Nostalgia for a romanticised earlier Hong Kong has grown exponentially over the past decade. Many who look upon contemporary Hong Kong society with despondency, despair and disgust, and who – given existing political structures – are unable to effect any change, symbolically retreat to an earlier, “better” Hong Kong.
In this fantasy place, reward follows hard work, the “Lion Rock spirit” prevails against overwhelming odds, and the final, tear-jerking scene ends with a rousing Canto-pop ballad to which everyone, young and old, somehow knows the lyrics.
A recent lunchtime visit to one of Hong Kong’s clubs was a revelation. The usual groaning board of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and “international” options, haunches of roast meats, shoals of salmon and mounds of oysters was – by Hong Kong buffet standards – almost too ordinary for comment.
What intrigued, though, were the food stations that offered wonton noodles, minced meat, liver or preserved-egg congee with crispy yau ja gwai, scalded lettuce with oyster sauce, handmade fish-balls in soup and various other dai pai dong-style foods. All of it was served from stylised-yet-recognisable make-believe hawker carts, for the enjoyment of people who – for the most part – wouldn’t be seen dead eating from the real thing.
Likewise, Hong Kong’s shopping malls abound with well-meaning, affluent people pretending to be environmentally conscious, as they load up hand-stitched recycled cloth shopping bags with ethically sourced, free-range, certified-organic artisanal products that – with unthinking absurdity – have just been transported thousands of miles by air.
In another perennial Hong Kong cliché, any unintended irony, thought-through concern about plastic waste and awareness of these lunatic contradictions, is subsumed by the all-important feel-good moment. Petulant, sullen “you just don’t understand …” outbursts follow any suggestion of the obvious paradoxes.
Cravings for a sanitised “old Hong Kong” have historical echoes in other societies that, with the benefit of hindsight, were steadily edging towards collapse. During the Qianlong Emperor’s reign (1735-96), an idealised Soochow canal market with make-believe stalls was erected in the Summer Palace, in Peking (Beijing), so that the emperor’s mother could pay a nostalgic “visit” to her faraway home without ever leaving the palace walls.
Palace inhabitants bargained with vendors for “everyday” purchases – in reality, gorgeous trinkets – and pretended to be ordinary people for a day, rather than the most privileged people in the entire Celestial Empire.
Around the same time, and for similar reasons, Marie Antoinette, the queen of France, built the Petit Trianon, a model farm, in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. Insulated from the urban poverty of nearby Paris, and the country’s rapidly declining rural economy, the queen and her companions – dressed in picturesque, laundered, lice-free peasant clothes – played at being milkmaids and shepherdesses, and pretended oneness with an idealised storybook world that, in reality, was steadily festering towards open rebellion, just outside the palace gates. When the collapse came, this fantasy-dwelling coterie’s end on the guillotine wasn’t remotely as pretty as the Petit Trianon on a glorious summer’s day had allowed them to believe real life actually was.
And so it may eventually prove for Hong Kong’s obscenely wealthy, pitifully remote players-at-make-believe who – while income disparities continue to widen, opportunities for well-educated young people further decline and public anger steadily gathers steam – amuse themselves by eating at an “authentic” dai pai dong.