Fighting their way through crowds of non-imprisoned Black American males fleeing to a better life in North Korea, commuters strolling along the Connaught Road walkway this morning look up at the twin towers of pink stone and bluish reflective glass and shudder in horror. The skyscrapers house the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and numerous hangers-on. And if a proposal by the bourse takes effect, these poor, innocent wretches who have never hurt anyone will be denied their long-cherished right to two-hour lunches.
It is hard to exaggerate the sanctity of the midday meal to many office workers in the Big Lychee’s central business district. No hardship is too unendurable, no distance too great, no standing-and-waiting-time too long, to obtain a seat and hot food. And it must, usually, be sometime between 1-2pm, just when the crowds and other inconveniences are at their most concentrated. Any earlier, and it’s too early. Any later, and it’s too late. Only restaurant staff, for obvious reasons, and lateral-thinking foreigners with their obsession for practicality eat at the wrong time.
There was an era when most service-sector workers would take a numbered ticket for the most crowded restaurant – which they absolutely must go to, regardless of alternatives – wait for half an hour, finally get a table, order their choice from the menu, eat, chat with colleagues, go back to the office and slump over the desk for a 20-minute nap. For most of them, the pressures of international competition over the years have reduced the lunch hour to, as the name suggests, 60 minutes. But while we may envy the brokers and traders’ continued enjoyment of an old-style, leisurely midday break, we sympathize with their determination to keep it.
As is always the case in Hong Kong when someone suggests that something changes, the main problem is not the people with a vested interest in the status quo – it is some third party. Thus the brokers and traders protest loudly that forcing them to take a one-hour lunch would be grossly unfair to… the restaurant industry. You see, the stock market wheelers and dealers don’t stuff their faces full of crab salad, chicken medallions in white wine cream sauce with a medley of fresh garden vegetables, tiramisu and choice of coffee or tea for over 100 minutes every day because they like it. They do it purely to help the catering trade.
Meanwhile, the Tokyo and Singapore stock exchanges are thinking of going from one-hour lunch hours to zero-hour ones! That means a sandwich: cold food, which as we all know, swiftly depletes the body of energy and leads to entire workforces keeling over, many dead, by 3.30pm, faster than you can say, “It won’t increase trading volume!”
The argument that reform would bring us into line with the Mainland might be convincing when it comes to abolishing jury trials, scrapping freedom of the press or jailing women for having a baby without permission. But it’s not going to wash when it comes to fundamental principles and values like lunch. There is only one known force in the world that could compel our stock exchange workers into line, and that’s the three-metre albino python that Italian dope dealers keep hungry and thus aggressive to “roam the apartment to scare addicts into paying for their drugs,” and it’s otherwise occupied right now. Like proposals to reduce bid-offer price spreads, the 60-minute lunch hour is an idea that plainly isn’t going to happen.