage relative to Shanghai, particularly when it comes to trade with India and English-speaking parts of Africa (notably Nigeria and Kenya).

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English bridges the cultural gap in the multicultural Chungking Mansions

An ABF(Australian Born Filipino) recently said to me that these days, the Indian firms are just paying local Chinese to translate language and culture for them in Shanghai.  People are cheaper in China.  But for trade that’s done mainly between small groups of friends and family members (like the mobile phone trade in India and Africa), HK retains a huge advantage because of the English language.  The following is not a reference, but a link.

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/4609e212-eb64-11dd-bb6e-0000779fd2ac.html

All this insecurity, both global and personal, may be driving the rampant consumerism in HK.  Much more than the US, people wear their status on their sleeve.  When bankers go to the bar, even on Sunday, they dress like bankers.  What’s the point of being a banker if nobody knows you’re a banker?  Where I come from, mostly Madison, Wisconsin and Denver/Boulder, Colorado, this kind of thing is frowned upon.  Because so many highly successful people walk around in shorts and a t-shirt, status isn’t as easily observable. It’s a big change for me.  I find myself compelled to buy expensive clothes that I would have laughed at back in the States.  It’s not a healthy thing to spend lots of time and mental energy on, but it’s happening to me.

Besides the twin pillars of cheap people and excellent infrastructure, China’s growing hegemony in Asia is fueled by its consumerism.  Asian countries like Japan and South Korea are increasingly dependent on China, not just as a source for cheap goods, but as market for their own products.  And if HK wants to play this game, it needs to consume at a Chinese level.  And China is really catching up to HK in this area, quickly.  One problem for HK is that their citizens tend to prefer well made products over cheaper ones that have to be replaced quickly.  This is a problem in a hyper-capitalist society.  The solution is to encourage status obsession.

But the real reason HK won’t completely lose out to Shanghai is it’s diversity.  And it’s relevant that this diversity is what keeps a foreigner like me sane.  When the status-obsessed hyper-materialism of this place starts to weigh me down, it’s always the diversity that lifts me back up.  Sometimes it lifts my spirits, as with my beloved Filipinas, but sometimes it literally lifts my body as well: it has generally been minorities of various kinds who have taken me up into the world above the street.  It’s this diversity that gives the city it’s vibrancy, and it’s cultural edge, and it’s because of this diversity that HK will always be more attractive to foreigners than Shanghai could ever be.

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2 responses to “Soul in the City

  1. a teacher who has been in asia for ten years

    now here I want to teach you about anger in the chinese culture. they may now show it to you a foreigner on the outside in a nonrelationship, but boy oh boy it is a part of their internal culture. they yell at each other ALL the time in anger and it is a main motivating factor of how things get done in the communist hierarchial structure. I have sat many times as witness to that and only once as the “victim” of it. However, you can be yelled at and it doesnt really matter…in the end “guan xi” is what makes the system work.

  2. W,

    I hope you plan to turn these into a book. Fascinating! I really get the feeling that I’m right there, too. As mind-boggling as your experiences sound, I wonder if you’ll be faced with the biggest culture shock of all upon your return to our very strange world here in the “United” States of Fearmerica. I traveled to Europe by myself when I was just out of college a few decades ago, and remember that coming home left me with the oddest sensation — especially when my first site was of an old guy dressed in a “full Cleveland” — seersucker suit, white belt and white shoes.

    I look forward to future posts.

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