Maniacal consumers not exclusively HK

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 October, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 October, 1998, 12:00am

In light of the recent absurd manias that have swept Hong Kong, many have asked the question: is Hong Kong a psychotic city? There are legitimate grounds for the query.

Since the early 1980s, Hong Kong has lived through not one, not two, but three cake coupon panics.

Even more worryingly, two of those panics occurred this year and last.

There have also been runs on video rental chains and fun-parlour operators - again involving coupons.

We have had any number of ridiculously long queues for anything from stamps to souvenir MTR tickets, Tuen Mun flats and shares in red chips.

Oh, and we almost forgot. There was the small matter of the astounding McSnoopy and McWinnie-the-Pooh toy crushes at McDonald's - which had even Hong Kong's psychoanalysts gobsmacked.

Yes, there's any amount of evidence to suggest Hong Kong is a town uniquely prone to maniacal behaviour for seemingly trivial events - and rapidly becoming more so.

But the evidence of history suggests Hong Kong is no more off the rails than many other nations and cities over the years.

The fact is, elsewhere there have been equally incongruous manias involving such trivial items as Beanie Babies and tulips.

There appears to be one general pattern which unites many of the manias throughout history.

Normally, there is a limited supply of a certain commodity, which prompts people to barrel each other over in their rush to get hold of it.

This leads to the price of the commodity in question rising to unsustainable levels - because each new buyer thinks (often falsely) that a subsequent buyer will pay even more for the very same commodity.

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Charles Kindleberger, speculative mania often emerges 'as a larger and larger group of people seeks to become rich without a real understanding of the processes involved'.

Witness two recent Hong Kong phenomena: the huge round of flat buying before the property bubble burst last year, and the Snoopy fever of the past few weeks.

Very different manias on the surface, but both seemingly fuelled by one simple thought process: that someone down the track will be willing to shell out more for the commodity being purchased.

This principle threads all the way back to the 1600s - when the mother of all modern day panics took place in Holland over a humble flower.

It sounds absurd, but the great tulip panic of the 1600s actually also had some spooky parallels with our recent plastic beagle crisis.

Tulips in Holland in the first half of the 17th Century were considered so scarce, that people were willing to scratch, gouge and elbow rival queuers trying to get hold of them.

Sound familiar? The tulips had the added benefit of being a status symbol, and their prices - just like the price of second-hand Snoopies - therefore rose out of all proportion to economic reality.

One record of the time in Holland listed the hefty cost of a single tulip bulb as being any of the following: four loads of rye, four fat oxen, eight fat pigs, 12 sheep, two barrels of butter, 500 kilograms of cheese, two 'hogsheads' of wine, four barrels of special beer, or finally, a 'suit of clothes'.

The tulip bubble (or should we say, bulb) burst in 1637 as the country neared financial ruin.

As a result, thousands of Dutch entrepreneurs went from riches to rags in the space of a few days.

Could some local McSnoopy punters and collectors be on the verge of meeting the same fate? Time will tell.

Still, it's comforting to leaf through the history books of the past 350 years or so, and see that they are, in fact, littered with madness that would make Hong Kongers feel at home.

The silliness of the South Sea Bubble in the 1700s.

The craziness of the California gold rushes during the 1800s.

And the barminess of the Beanie Baby craze of the late 1900s - a bubble currently showing no signs of bursting.

In the latter case, there have been recent stories out of America - again sounding vaguely Snoopyesque - of people making their fortunes on collectible stuffed toys.

One aficionado from Michigan reportedly turned purchases of US$10,000 worth of the Beanies a couple of years ago into a $125,000 collection of the critters today.

Rare breeds of the Beanies - like Humphrey the Camel - are said to be going for as much as $10,000.

With these sorts of ludicrous prices being paid for stuffed toys, it kind of puts our own Snoopy shenanigans into perspective, don't you think? The good news, then, is that Hong Kong is no more psychotic than any other civilisation on earth.

The bad news is that this doesn't say an awful lot for the mental condition of the human race.