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  • Aug 23, 2014
  • Updated: 8:17am
PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 December, 2013, 10:35am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 2:15am

Why Hong Kong living makes us lazy and uncaring

Peter Kammerer says with most mundane tasks done for us in Hong Kong, we have become lazy and indifferent to our surroundings


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.  

Travel not only broadens horizons - it can also open our eyes to a few home truths. A recent holiday in small-town Australia made it plain just how lazy Hong Kong living has made me. I was born in Australia so my encounters and experiences were not wholly unexpected. This time, though, I paid closer attention due to my growing interest in having a more responsible lifestyle.

Getting older does that. Middle age and a sedentary job are not a healthy combination, so I'm trying to exercise regularly and eat better. That has also increased my awareness of what's around me. In Hong Kong's case, it's the environment: the pollution, wastefulness and poor resource management.

For several weeks, I was in a place where maids are only for the extremely rich, the minimum wage is four times higher and public transport is infrequent. Not having a domestic helper in Hong Kong, household chores weren't a problem. Harder to get to grips with was sorting rubbish for recycling and remembering when to put which bin out for collection, cleaning up after meals in fast-food restaurants and adhering to a host of unspoken rules about social correctness. Not having a car, there were a lot of long walks when once-an-hour buses were missed or taxis were unavailable.

None of these activities, beyond walking in the summer heat, is especially strenuous. Yet, in Hong Kong, many of us have helpers to do the household chores, and there are attendants to clean up after us in restaurants. This creates jobs, but it also means we don't think much about our surroundings. Putting wrappers in bins and returning plates and trays to the counter isn't difficult and it's a first and important step towards creating a responsible community.

I encountered a novel approach to buffet dining at a Chinese restaurant in Australia. For a set price, a person could select any number of items from the menu on the understanding that a dish had to be finished before another was ordered. Any uneaten food would incur a 20 per cent surcharge. It was an innovative and sensible twist.

Some restaurants in Hong Kong have variants, with uneaten food being weighed and charged for accordingly. Australian supermarkets have yet to introduce a levy like ours on plastic bags; they have no problem handing out as many as you ask for, and more. Nor can the nation be hailed for environmental perfection, with new Prime Minister Tony Abbott following up on an election pledge to scrap a carbon tax, and some 80 per cent of electricity being produced by coal, which is also a major export and government revenue-earner. There is at least a grass-roots understanding, though, that nature is fragile and has to be cared for and protected.

Life also becomes less stressful when buses and trains come along now and then, rather than every five minutes or so. There is less impatience and greater tolerance. Fewer vehicles mean lower roadside pollution levels. And the thunder of diesel engines doesn't drown out all else on the streets.

Hong Kong has a multitude of advantages; it is why it has been my home for half my life. But it could be an even better place if we were less lazy and more considerate. The simplest and best place to start is by cleaning up after ourselves when next we eat at a shopping mall food court.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post


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Can't agree more! Thanks Peter for raising our awareness on this topic!
Well written, Peter. I have written many times that importing domestic helpers who work on an entirely different compensation system and for such long hours is blatant exploitation and slavery. The fact that this arrangement is acceptable sends a message to everyone in Hong Kong that exploitation and inequality are perfectly acceptable, just wake your chance to partake in it. Such a mindset very naturally lends to not caring for others. If exploitation and inequality are acceptable, where is the incentive to care for others?

I must mention that there are those who argue the live-in domestic helper system is a voluntary, win-win situation, that no one is being forced to come to Hong Kong. Sure, but the reason that it is exploitation lies in the fact that different wages and employment standards are being imposed for substantially the same work. Based on a minimum wage of HKD 30/hour, domestic workers should be paid HKD 12480/month (16h/day x 26 days x HKD 30/h).

Additionally, having someone else do your chores almost necessarily leads to a bloated sense of entitlement. The higher the sense of entitlement, the lower the tolerance and consideration. Correspondingly, people in positions of power, such as employers, are typically uncompromising, authoritarian, and care little for those within their power, such as employees. It’s a vicious system that can only be rectified through fundamental reforms in the education system and legislation, in particular labor legislation.
Interesting article, having lived in both Australia and Hong Kong for over 7 years now, what is becoming alarming evident is that Hong Kong locals tends to have a feeling that success and wealth should often be handed to them on a platter.
You point out an interesting thing about waiting for buses, and although I had the fortune of not having to take public transport, it does feel that Australians tends to be much more relaxed, mainly because of the irregular timetable, they are trained to leave a margin of error for things; compared to Hong Kong locals who show real anger when the MTR doesn't "wait" for them, if you're really that late, wake up earlier.
Both young and old, locals are influenced to be jealous if others we know have more without looking at the fact that a fair few actually put in incredibly hard work to get to where they are. On the opposite side of the coin, locals often don't look down and see that there are sooo many people they can help as well; which in Australia, volunteering is much more widespread; and honestly, having done a lot of volunteering in HK, most of the participants are from Australia, very rarely do you see a young HK local; as they are too pre-occupied with what bag to buy or which friend went to what restaurant.
If anything, you often hear "What do you do?" when you meet someone here, because that's what you'd be judged on, not your personality, not your experiences, but how much money you make; but "why do you care?" I think.
No HK person expects 'success and wealth to be handed to them on a platter.' Many work incredibly long hours including commuting to other places. That is why they are unable to do volunteering work, unlike you expats who come with housing and higher salaries. Otherwise, why are you even here?
An irregular bus timetable leads to your relaxed lifestyle? Obviously you don't work as hard as us, when there are meetings to be attended, a plane to catch, kids to pick up.
In Australia, one gets asked 'what do you do' too, particularly after retirement, as if you are then not eligible to live. And no one in HK asks another about their financial situation. We just don't do it. Write again when you have resided in HK longer, and maybe you might understand us better.
Mercedes2233, please do relax a little and listen a little.
Firstly, about your post for highly qualified people looking for work in Australia, yes it is unfortunate that people who use to be highly qualified (on paper) sometimes gets missed during the scanning process, and sometimes that is bad luck and sometimes the reason is that in Australia, employers look for personality fit than qualification, and honestly, having hired newly immigrated HK applicants before, a fair few of them just do not adjust well, since that Aussies like to joke, prank, share their family backgrounds, and a lot of the new immigrants just aren't use to that; which is why a lot of them resign, and that is also a great cost to the company. I know of many "uncles" and "aunties" who use to be principals and magistrates who went back to uni when arriving in Oz to learn a new trade (working in IT now) and they love it; sometimes is a matter of letting go of your past and embrace the reality, the fact that the people who came back because they can't find something that fits them exactly shows that they aren't open-minded enough to change and adapt, it's not just Australia's problem; you are in a country where you haven't proven yourself, which means you have to start low or even anew.
Sorry for the long post.
The next point about not working hard enough just because I don't stress about every minute, the reason for that is we learn to leave a bigger margin of error just because we know that everything doesn't always go our way. (buses for example); so we wake up earlier/head to work earlier. And in terms of the personal attack of not working hard enough, honestly, I was working full-time and studying full-time since I was 17, reason being that family required it and secondly because of experience. After graduation, I was lucky enough to get a job in finance, which required me to be at work from 7am till about 7pm, and even after work, I had to be logged on at home and check about every hr during sleep. Still manage to get up at 5:30am to go for an hr run before work, and do volunteer work. It's a matter of how much you're willing to squeeze out of your life instead of just sitting there feeling sorry for yourself, if you always worry about what you need to do, you end up wasting time on procrastinating.
There is no attitude to Aussies feeling not being allowed to live after retirement, if anything, because of the superannuation schemes, most Aussies are pretty well looked after themselves.
Finally, am not an expat, came back here for parents, had to take a slightly lower rank role because haven't worked here before, but to me that's ok because I'm still young.
In the words of most Aussies, relax and take a chill pill. :)
wow.... mercedes (interesting name by the way), calm down!
I do agree that for the vast majority of HK people they don't expect anything on a platter and in fact they know the harsh realites only too well. The small percentage of the population who do expect opportunities to be presented on a platter are an absolute minority and it is no different from any other place in its occurrence..
For me, the difference between Australia and Hong Kong can be boiled down to two things. The value of time and equality. In Australia, people can work less hours than persons in Hong Kong, but they also tend to achieve a lot more in that time. People in Hong Kong spend a lot of time at work, but they don't necessarily achieve a lot in terms of productivity. I think this due to the fact that they know they are not positively motivated and more negatively managed (big stick approach). People tend to clock their hours, save money and survive.
In Australia however, people tend to be slightly more positively motivated, especially in regards to being recognised for endeavour and having a genuine opportunity to succeed, regardless of their background or schooling. This makes them more likely to work efficiently and productively.
I agree about the "what do you do", local people never ask this, it's usually the expats and the wealthy local persons. I think you will find in Kowloon especially, its very rare for people to judge you on your occupation or country of origin (if you are white ...).
The selfish and uncaring mentality has always been part of the "culture".
Speak for yourself.
I love Australia! I've been living here for more than 15 years in a small town (a very small town indeed) after a good part of my life in Hong Kong where it is my home 'city'! Of course there are many so called 'inconveniences' living in small towns but they are exactly the things that make life so much simpler! If people think that 'clean air, a more humane work attitude, less materialism, a relaxing, caring and greener lifestyle, people with great humor and fun, pristine beaches, awe-inspiring nature and beauty ...are 'third world'...then so be it! I really wish these people would forever think that Australia is third- world so they won't come here to stay! As for racism... Hong Kong leads the world way ahead in this regard!
how can u compare a small town with a big city like hk.
in addition, australia in many respects is a third world country....people are cash-poor, insular (they dont travel), generally obese and/or drunk most of the time, and very lazy at work, bec of the welfare state. Also, hk is much less racist than Oz. Why do u think many hongkies get their Oz passport in 97, and then return to HK immediately. Comments like no jobs, racist environment, boring, are common.
There are all these external fake behavioral traits that aussies like to tout, like they are friendly, clear their trays, animal loving etc, but in private, the story is really quite different.
omg... can you possibly fit any more generalisations in ???
Take note above re laziness and welfare state. Productivity and positive motivation ....
The reason people are cash poor (btw if they are so cash poor, how can they be obese and drunk all the time?) is because they contribute a lot more money to the government in order to provide ... welfare... which of course goes to caring for those less fortunate such as the disabled, poor and elderly persons in society.
Ask the elderly aunties in HK about their "fruit money" and then get back to me on the welfare issue....
Australia may be boring to those who are unwilling to open their minds and simply.... experience.
There may be less material or technological attractions but the natural beauty more than compensates. It is what you make of it.
As an Australian, I agree the culture is somewhat imperfect, but no culture is perfect really, that is the human condition.
I would simply ask that we all retain an open mind and take each experience, person and culture on it's merits. You may be surprised :)
Wow, talk about being a toad in a well.
In all honesty, if you truly believe that Australia is a third world country, then you really do not understand the definition of third world. Third world is in particular defined by large wealth gap and large portion of the population in poverty, which is more evident in HK compared to Australia, so you do the maths on which one is closer to third world on that point.
In terms of work, having worked in Australia for 7 years, I can assure you that they are in no way lazy, in fact, global research shows that Australia actually puts in one of the highest number of hours of work per week; the reason they may seem more relaxed is that they understand that work isn't the only thing in life and actually go explore quite a bit. (Also points out that they do travel a LOT.)
Aussies are also in no way racist, compared to HK locals, they are probably much more open minded than us here, the reason why a lot of HK immigrants return is because they are racist themselves and are unable to adapt to the environment, most are unable to get a job because they weren't willing to learn English or try something new, you can't expect to be given the world on a silver platter when you immigrate; but that's how most HK immigrants view it; my mother for one went from owning factories in HK to owning sandwich takeaway shops when we were there (you just have to be open minded).
Racism, HK locals hate mainlanders, and that is our own race, who's the real racist
Ignoring the treatment of the Australian indigenous people for the time being, do you know how many highly qualified, English-speaking HK migrants are unable to find work, including an engineer who was party to building the HK airport, senior bureaucrats in the HK Govt, MBA holders etc? There was a news article about Australian PR staff who threw away job applications from all candidates with Vietnamese and Chinese surnames etc. That is why HK migrants return. Now ask about how Aussies treat the aboriginals. They can be taken into a police cell and die in a couple of hours. And the Aussie policemen responsible for his death were found by the white Australian judge to be not guilty. True? Not racist?
And don't you think HK people would like to have more work/life balance? Many just can't because their workloads are so high. They cannot go and have drinks on a Friday evening, or spend hours chatting about football. That is what Aussies do by the office water cooler or coffee machine, and clock up those long working hours.
I think what you are talking about Mercedes comes down to a difference in education objectives. In Australia (and undoubtedly in other western countries) there is a need to find well rounded, creative, critical thinking employees with initiative and people skills.
I don't doubt there is some unfairness in some situations but generally speaking I would expect fairness. There is anti-discrimination legislation which is very effective in Australia, so it can never be widespread for prejudicial actions to be the norm (I would sincerely hope anyway).
The simple fact of the matter is, in HK and other Asian nations, the education systems are geared towards producing people who follow directions perfectly and understand all the theory. This has probably been historically important for keeping so many people in line and reducing dissent within society and the workplace.
In western countries, the workplace requires more creativity and people willing to ask questions and challenge the status quo. This is how improvements can be made and productivity be increased. In Australia, we don't have to provide employment for 100 million people and further we need to compete with larger economies. To do this, we have to be productive and constantly improving. If you don't have the skills to do that, then you may be at a disadvantage. That's not prejudice, its simply a cultural difference.
I find your comments of great interest and amusement.
The first being, Australia is a third world country, so what does that make Hong Kong?
The second Hong Kong is much less racist than Australia. I can tell you growing up in the UK all my life I have been exposed to several incidents of extreme racism, but in general i dealt with that and i assumed that coming to Hong Kong things would be better. I can tell you the story as you say it is really quite different. I don't think racism is as extreme as in the UK, USA or Australia, but i think racism is more widespread in HK. Working in a school as allowed me to look at it in many perspectives. Seeing what the students are taught by teachers, parents and society, have made me question if being a "Hong Konger" is good at all.
I suggest you take a breath and pop outside the bubble that is Hong Kong and experience the real world.


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