“Brand” is possibly the most prominent – and misleading – buzzword of our heavily corporatised time. Like every other turgid legacy of postmodernist “thought” littered across the contemporary world’s intellectual and social landscape, a “brand” can mean everything and nothing – in short, it defines whatever an individual “brand manager” wants the term to mean. Explicitly derived from public relations exercises, branding emphasises obvious corporate or collective strengths and minimises – or even better, neatly ignores – obvious deficiencies. When events go seriously wrong with an individual or company – or simply become stale in the public mind – then it’s time to “rebrand” or “refresh the brand”.

As with companies, cities are frequently described as having their own brand, and Hong Kong is no exception. But how did Hong Kong brand itself – and become branded by outsiders – at various points in the past? And how has this marketing exercise changed over time?

In the 19th century, Hong Kong’s rapid growth and striking modernity saw the emergent city branded as “Europe in China”; the term was even deployed for one of the city’s earliest histories, written in 1895 by local civil servant Dr. E.J. Eitel. The general impression this brand implied – that Hong Kong was a haven of British peace, civic order and modernity in the midst of China’s then-endemic poverty, backwardness and political chaos – remained current for several decades.

“Pearl of the Orient” was another brand intermittently deployed to describe Hong Kong for decades. This was problematic, however, as the fabled, exotic East had numerous port cities strung across its sea lanes, from Aden to Yokohama, all busily vying for the title; Penang, in particular, shrewdly branded itself as the Pearl of the Orient from the 1950s, and the term remains in usage there.

In the 1970s, the Hong Kong Tourist Association ran a series of popular overseas television advertisements that played upon the British and Chinese sides of Hong Kong’s heritage. These scenes artfully juxtaposed Central’s modern-astomorrow skyline, enduring ancient customs epitomised by backstreet temples wreathed in incense smoke and a fruity-voiced Englishman in a three-piece suit bowling merrily along the Kowloon waterfront in a bright red rickshaw.

Inevitably, such branding exercises have verged heavily into predictable East-meets-West cliché; the most egregious example of which being the use of bat-winged sailing junks. These vessels were obsolete by the end of the 1980s, but more than two decades later, no one at the – by now itself rebranded – Hong Kong Tourism Board had either noticed that this footage was hilariously out of date or possessed the imagination and initiative to come up with something more relevant.

“Asia’s World City” was the brand hit upon during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, when Hong Kong’s post-handover administration struggled to find its feet. Finding some catchy definition to explain, both to the outside world and to local society, just where Hong Kong went from here was essential.

But what was a “world city”, anyway? Were there no others in Asia? Did that mean that by comparison with the West, Hong Kong was implicitly second- or even third-rate? After all, New York is never described as “North America’s world city”, or Paris as “Europe’s world city” or Buenos Aires as “South America’s world city”. The key problem with the “Asia’s World City” brand is that it meant too much – and too little – and, in the manner of all post-modern-influenced drivel, means anything at all, or nothing in particular.

For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong