If you’ve ever looked up at the stars and felt insignificant, you’ll understand the feeling of first arriving in Hong Kong. Impossibly high buildings stretch as far as the eye can see, painted in gaudy pastels or layers of age old dirt, whilst masses of people glued to enormous mobile phone screens weave in and out of each other, seemingly effortlessly. Hong Kong is a seething mass of humanity: one part cosmopolitan mega mall, one part traditional Chinese, one part Sci-fi novel.
The idea of LOHAS (a Life of Health and Sustainability) is present everywhere. As a reaction to the SARS epidemic of the early 2000s, everything from door handles to escalators are ‘sterilised very four hours’ and you will still see people in paper masks on the MTR (Tube equivalent). Elsewhere, signs extolling the dangers of lifting bulky items abound, parks are neatly divided up into activity or exercise areas and recycling points are present on most street corners. The focus seems mainly on the individual and avoiding harm and I get the sense of a risk averse and paternal culture.
There are many things that strike me as I get to know the place better: how connected the inhabitants are (signal boosters on the MTR mean that phones are generally permanently out) and how present brands (the same brands) are. Enormous mega malls pervade even the most picturesque and rural parts of the city (there are rumours that it is possible to travel from one end of Kowloon to almost the furthest point of Lantau Island without venturing outside). And shops, advertisements, branding, are everywhere. Contrast this to the busy markets, medicine shops and exotic street food of Mong Kok or the rural bliss of Peng Chau and you have a contrast so marked it takes some convincing to think you’re in the same city.
For the brand is king: fake Mulberry and Michael Kors lines the markets, whilst Mainlanders (the term for the mainland Chinese) reportedly queue to get into the luxury shops in Tst and Central on a busy day. I am struck and shocked by the pervasiveness of the same (western) brands: the sense of inevitability and déjà vu as you ascend from the MTR into yet another mall that looks the same, or try to navigate a route, passing yet another Chanel as you do.
The thing I wonder at is how all of those identical shops can be profitable and financially sustainable. Yet, the malls are growing and taking over: street food stalls and markets are under threat from a government that sees them as unhygienic and outdated. It’s a difficult conundrum for a marketer: on one hand, I work with big brands for their reach and potential to create real change. On the other, I value cultural, architectural and culinary diversity.
As it’s evolved, I’ve always been a little sniffy of the ‘local’ movements in British retail, community groups and politics over the last few years. I’ve tended to view them as conservative, small minded and mildly xenophobic on occasion. However, seeing the result of globalisation and consumerism taken to its logical conclusion, I find myself having more sympathy with both their fears and aspirations. Rumours of such a movement are starting to circulate in Hong Kong and I can’t say I wouldn’t support it.