Downturn brings out Hong Kong's best

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 April, 1998, 12:00am

We are certainly living in interesting times, dear reader. Shop assistants who in the past have been known for their almost relentless aloofness have transformed into mealy-mouthed, obsequious caterers to your every whim.

Once omnipotent real-estate agents are having their powers checked to such a degree that some are about to face a points deduction system similar to that imposed on reckless drivers.

Male brokers, who until recently were known for their aggressive trading tactics by day and their testosterone-charged party antics by night, have suddenly become positively mild-mannered.

And perhaps most shocking of all, taxi drivers have - somewhere over the past few months - learned the meaning of the word 'courtesy'.

What's happening here? All of the best-known stereotypes of Hong Kong business seem to have been summarily gathered together and chucked out the window.

Simple: it is part of the reality of living in a post-boom society.

The size of the spending cake has shrunk - and everyone suddenly realises they have to do something a bit different if they're going to grab even a few morsels.

And one of the more radical things they're trying to do? Be nice to people.

Six months ago, most Hong Kongers would have chortled in disbelief at such a scenario.

But now, it's all there for even the sceptics to see. Behaviour that was deemed appropriate when shopkeepers were fighting off shoppers, real-estate agents couldn't sell enough flats, the Hang Seng Index was entering the stratosphere and cabs were thin on the ground is no longer acceptable in Doldrum City.

Hence, the new and rather mind-boggling reality of Hong Kong: wall-to-wall civility.

Perhaps the most fascinating trend has been the emergence of the exceedingly courteous taxi driver.

Granted, this is not a universal development: some cabbies remain obnoxious.

But we suspect this driver type is rapidly being superseded by a new model of taxi shepherder.

Just the other night, your correspondent happened to flag down a driver who made no attempt to stop him getting in the car because his journey was too short - a frequent problem we have encountered in the past.

It gets better: the same driver then proceeded to turn down the music in his car and ask after Lai See's welfare, commenting on how he seemed to be looking tired.

You can well imagine our surprise on that one, but we have heard even more shocking tales.

One contact informs us he was given a business card by a taxi driver the other day. 'Whenever you need a cab, please give me a call,' he said politely.

The old adage that desperate times call for desperate measures never seemed so appropriate.

But cab drivers are only the most obvious embodiments of the new niceness sweeping Hong Kong.

Shop assistants at boutiques and other retailers appear to be almost fawning over any customer that drops in - and little wonder.

Some speciality shops, particularly those selling expensive brand labels, are so empty that it seems the poor shop assistants have endless stretches of nothing but thumb-twiddling between customers.

Perhaps some once-aloof assistants have put all that spare time to good use - practising courtesy in the shops' numerous mirrors.

Real-estate agencies are resorting to more stringent measures to encourage decent behaviour among staff.

One, Midland Realty, is introducing a system for its sales employees that will see them automatically sacked if they lose enough credit points for unethical behaviour. Others are believed to be planning similar moves.

It seems the incentive of winning business in a tough climate is not necessarily enough to make property agents courteous - but the threat of the sack may just be the thing to prompt an outbreak of niceness.

And what on earth has happened to the one-time wild expatriates of the international investment houses - once famous for their 'work hard, play harder' ethos? There was a time during boom times when parties, banquets and karaoke nights became nightly events for big earning and even bigger spending brokers.

This type of lifestyle didn't exactly make these investment bankers easy to be around at times, with frequent reports of rather obnoxious behaviour.

But word has it the same people have been transformed into positively polite characters in these lean recent months.

Suddenly, with things quiet at work, they have had the time to inquire into the well-being of colleagues.

There has been another impact: the broking types are carousing far less frequently in Wan Chai after work - and have even been spotted going home at night to watch TV with long-suffering spouses! Hard times, it seems, bring out the best in people.

The big test of Hong Kong's new 'niceness', then, may well come next time we have a boom.