The View

Culturally mixed approach gives Hong Kong companies ‘unique advantages’ as Year of Monkey dawns

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 February, 2016, 11:22am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 February, 2016, 11:22am

As this is the first day back at work after the Chinese New Year it seems timely to consider some salient differences between it and the new year that began on January 1st and is loosely call the Western New Year, although it should more properly be called the Christian New Year.

What these new years and those of other cultures tend to have in common is they are a time for planning and taking stock. This is something businesses are supposed to do all the time but good intentions often get lost in the morass of everyday concerns.

Chinese New Year offers a strange combination of fatalism and rather exuberant celebration. The fatalism can be seen in the heavy emphasis on both asking the gods for good fortune for the coming year and studying almanacs that provide predictions of how the year is likely to pan out according to a host of characteristics derived from the lunar cycle and how this relates to individual circumstances.

The Western New Year tradition appears to be more proactive as it emphasises making resolutions that propel individuals to do more of some things and less of others, such as eating or drinking too much. As we are now into the second month of the Western New Year we can judge the value of this proactivity. The uncomfortable truth is that by now most of these resolutions will have already been abandoned.

But is it really the case that the Chinese tradition is so fatalistic that people need to simply wait for their pre-ordained destiny to unravel? Obviously this is not so because not only will fung shui masters be on hand to advise on strategies to mitigate or even improve on the elements that are dictated by the new year cycle but most people are pragmatic enough to take what is predicted as just part of their considerations for what to do in the coming year.

The famous pragmatism that characterises Hong Kong is nowhere on better display than at this time of year. When I first came here, three decades ago, there was much more of a new year festival shutdown; very few businesses were open, including restaurants and grocery shops. However things have changed and many retailers and catering establishments were quick to spot this and have seized upon on profit making opportunities during this period.

This is a pragmatic response to the way that society has evolved not least because overburdened families are increasingly happy to pay someone else to do the cooking and cleaning up that they once did when there was less money around.

But the impression of an overbearing influence of so called oriental fatalism lingers. And is reinforced because it’s hard to find people who entirely disregard fung shui, yet, and this is important, it is equally hard to find people who allow this tradition to entirely dominate their lives.

The Hong Kong business world exemplifies this flexibility and incorporation of Western and Chinese practices. On the one hand premises are festooned with auspicious new year decorations and there is adherence to the basic rules about what should and should not be done during this season, on the other hand there is considerable emphasis on the pragmatic matter of folding notes aka the Chinese New Year bonus payment.

Not least because CNY is Hong Kong’s longest public holiday period, it provides both a deadline to get things done ahead of the break and an opportunity to consider plans for what happens afterwards. This planning is not heavily dependent on a lot almanac study but follows widespread commercial practices of formulating business plans according to market conditions.

Thus this year, when a slowdown in expected in Mainland economic growth and the trickledown to Hong Kong is unavoidable, companies will be busy looking at all the things that need to be considered in these circumstances ranging from adjustment to product lines to consideration of where retrenchment might be appropriate.

This culturally mixed approach to business offers Hong Kong companies some unique advantages. For example, the practice of giving lai see creates a special bond between employer and employees while the no nonsense adherence to advanced business practices with a willingness to embrace ideas from overseas makes Hong Kong companies an unusual mixture of old and new style.

Layered on top of this is a system under the rule of law that owes little to Chinese tradition but is the key to the preservation of Hong Kong’s status as an international commercial centre.

But what will happen in the coming year as the monkey swings from branch to branch? Will Hong Kong continue to flourish on the back of its peculiar mixed commercial heritage or will the Chief Executive’s pleas for a more Chinese emphasis prevail?