HK princesses rattle local hikikomori

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 April, 2009, 12:00am

The battle of the sexes is perennial. But in the past year or so, an active - at times vicious - online debate has flared up to give this battle a distinctive Hong Kong characteristic. The debate has essentially pitched men and women into two extreme camps and introduced new vocabulary into the Cantonese lexicon. Each side accuses the other of serious faults and flaws. Most of the complaints are borderline sexist (in both directions), silly and stereotypical, though some comments are amusing. Most of the ideological combatants appear to be young adults who have either recently graduated from school or are in the early stages of their working life.

Hong Kong men, according to the women, are mostly withdrawn and unrefined. Most are gong nam, or 'tram men', a term derived from a Japanese hit movie, Densha Otoko (Tram Man), describing males who live in a fantasy land of video games, anime, manga (Japanese comics) and Japanese-made pornography. They have trouble communicating in the real world and refuse to take up their manly duties. In Japan, such men are called hikikomori - adolescents and young adults who shut themselves away at home and shun human contact. Hong Kong women, or gong nui, are supposed to suffer from the 'princess syndrome', obsessed with money, labels and beauty products; even if many cannot tell a fake brand from the real thing. Others insist they need to slim down, even if they weigh less than 45kg.

Both sides accuse the other of being narcissistic and completely ignorant of current and world affairs. I am inclined to think both sides are probably right about each other. But the fact the debate has gone on for so long may be a symptom of the state of contemporary culture. Even comedian Jim Chim Sui-man is making it the theme for his upcoming stage act.

Here, I will venture a simple (and simplistic) explanation of a supermarket pop-sociology variety. In Hong Kong, and indeed other Chinese societies, most young and/or unmarried women expect - and are expected by parents, relatives and peers - to marry men who make more money than they do and hold a job with greater social prestige. A marriage where the economic situation is reversed among the couple is still considered odd in Chinese society. This was never a problem when men were workers and the wives stayed in the kitchen.

But in the past two decades, Hong Kong women became better educated, earned more and rose to senior positions in many sectors of the economy - a trend that shows no signs of slowing. Their economic development has been transformed faster than their social and gender expectations. Their social-economic improvement needs to be reflected by their appearance and sense of self - hence the need to wear the right fashion brands and to use trendy beauty products. But it also means raising the bar for men able to meet their high expectations.

This would not have been a bad thing if it had triggered a Darwinian male response - men must fight to earn more and take up better jobs to prove their alpha male status. You witness this social ritual in countries like the US, a highly competitive capitalist society. But men in Hong Kong are never taught or conditioned to be aggressive, beginning early in school. Cram schools throughout childhood have made many docile; doting parents hardly encourage independence.

Further, it is possible that Hong Kong's high-economic-growth years may be behind us. We may be the first post-war generation where our children become economically worse off than their parents. Today, Hong Kong has an army of young men in low-paying, dead-end jobs, obsessed with comics, computer games and Japanese porn stars. These conditions come together to produce today's hikikomori males, who must be the ultimate turnoff in nature.

Where can a woman find love when all the men around her are weaklings?

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post.