Off Centre

Hong Kong may be a little insecure, but it's no 'slave'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 November, 2015, 6:54pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 November, 2015, 7:02pm

On these webpages recently, and in print, Yonden Lhatoo, a Senior Editor at the Post, let rip at what he perceives to be “white worship” in Hong Kong – and, worse, the “slave mindset” underpinning it. Couching any argument – and Yonden's were largely framed around half-told anecdotes – in such explicitly racialist terms was always going to generate more heat than light. Predictably enough, opprobrium flew promptly in all directions.

READ MORE: White worship in Hong Kong: you can't end it if you refuse to acknowledge it even exists

I don't much care to weigh in on the subject of Hong Kong remaining a place where non-Asians are able to prosper – if that's a problem, then it's not, surely, one of Hong Kong's most pressing. Whether it's colonialism to blame, or something else, though, I don't think Yonden was necessarily off the mark in identifying a certain pedestal-isation, if you will. Not of white people per se, but rather of aspects of western culture. Which ones? Well, this is where I think the dynamic gets more interesting than any gripes about recruitment in a global city.

Without wishing to digress, I was reminded of Yonden's deliberations when I read about how the Thai-Chinese Reignwood Group is going about running Wentworth, after buying the championship golf club, outside London, for £135 million (HK$1.6 billion) a year ago. Reignwood announced the other week that, from 2017, members will have to pay a debenture of £100,000, rising to £125,000 for new members, while annual fees are to double, to £16,000. According to reports, the move could see all but 250 of the club's 3,000 existing members “culled”. “This is absolutely monstrous,” commented one, displaying the careful sense of perspective we know to expect of those who pay £8,000 a year to play golf in Britain, i.e stockbrokers. “I don’t have a spare hundred grand. One of Britain’s finest golf clubs will become the preserve of Chinese billionaires and Russian oligarchs.”

Yonden, I note, is “no fan” of Britain. He does not make it clear which countries he is a fan of. No doubt, though, it will come as a great relief to his countless British readers that Britain's policies on equal opportunities win his seal of approval. And one supposes that such policies must extend as widely as possible – applying especially, perhaps, to Chinese billionaires. After all, they have long found their efforts to play golf in mainland China complicated by the fact that golf courses there are technically illegal. (Why, only last month, Xinhua included playing golf on a long list of violations, alongside “extravagant eating and drinking”, communications which “support bourgeois liberalisation” and – hell, who knows? – breathing too much in the vicinity Uncle Xi.)

You might well look at the Chinese firms and individuals aggressively buying up everything that comes on the market in Britain and elsewhere – cherished institutions, luxury manufacturing concerns, country homes, university places – and decide that the trend offers the very definition of reverse colonialism. That's sort of an argument for another day. In a Hong Kong context, what's more germane, I think, is to look at the things people tend to gain from the west, the things they export back to where they're from. And I would submit that more, possibly, than excitement at western ideas or culture, or heightened enthusiasm for democracy, one discovers a kind of recycled snobbery.

That is to say that well-to-do Hongkongers often seem most concerned by how their encounters with the west bestow prestige or membership of an elite: having been to an exclusive school, acquiring a taste for fine wine, joining expensive golf clubs. Wealthy mainlanders are perhaps little different, but in Hong Kong I have always been wary of the widespread condescension towards people from up the way. At the same time, I've met Hong Kong Chinese who were sent to boarding schools in England but must have skipped the lessons about affecting to hide their disdain for British regional accents. There's your pedestal-isation.

READ MORE: Hong Kong as ‘Asia’s World City’? Not any more - and here's why

Much like Yonden's analysis, my own is impressionistic and based on personal experience, not empirical research. Asia's World City seems to me desperate at times not to be seen as unworldly or unsophisticated, but the “slave mindset” charge is wide of the mark. Buffeted between a colonial past and a future it finds daunting at best, it's simply trying to find its place in the world.