All over the world, corporate gifts are big business and, in a place like Hong Kong, which exists almost entirely for commercial enterprise, such objects are very important.
Practical items predominate at the cheaper end of the scale; polo shirts, baseball caps and golf umbrellas emblazoned with corporate logos are souvenir staples. Hunks of cut glass or crystal, often mounted on an equally glittery, gold- or silver-finished stand, are popular, too. Elaborately moulded, multicoloured, faux-Lalique styles are a more recent innovation. Just how many truly hideous, thoroughly unwanted “awards” end up in rubbish bins on the way home from local office functions remains anyone’s guess … But what was given in the past by way of corporate mementoes?
Household silver was a typical longservice or leaving gift for Europeans across the Far East. Vases, champagne buckets and punchbowls that could be inscribed were all popular items. Many examples of this kind of early corporate gift – “Presented to J.M.S. Bloggs, Esq., on the occasion of his retirement from Backbiters Ltd., 30th June, 1934” – ended up in second-hand dealers’ shops in the picturesque English market towns many old colonials ultimately retired to; examples can still occasionally be spotted.
Local sporting clubs and military messes also accumulated quantities of presentation items – again, these were usually silver, and generally given to the organisation by members, either on joining or departure. Beer tankards were the usual article for sporting clubs; their inscriptions form an important historical record of longago membership.
Adaptations to Chinese customary practice were inevitable.
Unlike in the West, where corporate long service was frequently rewarded with a good-quality – usually gold – watch, timepieces were almost never given in Chinese society. The Cantonese word for clock has various inauspicious homophones and, to avoid bad luck, such gifts should be symbolically paid for by the recipient with a small monetary amount.
Corporate souvenirs really took off in Hong Kong with Japan’s economic re-ascendancy in East Asia from the late 1950s onwards.
Ritualised gift-giving is an integral part of Japanese culture, and as East Asian business developments at that time closely copied whatever the Japanese were doing, formalised corporate presentations became simply another business practice – like golf weekends – that was uncritically embraced. The habit swiftly took off and – in the manner of any credulous imitation – quickly assumed a life of its own.
Consumable corporate gifts remain popular in Chinese business circles. Luxury food items, such as dried scallops, sea cucumbers or other marine exotica, are always welcome. Chocolate, naturally, remains the ultimate sweetener.
Though as ever, brand inflation means high-quality Swiss or Belgian chocolates (not that long ago, a more-than-acceptable gift in any circumstance) have now been replaced by certified-organic, handpressed Guatemalan cacao, limitededition, vintage champagne-infused truffles and similarly pretentiously labelled items.
High-quality wine remains popular, too – not least because it offers superb possibilities for discreet, tracefree bribery. If selected examples of vintage Casa Priapus, Maison Merde or Chateau Pisse cost several tens of thousands of dollars a bottle, a case or two represents a tidy sum when “regifted” through clandestine channels. And it’s easy enough to do – unlike antiques or art, wine doesn’t need to prove its provenance; the serial numbers on the bottle guarantee authenticity.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong