Playing the waiting game

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 July, 2005, 12:00am

Young fans waited for hours for a glimpse of the Manchester United stars; teenagers camped overnight to be the first to get into this year's book fest in Wan Chai; by Sunday, a whopping 4 million people are expected to have visited the month-long dinosaur exhibit at Taikoo Shing.

At its peak, families young and old sweated under the sizzling sun in queues that snaked around blocks for a chance to see the fossils of the prehistoric creatures from Sichuan and Hunan provinces.

The ability and patience of Hong Kong people to endure long waits at mostly frivolous events is truly phenomenal. Russians under the old Soviet rule queued because they had to. Hongkongers queue because we want to.

Granted, dinosaurs have universal appeal: children everywhere love them. Mainland palaeontologists and technicians spent days unpacking and erecting the fossil pieces late last month, all in the public eye.

One might think it would have been more educational and fun to watch the fossil pieces being put together, but no, the suits walked past them to their offices with barely a glance. Grannies took their grandchildren to McDonald's without stopping.

It was invariably the children who stopped and alerted the adults to check out the giant fossils.

But as soon as security guards fenced off the dinosaur exhibit and made people wait, the crowds materialised. I saw all this because my office is nearby.

Similar crowd phenomena extend to other realms as well. For months, the Hong Kong stock market was dull, going nowhere, before it suddenly shot up last month. When stock prices were relatively cheap, people did not want to commit their capital. Now that prices are higher and the risks have correspondingly increased, mums and dads and everyone else want a piece of the action.

In the property market, when everyone is buying at a new luxury block, everyone else wants to buy a new flat, too.

What drives a person to join a crowd is often curiosity, or fear of being left behind. Perhaps a more interesting question is why they stay with the crowd, and do not jump queues when the benefits would be obvious and the penalty no worse than temporary embarrassment. In Hong Kong, while there are queues everywhere, there are rarely disturbances and never riots.

Perhaps local police are simply too well trained at group control, but when a crowd is bent on destruction, nothing can restrain it except equal or greater force. The credit probably goes to our upbringing, when we inculcated so much civil obedience: it even shows at gatherings that assert civil disobedience.

The world was awed when half a million people marched in a slow procession from Causeway Bay to Central on July 1, 2003, against Article 23 - all the more so because nothing violent happened. Try doing that in South Korea or any major American city - peaceful assembly is by no means guaranteed.

Oscar Wilde said a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Echoing a similar sentiment, investment guru Benjamin Graham said it is easy to look up the price of every stock but next to impossible to determine its intrinsic worth. What applies to the cynic goes also for the crowd-follower and retail investor.

People are seekers of meaning and value, but when these are difficult to determine or find, a common strategy - consciously or not - is to do what everyone else is doing. If so many people are involved, it must be worth joining.

Is it worth queueing for hours to look at a few dinosaur models? I don't know - it depends on how many people are in the queue!

Alex Lo is a columnist and senior reporter at the Post