An anniversary wish for a kinder, friendlier Hong Kong

Peter Kammerer marks a 25-year milestone in Hong Kong with the hope that the city can rediscover its kind and friendly side

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 4:09am

Anniversaries are, to me, a poor excuse for a news story unless there is something new to report. Yet I have always been driven by milestones, which gauge progress. Yesterday was one such occasion, being the 25th year of my having arrived in Hong Kong. It was half a lifetime ago - and there have been big changes for me and for my feelings towards this place I call home.

I earn considerably more than the HK$16,000 a month I started with and my rent has quadrupled from the HK$4,000 that was my share for a three-bedroom flat in Tai Hang Road. In those two and a half decades, I got married and divorced, single-handedly raised two sons and weathered the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, economic crashes and typhoons. But my personal changes are nothing compared to those Hong Kong has undergone. It has been a roller-coaster of a ride that unfortunately now feels full of more downs than ups.

Some of the blame falls on Beijing, and a measure on bumbling lawmakers and political leaders. But Hong Kong people are also at fault. Their attitudes have changed; where once they were on the whole friendly and helpful, welcoming to outsiders and neighbours alike, they are now mistrustful and withdrawn. The smile that was once on a shop assistant's or taxi driver's face is now a scowl.

Quantifying happiness was once done by measuring income. But schools of thought have changed and contentedness is no longer wholly equated with financial well-being. While surveys reflecting this thinking did not exist when I came to Hong Kong, they do now - and they show that globally, we are not that happy.

To wit: the New Economic Foundation's Happy Planet Index, which ranks according to human well-being and environmental impact, places our city 102nd out of 151 with Costa Rica at the top and Botswana at the bottom. A 40-destination survey of contributors to the travel website Trip Advisor put Hong Kong people as the third-least friendly, behind residents of Moscow and London. I can understand that; where once a seat and drink were offered when buying items of moderate value, there is now a rush to clinch a transaction.

Technology has changed our city - ATMs have replaced bank tellers, people are glued to their portable online devices in public and we have become impatient for instant results. Tourism has altered the face of districts. But there is also uncertainty about freedoms and rights, and sharp social, economic and political divisions. High property prices and rents mean that, while we are earning more, spending power is less.

It seems bad, yet I am hopeful. Just as Shanghai is unrecognisable from two decades ago and Barcelona was transformed by hosting the Olympic Games, so too Hong Kong can change. Our government can help by engendering trust and basing policies on development measured in terms of well-being rather than simply in growth in gross domestic product. We are charitable, but also have to be civic-minded. A good place to start is by being friendlier to visitors.

It is therefore with a smile that I begin my second 25 years in Hong Kong.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post