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Then & now: talk of the town

Hong Kong's freewheeling ways have long encouraged the sort of behaviour our city's gossip-mongers relish, writes Jason Wordie

 

The lines separating serious social history from mere gossip are hard to define. Considerable overlap exists and the best social historians retain their audiences' interest in more serious underlying themes through the judicious use of digressive - yet broadly illustrative "who'd have thought it?!" - anecdotal information.

A defining feature of Hong Kong society down the decades has been its pathologically tattletale nature. Consequentially, the social history of local gossip is of interest in itself. Scandal-mongering and the underlying sociological reasons for its prevalence here were first mentioned in serious historical studies decades ago, which is curious given that this kind of fringe interest usually lurks around the cultural-studies swamp's marshier tidal edges.

Gossip in Hong Kong society, whether among Europeans, Chinese or other ethnic groups, has always been facilitated by the overarching frontier marginality of the place. Across cultural divides, societal guardrails on acceptable behaviour were - and are - removed, and susceptible individuals freewheel through other aspects of their lives as readily as they tend to do in their economic affairs. In a social circle comprised mostly of random, temporary acquaintances, there is often more latitude for behaviour that may inspire tittle-tattle than back home in Buttcrack, or wherever. Anyone witnessing the boorish conduct prevalent in some places in the city - especially, it must be said, those frequented by the more rootless variety of Caucasian resident - can see that at first hand.

While the brakes were off for most early Western residents, the same circumstances have also applied to other ethnic groups. Until the 1971 census, more Chinese living in Hong Kong claimed birth outside the city than in it. This made Hong Kong something of a "colonial" place, too, for most Chinese residents for most of its history.

Having too much time and too little to do has always played a role. From Hong Kong's earliest years, affluent women of whatever race, relieved of the burdens of child-rearing and housework, developed the morbid preoccupation with outward signs of status which denotes the "tai-tai" type. Entirely defined by who or what their husbands were or did, establishing and then maintaining social pre-eminence was vital to their sense of personal security and self-worth.

Establishing hierarchical relations or marking territory is another function of gossip-mongering; and for relative newcomers to a particular group, being able to supply some authentic scuttlebutt that other, more established, insiders lack convinces them that they are moving closer to an imagined inner circle. A heightened sense of superficial importance smugly perpetuates itself.

Money, of course, plays a transformative role. Hong Kong tolerates extraordinary levels of ghastly behaviour from the wealthy and influential - or those seen to be so. Obvious in society's upper echelons, this trait is also apparent further down the socioeconomic food chain. Hong Kong is simply too small and interconnected for anyone to really fall out for very long. In consequence, people who in other societies would find themselves permanently shunned are given chance after chance.

But for all that dispensation is freely given, not much gets entirely forgotten.

An elderly friend from a long-established local family, who lived here all her life, told me many years ago: "Always remember my dear, Hong Kong people somehow combine tiny minds and long memories."

She was right.

 

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