Postcards from Hong Kong

It was a wonderful week in Hong Kong. So, in the spirit of sharing, here are some of my learnings and highlights:

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  • Dolphins also come in pink: The Chinese white dolphin is a species unique to Hong Kong which turns pink when it swims, much like the way we do when we run. They’re decreasing alarmingly in numbers due to land reclamation and development but you can sponsor them here through WWF.
  • Space is precious: Much like Manhattan in New York, Hong Kong is an island with limited space. It has responded to this issue by building upwards, something that London might want to take very seriously (I suspect clever marketing to get over the ‘Englishman’s home is his castle complex). With so many malls offering the same wares however, one wonders how the ‘elastic environments’ should manifest itself here. Is there a role for brands as community centres, schools or skills swaps out of hours?
  • Planned parks enhance a city experience: Even within the overwhelming hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, it is possible to take refuge in well placed and well planned parks. These however, bear little resemblance to Hampstead Heath or the open, green parks we think of, being filled with sculpture, exercise areas and activities. Indeed, they seem to have been planned with a purpose in mind, some for contemplation and learning, some for activity. Although this might upset a conservationist, it probably allows a balance of space and activity to be planned increasing the manageability of an urban jungle for inhabitants. The Kowloon Walled Garden at Lok Fu was my favourite for contemplation and learning.
  • Tesco Express is bad: Their identikit, unexciting and unchallenging food sets the standard for our repetitive eating habits and fussiness. Plus, this supermarket, synthetic food is destroying our connection to food sources. Wandering markets, eating seafood in a restaurant where you choose your dinner victim from tanks, trying exotic dishes (octopus mouth anyone?) and learning how some people base their diets around Chinese medicine have awakened a newfound respect for food and cuisine in me. Who knew chicken feet and tofu and egg combo desserts could be so delicious?
My dim sum breakfast: dumplings, chicken feet, jellyfish tentacles, char sui buns and 1000 year old egg
My dim sum breakfast: dumplings, chicken feet, jellyfish tentacles, char sui buns and 1000 year old egg
  • Malls are taking over the world: OK, so I work for big brands partially because of their reach, but is there really a need for four Chanels per square mile? Particularly in a place with a space/housing problem. The upside of this is that public loos are everywhere. Brilliant for someone like me, but also just excellent in terms of creating a more livable city.
  • Hipsters are everywhere:The hipster aesthetic and love of coffee is everywhere. Hong Kong is no exception!
  • Samsung rules the world: Apple take note, it’s the big Samsung phones that were ubiquitous, being stared at/listened to by their owners in all social situations. The iPhone 5 was barely visible.
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Hong Kong, malls and localism

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.

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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.

These kinds of signs are found everywhere, from toilets to lifts
These kinds of signs are found everywhere, from toilets to lifts

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.

A street food kitchen in Mong Kok
A street food kitchen in Mong Kok

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.