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

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


Peter Kammerer is a long-time columnist and commentator for the SCMP. He has received recognition for his writing at the Hong Kong news Awards, the annual Human Rights Press Awards and from the Society of Publishing in Asia. Before moving to Hong Kong in 1988, he worked on newspapers in his native Australia.  

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


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If Hong Kongers didn’t have this pride in their identity and culture, they would simply fall under the bigger-than-thou ‘we are the motherland and your masters’ mentality of Beijing central which is not good for the future direction of China.
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I agree mostly with mercurius' response to this article. I would submit to the commentariat that a more apt analogy, at least in the American context, would be Hong Kong and a city like Miami. Miami, like HK, is on the "edge" of something bigger. Miami borders Latin America while Hong Kong borders The PRC. Miami is a linguistically mixed city with sometimes strained social consequences controlled by an educated "elite" that solidly speaks English. Miami and the state of Florida also has transgressive politics that often cut counter to the rest of the US. There really is no comparing New York and Hong Kong on any level despite the "Big Buildings". Now I do contend that Mexico DOES NOT have troops stationed on Miami Beach (at least to my knowledge) but I never said that the analogy was perfect!
Dear Peter,
I would say the HKers are not at all arrogant but aggressive.It seems they despise mainlanders mainly in the way of their incivilities and sometimes a lesser degree of ignorance and stupidity.HKers label them as insects are out of a feeling mingled with jealously and disrespect.Their high profile luxurious shopping in bulk ousts HKers' leisure strolling in these shops,the parallel trading activities in northern HK cause disturbances,and property prices hike are associated with mainland purchasers.
It's just a mixed sentiments.Fearing HK to be marginalised,Hkers turn aggressive,a genre inherited from mainland,where power struggles never stall.For how many decades the word"Yankee" be unheard in American soil?It's the way how history repeats.Well,the resentment towards mainlanders could also be viewed as the habits of country fellas and urban dwellers differ a lot and clash.
The white in HK is labelled as"kwei-lo",which is a mixed feeling expression of a little respect and fear; no big deal.The mainlanders are labelled as insects,which a mixed feeling of jealously and disrespect;no big deal too.
I would Suugest to take a look at Hk Shame first before being arrogant. Take a look at the coffin home housing 18 people in 200 sq ft space sharing one bathroom, u know what I meant. HK has terrible air and extremely "inconvenient" in shopping. What? Yes. Hardly find a 24 hrs open shop and hardly find a shop I can get everything, I meant everything form grocery to electronics to clothing to furniture, none. I meant In one single shop. You have that in Walmart open 24 hrs in US, including selling of iPad, just 5 minutes from my US home.
HK people use a lot of electronics such as smartphone n tablet but do u know our websites sucks? Low tech I meant. HK rental space are so expensive but we have little online shop because peopel claimed they like shopping. No, just being low tech. So why HK people are so arrogant? Oh food...HK claims it has great international food, yah even our chinese food quality is going downhill because of rent, our other foods such as French and Italian are no better than chinese food in London...is that good? Wake up.
To declare I worked in the technology and finance field in HK, USA, canada and China so I can assume i see more than most Hongkongers if you disagree with he. The writer would like to wake up more HK people to face the reality being stay foolish and hungry otherwise we are doomed.
Glad to hear a finance cream of the crop shares the plight of Hkers.Any suggestion to push everything uphill?
With the mentality of getting rich by property will be hard for HK to get innovated. Actually many are brain washed in HK already or being recruited as a property cult. See my response to Charles Mok on Silicon Harbour. Stop dreaming and wait to get doomed once RMB becomes fully convertible. I must declare I am an landlord but I didn't make most my fortunes in property in HK but I condemn the crazy property price.
If u really want to cut the property dependency u need to cut the government size by half as we are financed by lands. Can u do it?
.............. A tad arrogant in your scuttling Hong Kong and New York in a single swipe? Your drinking buddy's analogy of 'Midwesterner in New York like a Mainlander in Hong Kong' falls quite short. How convenient it isn't your analogy. Midwestern Mom's don't set their barebottomed kids on the sidewalk of 5th avenue to relieve themselves, and most Midwestern drivers don't relieve themselves standing in traffic with the driver's door protecting their modesty as is the case with Mainlanders in Hong Kong on any given day. I would venture to say, as an American, a New Yorker, and a permanent Hong Kong resident, that most Americans consider themselves Americans first, then regional in their geographic identity. As a poll published today in your newspaper shows, that is certainly not the case with Hong Kong and a sense of Chinese identity. Wouldn't it be great for you to tackle the issue a bit closer to home with analogies between Australians and Aboriginals? Yes, I'd like to hear more about it from you rather than by proxy. Yes, cultures clash, and good things come of that, but reducing problems to 'us vs them', 'London vs. the UK', 'Paris vs France' is part of the problem, in my opinion. People are more complex than strictly their national, regional, or urban sense of identity. I would like to see that kind of discussion in your paper. ..............
The key phrase in this piece is probably 'drinking friend'. Ok, so you met a friend, got a bit tipsy, but knew you had to submit something before the deadline. Hey Presto!! The 'Ohio' Theory. Anthropology at its best.


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