Then & now: rich man, poor man | South China Morning Post
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Then & now: rich man, poor man

A look at the lives of Hong Kong's affluent shows that being wealthy has its cons as well as its pros, writes Jason Wordie

 

The ostentatious display of wealth via ownership of luxury cars was a Hong Kong cliché for decades.

Matching pink and gold Rolls- Royces, and various forms of motorised phallic extensions, were a fixture in magazine spreads about the city’s rich and shameless.

But in recent years, the trend has noticeably declined. The city’s wealthy still indulge in flashy cars but they don’t actually travel in them very much anymore.

Hong Kong’s serious money now utilises unremarkable, mostly black, people carriers with rarely any distinguishing marks. These vehicles are cheap enough for a middle-ranking tycoon’s family to have a whole stable on call, anonymity being the priority.

Are more kidnapping attempts being made than the general public realise? One can only assume so, judging by the abundance of low-profile vehicles ferrying the wealthy around.

Closer integration with the mainland – of which the massive increase in dual-plate registration and ease of cross-boundary transportion are signs – has played a key role in this emergent trend.

These days, kidnap victims are unlikely to be secreted in an abandoned pig farm in the New Territories. Within hours, they could be tucked away in a quiet corner of Guangdong province, prey to a system where “there ain’t no Ten Commandments”. And this the rich know perfectly well.

Kidnapping is nothing new in China – or anywhere else for that matter. In economically uncertain times, and in places where the gap between the really wealthy and the very poor is stark, business opportunities abound, both for kidnappers and for those offering protection against them.

In the interwar years, a combination of chaotic rule by warlords, conflicting political loyalties and the ready availability of firearms made China a very dangerous place for the extremely wealthy. Shanghai, in particular, was one of the world’s kidnapping capitals during that period.

Heavily armed bodyguards – mostly White Russians – were a commonplace sight across the country.

It must be acknowledged that the flaunting of bodyguards (whether their presence is necessary or not) flatters many a heightened ego. Being accompanied by aggressive-looking goons connotes wealth and importance, and projects a sense of power, even menace. But those with little to fear have, well, little to fear.

Those who surround themselves with bouncers probably have more genuine cause for dread as a consequence of having made enemies – due to their own personalities or past actions – than the simple fact of their individual wealth.

Two personal observations illustrate this point. Years ago, I regularly encountered the late Lady Kadoorie when she stopped at the traffic lights in Kam Tin, with only her driver in front for company. Despite her family’s plutocratic wealth, no one would have troubled such a benign, popular figure. She could go anywhere freely – and did. A contrasting experience occurred in the men’s lavatory in a leading hotel in Central, when one of Hong Kong’s, shall we say more colourful, business tycoons came striding in. For the duration of his business at the urinal, Mr X stood with two goons immediately behind him while two more stood sentinel at the door.

This sight affected me profoundly. One of Asia’s wealthiest individuals, with more in the bank than he could possibly spend in several lifetimes, nevertheless lacked the personal freedom of the poorest beggar. He couldn’t even pee on his own with any sense of physical safety. What, therefore, is the ultimate point of all that money?

 

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