From its mid-19th century urban beginnings, Hong Kong has been visited by successive tides of social climbers. Despite intermittent economic downturns, the generally prosperous possibilities the British colony offered ensured almost every arriving passenger vessel had on board at least one ambitious chancer ready to try his or her luck in a new port. Newly beached arrivals quickly found opportunities among total strangers, who had little option but to uncritically accept the newcomers’ stated valuations of themselves – at least until credible evidence of unsavoury character traits, or verifiable misadventures elsewhere, had time to catch up with them. All too often, by the time such information had percolated onwards, the social alpinists were well established on whatever greasy pole they had targeted – or had already failed miserably and silently slunk away. What is one’s ‘first language’ when several meld together in the mind? How were these types – especially freshly landed specimens – most readily identifiable? A near-compulsive tendency to drop certain names in rapid succession, to quickly establish membership of an imagined “in crowd”, was a classic hallmark. In small, closely interlocked places such as Hong Kong, someone else present would be aware that these insinuated connections were tangential at best. Any clear-eyed onlooker who had lived in Asia long enough to observe the species – yet not had their own sensitivities warped and numbed into acquiescence or imitation – could spot them a mile off. Over time, social-climber stereotypes, and their habits of ingratiation, became so pronounced that generations of novelists, memoirists and travel writers documented the type. In his verse anthology China Coast Ballads (1938), Shamus A’Rabbit, the pen name of American engineer James Aloysius Rabbit, amusingly dissected various characteristics in his poem, A Far Eastern Variety . Where to retire? Portugal has long been seen a good option for Hongkongers Deliberate choice of address, then and now, helped quickly achieve their desired status, or so they imagined. “They got their first big home – a freak Sublet from Hong Kongese But oh, it brought them near the Peak And made them feel at ease!” Shameless sponging for food and drink was another telltale sign: surprisingly few perennial partygoers were also party givers. “And so he dined and wined and spent His funds upon all those Who never spent a single cent, That anybody knows …” Hong Kong has always had foreign residents who found the city incredibly boring Artists, writers or musicians were targeted more for the snob appeal that association with the cultured brings, than from any genuine interest. “Of books she read quite all reviews And prattled off her ware – She had no time for current news But made each woman stare.” For the truly dedicated climber, an invitation to Government House – the British sovereign’s headquarters in the colony – was the apex of their heart’s desires. “’Twas planned about how nice ’twould be When Madame and her spouse Would go and shine for all to see To balls at Government House.” Debt-trap driven, fur-coat-and-ragged-knickers character traits were mocked to the tune of that rousing Salvation Army hymn Onward Christian Soldiers : “Onward social climbers Keep on spending more – Owing butcher baker, And the compradore …” How Hong Kong’s Gurkha soldiers found love with Filipino domestic helpers As ever in Hong Kong, people who leave are forgotten almost overnight. “And now they’re gone – ambitious pair – Their guests forget their faces – But soon more climbers will prepare To come and take their places.” Proximity to wealth – actual or assumed – set social climbers’ hearts aflame. Society magazines encouraged this sense of an upper crust. In this, Hong Kong is no different to elsewhere, though who actually reads them remains anyone’s guess: editorial content merely separates glossy ads for ferociously glittery watches, dagger-like fountain pens and other baubles. Present-day social climbers set their marks at rather different targets than in the past. Social media “influencers” have become sought-after “new best friend” targets for those who want to burnish their own cachet by association – especially if that contiguity occurs on an Instagram feed with an eye-watering number of followers.