We're China's New York - big of mouth but small of heart

Peter Kammerer believes that Hong Kong is right to regard itself as 'China's New York', but that's certainly no compliment

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2012, 2:15am

New York City's unofficial anthem, Frank Sinatra's version of the song New York, New York, has always reminded me of Hong Kong. The part about waking up in a city that never sleeps rings true when it's 3am and I'm suffering from insomnia, but that's not what most hooks me. When Ol' Blue Eyes croons, "If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere," he gets to the nub of the matter. In those words are the essence of a similarity that goes beyond tall buildings, finance and 24-hour bars and restaurants: arrogance, conceit and condescension.

An American in a pub the other day gave strength to my theory. In town from his job in Beijing, he opined that the only other people with a superiority complex as big as those from New York were from Hong Kong. He prefaced his remarks by saying that he was from the US Midwest, which generally saw New Yorkers as being "full of themselves". To him, New York citizens not only viewed those from the US heartland as being slow and backward, but also considered themselves a cut above other Americans.

It was also how he perceived Hongkongers when on the mainland. When visiting his Beijing office, their immaculate suits immediately set them apart. However, it was not their manner of dress that irked him, but an insistence on speaking English and using a Chinese translator to communicate rather than attempting Putonghua. On the streets of Hong Kong, he had noticed the disdain more obviously - mainland visitors on the MTR were scowled at, spoken rudely to and whenever possible, avoided. It was exactly how he had felt he was being treated when in Manhattan from his home state of Ohio.

All those YouTube videos of mainland "locusts" tell much about how some Hong Kong people see themselves within China. There is a large dollop of superiority, but also self-assuredness, pride and boastfulness. Hongkongers like to think of themselves as being different and have no difficulty pointing to what makes their city better. Top of the list are a lack of corruption, an independent judicial system and most of all, the ability to buy and read anything, whether it is from a bookstore or over the internet.

But let's take that sense of being better beyond China's weaknesses to the rest of Asia. Hong Kong people put themselves above all others in the region except perhaps Japanese, and even then it is only on matters of innovation, politeness and cleanliness that one-upmanship is conceded. No matter what the surveys on financial freedom say about Singapore, the state of democracy in Taiwan or how more advanced medical tourism in Thailand and South Korea may be, Hong Kong always contends it has the overall edge. Some may call it confidence, others snobbishness, but I think of it as arrogance.

Every nation has a city that thinks the same: In Britain, it's London; in France, Paris; in Australia, Sydney. It is not, as Lu Ping, the former director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, stated, a sign of a secessionist movement under way. Instead, it is an indication of a better-than-thou mentality. As my American drinking friend suggested, that won't change until the rest of the country and Asia catch up in every conceivable way.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post