From its earliest beginnings, Hong Kong society has been characterised – sometimes to the point of caricature – by a love affair with the new or, at least, the novel. For the nanosecond that exists before fickle local enthusiasm wanes, and some fresh object of passing fancy comes along, a public fuss gets made of the latest craze.
As would seem appropriate in a place created for, and permanently dedicated to, the expansion of business interests, commercially oriented opening events, launch parties and publicity extravaganzas have been Hong Kong society staples since the colony’s earliest years.
Grand external displays are essential in a place with such a short-term collective memory, as is endless brand reinvention. After all, a wristwatch is ultimately only there to tell the time, however much this expensive piece of timeless elegance is marketed as an heirloom for the next generation, or whatever the advertising strapline of the day maintains.
Accordingly, today’s Swiss watch event hotly competes with tomorrow’s French fountain pen extravaganza, and next week’s Italian handbag soiree – naturally – tops everyone’s list.
Filling the invitation rolls for these endlessly repetitive beanos is never hard; the ongoing challenge for event managers is to determine just who attends and – even more importantly – who does not. Differentiating one event from another must be a challenge for participants, given that the products – and guest lists – seldom change much.
Hong Kong has never been short of socially aspirational people willing (and, sometimes, desperate) to show up to the opening of an envelope, just as long as an abundance of drinks and canapés can be had on the night. And as a lasting memento, and potential leverage towards future invitations, a smiling photograph must appear in one of the local society rags not long afterwards, ideally posed next to someone “worth” being snapped with. Decades-old newspaper and magazine photographs clearly demonstrate that, in Hong Kong, some things never change.
Foundation stones littered across Hong Kong, often concealed in the foyers and basements of replacement buildings, hint at long-forgotten, once-important opening ceremonies. But who attended them, and what they said and did, are details lost in the frozen, long-dead faces on the few surviving images of such events.
Corporate opening functions follow a time-honoured order of service. Flower baskets are piled around the doors, and for the lapels of guests of honour, boutonnieres are de rigueur, along with fluorescent orchids as large as miniature cabbages, shrouded in frizzy tulle and lace, and surrounded by swathes of maiden-hair fern. Whether the hapless people pinned like butterflies to these floral arrangements actually like them or not is hardly the point – they are another item on the event manager’s checklist.
And then there are the official souvenirs. These range from spectacularly horrid objects to magnificent items that are treasured for generations.
Notable examples of the latter are the gifts presented to governor Sir Frederick Lugard, when Hong Kong University was established.
The engraved silver trowel used for the foundation stone ceremony, in 1910, and a superb silver model of the Main Building, among other items, are institutional treasures.