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A friend has come back to Hong Kong after a five-year absence with a view to again live in China, either here or in Beijing. Having just returned from a few months on the mainland, he is well versed in what to expect there. A wander around his old haunts in our city have left him somewhat shaken, though. Rent and food cost rises have been so hefty that he is wavering as to whether to stay or go.
The eye-opening moment came as we sought out his old restaurant favourites in Tin Hau. Several had disappeared, replaced by up-scale eateries. Those still in business had dramatically hiked prices, mostly by 100 per cent. Not prepared to pay what he considered over the odds, especially as a doubling of his previous salary was unlikely, we sought out something to better meet his budgetary needs.
We didn't exactly find it. I told him as we walked from restaurant to restaurant that, although inflation has been running at only 3 to 5 per cent annually for the past half a decade, surging property prices have drastically skewed the cost of living. Trying to keep costs in check involves not favourite places, but constantly searching for what is reasonable. "It is more or less out there - you just have to look for it," I lectured him from our uncomfortable perch on plastic stools in the tiny restaurant we had stumbled upon in a back alley off the North Point wet market.
Our eating and entertainment trips have since been ever more unorthodox. Unmarked restaurants in residential blocks, bars on suburban back streets and surprise finds up narrow stairwells have featured. Invariably, they are small and at meal times jam-packed. But my friend doesn't appreciate the effort required; liveability should improve with time, not get worse, he gravely intoned as we sardined ourselves into yet another hole-in-the-wall food place.
My friend is right, of course, but it is not something I have given much thought to as I try to keep personal finances under control. Prices are obviously rising, although where they stand in relation to last year, the one before or even 2008, is rarely considered. Only when rent contract time comes around, if a pay rise is announced or there are sweeteners in the government's budget do I consider how I am faring financially. Life for the vast majority in Hong Kong has become more about trying to stay in the financial black than having a pleasant lifestyle.
Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah didn't have such matters in mind when delivering his budget last week. Some handouts went to the poor, others were unimaginatively devoted to the usual tried-and-tested subsidies and the biggest proportion was, as usual, socked away for a rainy day. I, along with most citizens, was largely ignored. Those like my friend, who may want to come here to share their expertise and talents, were not even considered.
My friend believes better salaries and standard of living can be had on the mainland. He senses a buzz of excitement in the air there, while here there is one of directionless treading water. He is no economist or sociologist and his observation is based on finding a good place to eat. That has to be food for thought for Tsang and others in our government, though; Hong Kong is going to slip far behind unless it puts first the people who have the most to contribute.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post