Proof, if it were needed, that Hong Kong desperately needs another outbreak of SARS comes in the form of a plan by Abercrombie & Fitch, American retailer of ugly overpriced jackets, to spend HK$7 million a month renting the Shanghai Tang premises in Central’s Peddar Building. I always thought the brand’s main claim to fame was its silly name, apparently dreamed up by the same cynical marketing team that invented Häagen-Dazs, whose umlaut, double ‘a’ and bizarre ‘zs’ were designed to give gullible English-speakers an impression of mysterious, authentic, centuries-old fine European ice-cream craftsmanship. The Standard, however, informs us that it is “known for its topless muscular salesmen,” which at least differentiates it from, say, Park N Shop.
It is hard to believe that just eight years ago, Hongkongers were peeling the surgical masks from their faces for the first time in weeks and finding that the air around them was of almost unnatural cleanliness. The city’s parasitical tourism industry had been temporarily and swiftly killed off, leaving hotels and the airport operating at maybe 10% of normal levels, tacky designer label outlets deserted, and the streets gloriously uncrowded. Among other miracles, property became more affordable than it had been for years.
Just a few droplets of the virus – just a few sneezes by a rogue civet cat in the right time and place – could transform the Big Lychee once again into such a quiet, clean, spacious, reasonably priced paradise. True, an outbreak could involve the deaths of several hundred people, but would it not be a small price to pay compared with the ongoing damage to our well-being inflicted by traffic fumes, ruinous living costs and all the rest? Imagine a Central in which Armani, Apple, Abercrombie, Agnes B and all the other lifestyle logos vacated their premises and the landlords had to cut the rents to what economists call ‘market-clearing’ level, perhaps low enough to attract family-run businesses selling basic things that people want, like noodles, groceries and cheap clothing identical to Abercrombie’s made-in-China stuff except without the label.
And we could erect a statue in Lan Kwai Fong, in part of the space formerly occupied by zoo-visiting mainlanders taking exotic animal photos of beer-swigging Westerners, dedicated to the SARS-CoV: Our Friend the SARS Virus. It would be a way of restoring the honour of this much-maligned little infectious agent. And as for the freed-up space in the Peddar Building, we could start up a research institute to find an answer to one of the most puzzling questions of our age: how do you clear enough revenue every month to pay HK$7 million rent, plus all the overheads like staff costs and homo-erotic advertising, and make a profit, just by selling nasty-looking clothes with nothing but embarrassing PR problems to recommend them?