Former go-getters troop into the gallery

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 June, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 June, 1998, 12:00am

Is it just Lai See's vivid imagination working overtime, or has there been a profound sea change in the mentality of Hong Kong society? Ever since that dirty 'D' word - depression - started to be bandied about around town, something seems to have changed.

Sure, markets soared this week after Uncle Sam did his by now familiar 'let's save Asia from itself' routine - but outside of Exchange Square, the reaction of the average local was strangely cynical.

In fact, it all only served to highlight how fundamentally Hong Kong - or should we say, Hong Kongers - have changed over the last year.

Remember when we used to be known as the ultimate economy to get things done? At any hour of the day or night, you could have just about anything you wanted, in any part of Hong Kong, at any time.

And you could always rely on Hong Kongers to do whatever they were doing at breakneck speed.

Whether it was piling on to an MTR train, shopping to within an inch of our lives or racing to get in a bet at the Jockey Club, Hong Kongers certainly knew how to speed with style.

But something has changed.

The spring has gone out of the Hong Konger's step. We've lost our spirit.

To put it bluntly, we have become a city of spectators.

The once burning need to get the MTR seat closest to the doors has disappeared. Suddenly, a funereal stroll is enough to earn you the most coveted MTR seating position.

The lethargy had, as we all know, extended to Exchange Square before Thursday, although market bulls enjoyed a rare moment in the sun late in the week following the news the Americans were sparing a few shekels to boost the yen.

Market turnover has shrunk from an astonishing $46 billion on one day last year to an average of around $6 to $7 billion a day in recent weeks.

Heavens, some upmarket brokers have resorted to watching sunsets, rather than screens, because of the general lack of market action. They've even bought a coffee-table book on great world sunsets to help them understand the action.

But perhaps the most astonishing statistic comes from horse racing.

Many of us imagined there was nothing to stop the most gambling-mad race of people on earth from betting more and more ridiculous sums of money on the nags.

We thought wrong. Hard as it is to believe, some punters sat on the sidelines and merely watched the horses go round in recent months.

For the first time ever, betting turnover for the year fell.

Think about it. Hong Kongers have been betting even less than they did last year.

If you'd told anyone that a year ago you'd have been laughed out of town.

It would have seemed as far-fetched as tipping that British soccer hooligans were about to turn to soda.

By contrast, even boring Singapore saw a significant increase in betting turnover this year.

If you have any doubts about the transition of Hong Kongers from doers to spectators, the ubiquitous presence of the World Cup on our screens should erase them.

A person can't go down to the pub for a quiet beer without being exposed to the soccer mania.

Even MTR stations are not safe from this insidious species invading our lives.

People who once used the stations for their logical purpose - catching trains - can now be spotted whiling away countless hours watching soccer highlights on screens provided.

It's as if people have channelled all of the energies they once put into stock picking into finding a surer thing on the soccer field.

And therein lies the key to our current malaise.

If we spend our time watching rather than doing, aren't we doing the very antithesis of what made Hong Kong prosperous in the first place? Whatever the case, all is not lost. Who else but the Americans have come to the rescue and done what no-one else could: injected a bit of sorely missed oomph back into the local scene.

A Winnie the Pooh promotion by McDonald's in recent days has got people going in a way no ordinary market event can.

People have been virtually climbing over one another to stake their claim on small toy Poohs, Tiggers and Eeyores.

What is it about Hong Kong? Seemingly trivial and inconsequential items worth a paltry amount, like cakes and toys, have a hold over us totally disproportionate to their apparent significance.

They cause panics that would do some of those around the 1929 stock market crash proud.

Perhaps what Hong Kong really needs is a trivia-led recovery - with capital injections in the form of cakes, videos and fluffy toys.

Just think: If we can get people to react to economic turmoil in the same way they respond to a Winnie the Pooh toy offer, we'll be back in business.