Bah, humbug: What happened to Hong Kong’s Christmas spirit?

Yonden Lhatoo questions whether this really is the season to be jolly, given our appalling rich-poor gap and crass consumerism

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 December, 2015, 1:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

For the last few years, walking home late at night along the footbridge that connects the train station to my residential estate, I would almost always come across an elderly woman with a trolley rummaging through rubbish bins.

I don’t see her any more these days, but I remember her vividly because she was such a regular fixture, and a somewhat incongruous sight with a Santa hat on during Christmas time as she scavenged for discarded material to be sold as scrap for recycling.

Christmas is here again and I can’t help wondering what has happened to her, one of the countless senior citizens lost among the ranks of the more than 1.3 million Hongkongers mired in poverty – elderly residents who have paid their dues but are still forced to eke out a living when they should be enjoying their twilight years in retirement.

I wonder if she’s too ill to work any more, or even alive.

And I wonder what Christmas, Santa hat and all, meant to her in this city, where the wealth gap is so extreme – the top 1 per cent of earners own more than half of Hong Kong’s wealth – that people like her have to scrounge for scraps while others can afford to eat, drink and be merry. All I see around me is crass consumerism instead of the fabled Christmas spirit.

How much of “giving” is even going on, I wonder. Everywhere I turn, it’s all about money, glitzy sales promotions and shopping malls competing to see who can build the most impressive yuletide displays. Christmas has been hijacked and turned into a retail-centric cult propagated by the high priests of shopping malls.

Half the population seems to be busy selling something to the other half, which is busy buying it or earning the money to do so.

When the bottom line is the top consideration, businesses put profits before people, and most citizens are preoccupied with the challenge of affording a roof over their heads as developers and landlords jack up property prices and rents to insane levels, I suppose the Christmas spirit is not such a big deal in this town.

According to a new report in the British Medical Journal, Danish researchers have tried to identify the parts of the human brain in which the Christmas spirit resides. “Understanding how the Christmas spirit works as a neurological network could provide insight into an interesting area of human neuropsychology and be a powerful tool in treating ailments such as bah humbug syndrome,” the researchers wrote.

But at the same time, “Something as magical and complex as the Christmas spirit cannot be fully explained by, or limited to, the mapped brain activity alone.”

Speaking of bah humbug, why do we have three days off for Easter and another two days for Christmas in Hong Kong, but only one public holiday for the Buddha’s birthday? And nothing for Muslims?

I’m not saying we should salute every religion with public holidays, but let’s at least be fair with the distribution.

Not to be the Grinch in suggesting this, but since the Judeo-Christian faith enjoys the biggest share of the pie – even if the real origins of Christmas are pagan – perhaps it could spare one day for the have-nots, in the true spirit of the festive season.

I’m sure most people won’t mind, as long as the net number of public holidays is not diminished.

Let me clarify that I’m not calling for Christmas to be scrapped. Suicide by mob lynching is not my end game, but when I think of that elderly woman on that footbridge with her Santa hat, and everyone tells me ’tis the season to be jolly, it’s hard not to say a big, fat “bah, humbug”.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post