Buying the hype

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 November, 2010, 12:00am

Could someone please certify us as 'property obsessed'? There would be nothing wrong with that, because everybody else in the world seems to be as obsessed as we are. In fact, the story - of virtually-no-interest loans, moving into a dream home and the fact that everyone else seems to be buying - is an old one, possibly among the longest-running acts on the global stage.

This is the stuff that popped the American property bubble. By the time we reach Act 2 - 'Repossessions and Foreclosures' - we find people forced out of their homes and into bankruptcy, working people losing their jobs, governments printing money and resorting to 'blame it all on the Chinese'. The narrative is compelling, but here we are, still talking about buying. Never mind that globalisation, financial markets and easy lending help to push up prices. Never mind the horrors of past property busts. Everyone wants a piece of that home-ownership action.

The government is beginning to sound like a broken record. Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah repeatedly cites the risks of buying yet inadvertently fuels the price rise with interest rates so low that the only way to go is up. We will hear none of it. Negative equity? What's that? Actually, don't ask: we don't want to know. It can sound silly when people talk about climbing the social ladder, because there no longer seems to be a ladder. There's only one step: home ownership.

No one seems to know when our social status system became so simple, but I suspect it happened during our hyper-property days of the 1990s. Those who were around with enough money to buy before the property boom are the ultimate social climbers - the winners who made millions from the shoe-box geese that laid the golden eggs. They are the heroes we all should aspire to be.

Those who joined the bandwagon later may take comfort - while they slave away for the rest of their lives paying for their purchase - from their sense of smugness. That's because they are still above the lowly renters. Because if you rent, you suck!

This tale has consumed us like the plague, swallowing our headlines, identity, social consciousness and culture; and it is taking us, and all our money, right into the hands of property developers.

For all the talk about the apparent 'evilness' of our property tycoons, we are still buying into it - and happily. Look at politicians' remarks and media stories: nothing seems unrelated to property. Even the private lives of property developers - most recently, the story of one becoming the grandfather of three surrogate grandsons - are front-page material.

Nothing else matters. Owning property is even a prerequisite for marriage, or so we have been told by a love-stricken young man whose girlfriend allegedly laid down the law of 'no flat, no love'.

This is serious stuff; the future of our social fabric is at stake. A future with no marriages and possibly no babies? The government must come up with an ingenious plan to sell us affordable flats that will only appreciate in value - without driving property already purchased into negative equity. Otherwise, the Tsang administration will go down in history as the one responsible for Hongkongers' self-extinction.

Or is this just the biggest PR stunt of all time? I say this equation - linking dream homes with dreamy marriages and living happily ever after - blows away the PR textbook case of selling cigarettes to women as 'torches of freedom' to save the tobacco industry. Every bit of attention we pay to this tall tale, with its melodrama and exaggerated emotions, helps fuel the property market. Yet friends who are looking to buy tell me homes are being snatched up faster than designer handbags.

I'm still waiting for Act 3 - when we all wake up to the fact that we are not defined by home ownership. And further, that this obsession (which includes calling property developers names) not only makes suckers out of us, but makes the 'evil empire' that much richer.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA