There are some things one simply cannot exist without – either personally or in the eyes of others. Names are one obvious example. Closely allied to that, personal name cards define – and, to some extent, validate – who one is (or thinks one is) within Hong Kong’s loosely defined yet heavily stratified pecking order.

From Kennedy Town to Lo Wu, printed name cards are proffered more readily than smiles and handshakes. And, of course, every newly arrived expatriate is instructed on how to bestow and accept them with both hands and a slight bow. Along with rapping one’s knuckles on the table when a cup of tea is poured, this form of “small change” cultural sensitivity is almost the only gesture towards everyday Chinese etiquette that most long-term foreign residents ever acquire.

Few Hong Kong name cards are without that essential status marker – “manager” etc – emblazoned somewhere; role inflation and “face” considerations also come into play. Often, obscure job titles cause bemused headscratching while one wonders exactly what the individual does.

“Refreshment services manager” is one such title that has always stayed with me; the proud bearer of this name card was, to all practical purposes (and most probably salary scale, too), the office tea lady. But never mind – like much else in local life, it’s the label that ultimately counts.

In this respect, name card “grade inflation” closely resembles phenomena elsewhere in life. Someone starts a small business (and good for them) and on their name card, they suddenly become the “founder, chairman and CEO” of what, on closer examination, is a website-based, one-man, homerun outfit.

So far, so pretentious, but in Hong Kong it always pays to think and dream (or act) big. Someone out there might just be suitably impressed – or taken in – by it all.

Name cards have a lengthy history. From Victorian times, as various printing techniques became mechanised, and thus cheaper, attractively designed (usually copperplate script) cartes de visite went from being an aristocratic foible to a middle-class necessity. The name-card habit became commonplace in transient societies, such as that in Hong Kong, where newly arrived people didn’t know each other and needed to network. This late- Victorian practice persisted in colonial societies well into the 20th century. Calling-card customs became the stuff of colonial folklore; numerous memoirs amusingly describe these rituals.

Visitors would call on targeted individuals and leave their card in a special box at the gate. This contraption had a slot marked “At Home/Not At Home”; by established convention, one had to presume that the person being “visited” was not there, even if they were clearly visible on the verandah at the end of the garden path. Etiquette ensured that the caller was subsequently invited to some form of limited social entertainment – afternoon tea, or an evening drink, perhaps – and then, depending on how host and guest got on (or how potentially advantageous the relationship might appear) further connections might be encouraged.

Or they might not. Through these minor rituals, the socially suspect, economically valueless or simply tiresome could be politely filtered out; if an invitation to tea was not followed up within a reasonable interval by a dinner party or some more substantial social entertainment, the underlying message was clear.