In few places besides Hong Kong – Dallas and Los Angeles are possible exceptions – is “socialite” an acceptable job description (of sorts) and not a term of amused contempt. And so it has been for generations. From its 19th-century beginnings, Hong Kong has always had plenty of individuals who would enthusiastically show up to the opening of a gilt-edged envelope, just so long as a ready supply of champagne, elaborate canapés and a smug sense of exclusivity accompanied the paper-slitting ceremony.
Much as today, the same faces reappeared at similar, mostly marketing-driven “society” events. With a pre-war population of about a million – most of whom were very poor – Hong Kong’s ball-, dance- and charity-event-attending demographic was tiny.
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Until not long ago, affluent women were expected, after a dynastically calculated “love” marriage had been safely arranged, to sit around, like accumulated pieces of status-conferring, occasionally used equipment, and respectably fill in the endless, idle hours between pregnancies. Doing something that looked and felt worthwhile – organising charity balls, for example – even if the eventual outcomes were probably better served by simply writing a cheque for the relevant cause in the first place, was one way to feel relevant.
Blissful lack of any self- or broader societal awareness is part of the local socialite’s intellectual package; one favourite anecdote from the 1990s involved a well-known Hong Kong socialite attending an animal-rights fundraising event wearing – what else? – a luxurious fur stole. The sullen, pout-faced incomprehension displayed when the outfit’s utter unsuitability for the occasion was brought home to her still chimes vividly in the memory.
While women historically dominated Hong Kong’s socialite scene, attention-seeking men have also hogged the limelight, camera flashes and social pages, working the local party circuit for all it was worth. Part of the motivation for Hong Kong’s professional socialites is, of course, the commercial benefits that develop from constant exposure to glamorous, media-thronged occasions.
Celebrity hairdressers are an easily recognisable, representative example; not much, ultimately, separates one competent hairstylist from another. If certain coiffeurs have built up an A-list clientele, hobnobbed with them, appeared religiously at all their parties and, in the process, made sure that the hovering press photographers got flattering snaps of them posed cosily together, clinking glasses, air-kissing and cackling like hyenas, then their crimping businesses will only flourish further.
And why? Because these carefully orchestrated publicity stunts ensure that a flurry of sadly frustrated D-listers and social-page wannabes, with aspirations to debut in the society rags themselves, will patronise their salons immediately afterwards. Hopefully, somehow, an entrée to that magical world of prestige, glamour and social success so far cruelly denied them might eventually be included in the eye-watering fee levied for a dye-job or perm.
Today’s younger, emergent socialites, however, rise to prominence through more variegated means than Hong Kong’s time-honoured cocktail-party circuit. One recently evolved species is the KOI – no, not the brightly coloured, vacantly staring, endlessly circling Japanese fish, but the “key opinion influencer”. These individuals live what passes for their lives on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and have vast numbers of “followers” desperately keen to know (and, hopefully, emulate) where they had their last cup of coffee, stayed the previous weekend or bought their new T-shirt and trainers.
Local property companies, trendsetting lifestyle brands, aspirational bars and restaurants, yoga studios and other businesses keen to tap into the complex algorithms embedded in a particular KOI’s social-media platform, in order to help steer potential customers their way, regularly stage events specifically curated for these celebrities to attend, gush over and blog about in glowing, potentially profitable, terms.