Hongkongers in line for queuing gold

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 12:00am

Hong Kong may not have won an impressive haul of Olympic medals. But there is one pursuit - alas, not featured at the Athens Games - in which we excel.

It is a form of exercise requiring dedication, determination, stamina and skill. Age is no barrier. And there are usually rewards on offer. Yes, we are talking here of our capacity for queuing - our love of standing in line.

One annual event was staged yesterday when thousands of elderly people gathered to receive free rice as part of celebrations marking the Yue Lan festival. Some of them began queuing at midnight and endured many hours in the heat and the rain.

In this case, the participants were at least waiting for something worthwhile. And it is easy to understand their motivation - they were driven by need. It is a shame they have to go to so much effort.

The same considerations do not, however, apply to some of our city's other notable queuing activities.

Take the case of the mahjong sets, for example. Last week, about 5,000 people lined up in the hope of exchanging 12 beer bottle caps and $108 for one of the sets in question. It is difficult to understand why.

The sets, offered as part of a beer brand promotion, were imitation crystal and had little monetary value. Indeed, it seems they are on sale for less in Shenzhen. This, however, did not deter people from joining the crush. Three participants were taken to hospital with injuries, and several tearful children - a regular feature of Hong Kong queues - became separated from their parents. Surely, the whole affair could have been better managed.

Then there was the craze that accompanied the offer involving McDonald's Snoopy toys in 1998. This was so enthusiastically received in Hong Kong, it made headlines around the world. Tens of thousands queued up every day for almost a month in the hope of buying enough burgers to acquire the entire collection.

There were fights over queue-jumping, and arrests. Some of the more eager participants joined the line 12 hours before the fast-food stores opened. And a black market developed in which the little beagles were sold for many times their retail price. It was rightly described at the time as 'an amazing phenomenon'.

Some academics have suggested that Chinese people are particularly well-suited to standing in line, accepting the wait as their fate. The orderly, patient manner in which we normally queue might also be attributed to our colonial past. The British, too, are renowned for their ability to queue - attempting to cheat is viewed with great disapproval.

But whether it is shares in newly listed companies or plastic toys, our willingness to endure all manner of hardships in order to gain some perceived advantage is surely unsurpassed. Perhaps it is just another feature of the famous Hong Kong entrepreneurial spirit.