Li Ka-shing keeps us sane and happy

During my annual inspection tour of a local Park N Shop, I make an impulse purchase of toothpaste (three for the price of two – opportunistic, small-scale wealth preservation). But which sort? One dentifrice has a special whitening ingredient, another has a special cleaning additive instead, and a third focuses on tartar control.

For a few seconds I debate with myself about which one to get: choose one and you have to forego the benefits of the alternatives. Why, I found myself asking, don’t these idiots combine all the space-age biochemistry wonders in one tube? Or would these substances react with each other and blow up? Why, at any rate, don’t they package three different variants in one three-for-two package, so you can rotate pastes each day?

Then I come to my senses and just grab the sort that looks like the one I’m currently using. (Wrongly, as it happens. If the special ingredients work, my teeth will be more whitened than before, but they will simultaneously be less cleaned. I will monitor the situation closely.) For a brief moment there, I was succumbing to the spell of the evil out-of-control brand managers; it can happen to anyone. Thank heavens for a supermarket duopoly that allows Park N Shop to offer consumers a lousy range of goods: I could have been stuck there for 90 minutes pondering 35 different varieties produced by just one manufacturer.

If some sociologists and psychologists are right, Li Ka-shing’s monopolistic and exploitative retail practices do not simply save shoppers time. Having to decide among bewildering arrays of options in day-to-day life increases anxiety; we can thank Hutchison and Jardines (owners of the Wellcome chain) for playing their part in soothing us all. But it goes even further. By depriving us of the right to select from a plentiful range of goods, the tycoons may actually be contributing to community cohesion and, strange as it may seem, social justice. Because, if the egghead academics are correct, “the more choices we have, the less empathetic we become, and the less supportive of public policies aimed at benefitting society.”

At least that’s the case with Westerners. They like to believe that society and life are meritocratic: people who are successful have earned it. ‘Earning it’ means making the right decisions throughout life. It follows that the poor deserve to be at the bottom of the pile because they made the wrong choices. So there’s a huge amount riding on every decision you make, and even having to choose among different consumer brands adds to the pressure; pick wrongly, and end up being a loser. Little wonder that Americans suffer the most anxiety in the world.

It might not apply elsewhere. The Atlantic article doesn’t dwell on this but says that Asians’ “sense of self and self-worth are not tied up so much with notions of individual autonomy and choice.” (Until, the article points out, they migrate to the US, after which they fall into line and start getting panic attacks. Maybe Westerners who move to Asia get mellow like the locals. That said, the Big Lychee is perhaps semi-Western in this respect: few humans freak out about making the right choices in schooling, brands, career and investments than second-generation Hong Kong Chinese. And what about Singapore’s kiasu syndrome?)

The implication of all this is that Asians do not believe that life is meritocratic. A quick look at either the US or Hong Kong confirms that if this is so, they are right. Add sexual selection and genetics to the mix (privileged and educated families are increasingly marrying among themselves, which reduces social mobility and entrenches the wealth gap) and we’re heading for Morlocks and Eloi.

If cultures that think they are meritocratic and drive themselves nuts with constant decision-making are creating more social injustice, could the reverse be true? Could communities that don’t think meritocracy is real and keep calm with a choice of only three types of toothpaste be on a trend towards greater fairness and equality? A question lawmakers might care to ask new Chief Executive CY Leung on Monday, but probably won’t.

I declare this weekend open and tartar-free.

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16 Responses to Li Ka-shing keeps us sane and happy

  1. maugrim says:

    You failed to mention the option, Darlie, nee Darkie (complete with its yas massah picture).

    I don’t think HK can ever be a meritocracy. Whom do you choose from what? The pool is allready so incestuous its one degree of separation. Which leaves us solving many problems based on who knows who. HK’ers know this, which is why they fight so hard about things westerners take for granted. BTW, check out the story in the local media about ‘sister purple’ and her toilet cum maid’s bedroom. The PR response is worth the price of admission alone and tells us alot about who we truly are as a society.

  2. Foxlore says:

    “If some sociologists and psychologists are right, Li Ka-shing’s monopolistic and exploitative retail practices do not simply save shoppers time. Having to decide among bewildering arrays of options in day-to-day life increases anxiety;…”

    Consider the formula in the U.S. with big-box stores like Walmart, SAM’s, Costco…massive amounts of selection…bulk sizes…then the above point on increased anxiety…anxiety leading to eating as comfort…and boom obesity (Fat America).

    “…and we’re heading for Morlocks and Eloi.”

    Interesting point to given that most locals here can walk from their ‘box in the sky’ (flat…perhaps purchased from Li Ka Shing) through a series of connected lifts and tunnels to the same shops mentioned above for the purchase of things like toothpaste. Heck…seems like we are halfway there. I’m cool with team morlock…as I despise direct sunlight. 😉

  3. On Da Lo says:

    This post confirms why I always found it quite enjoyable and stress-free shopping for sports shoes on Fa Yuen Street in Mong Kok. There are over 50 stores selling them, but by about every fifth store, the shop names and prices would start repeating.

    So I would happily and simply compare prices for my selected shoes at the five differently-owned stores and purchase the cheapest.

    Fa Yuen Street (and even Sai Yeung Choi Street South, if we limit it to Mong Kok) seemed to be a microcosm of Hong Kong’s oligopolistic approach to enterprise.

  4. Old Timer says:

    Hmm… I was wondering how long it would take for someone to mention Darkie.

  5. Stephen says:

    @Old Timer,
    I hazard a guess that back in dark colonial times (Pre Patten) Darkie (Darlie) was about only toothpaste the locals could get (which may go to explaining the dental hygiene of middle aged and older HK’ers?).

    Much the same with Pubs where you had a limited choice of draft Carlsberg, San Miguel or a bottle of Blue Girl.

    Choice has improved in the pubs and with toothpaste however we still have just the same two fecking supermarkets.

  6. Mary Hinge says:

    Maugrim, the “Sister Purple” [Purple Lee] story is a damned disgrace. Thanks for highlighting it. She (rich pop singer) makes her [poor, strangely brown] maid sleep in a bathroom, directly over the toilet, in a custom-built bed which apparently was not approved by an Authorised Person. Disgusting, I know. But unauthorised structures are widespread, I am given to understand …

  7. Yas massah says:

    And Darlie is half owned by Colgate

  8. Real Tax Payer says:

    My theory is that all the tubes contain the same stuff : the labels just make us think we are buying something different when we go for “more whitening” instead of “tartar free”. It’s a marketing gimmick and a bid to build market share. Crude but effective ( like our tycoons)

    @ On Do La : shopping in Fa Yuen St is indeed great, unless you have size 45 feet. In my early days in HK I used to buy my super lightweight running shoes there. The trouble was that every brand / model I liked – when I asked if the shop if they stocked it in size 45 they said “no” . Eventually after I had tried a dozen shops in vain for my preferred Puma model ( or whatever it was I was hooked on at that time) I realized the correct question to ask was “do you have ANY running shoes in size 45? ” . And all the shops except one said ” no” . 😉

    I suppose the modern-day equivalent is to ask “is there ANYTHING for sale here that is not controlled by LKS ( or Jardines) ? ” . 99% of shops will answer “no” but with luck there will be one that says “yes”.

  9. maugrim says:

    Mary Hinge, reading the story about Purple Lee made me feel truly ashamed to be a HKer. What a rag.

  10. Vile says:

    “My theory is that all the tubes contain the same stuff.”

    Your theory is shared by most dentists of my acquaintance.

  11. Old Timer says:

    I can still remember the TV ads during the 1990 World Cup coming on with a voice (probably John Culkin) saying “Darkie is now Darlie!” Indian shops in Chungking Mansions had mouldering tubes available till about 1997, and they were popular souvenirs among less PC-minded backpackers.

  12. Real Tax Payer says:

    Actually, one type of toothpaste is different from all the rest and it really works. It’s call Sensodyne – for sensitive teeth. It stops your teeth hurting when you eat very cold or hot things

    “Recommended by tax payers for all those HK citizens who have to eat expensive SH1T* served by tycoons”.

    * or Spam and SH1T, spam spam spam and SH1T etc .

  13. Slavia Wanderer says:

    Turns out Darlie belongs to Colgate-Palmolive

    Half an option at best.

  14. Jonathan Stanley says:

    Ahem. Hong Kong is always a microcosm of the world… Illusion of choice:

    So now I live out in the NT Mafia Hinterlands, renting a Ding/village house, the realty plutocracy doesn’t apply to me. Plus a side effect of the house-building concession/policy is that everything is very low rise (3 floors, with the occasional illegal 4 floors).

    Have made a point of going to the wet markets more, plus it’s handy I literally have a handful of organic/local farms on my doorstep. Then general household consumables from the mum’n’dad pharmacies. 25%~40% cheaper than from Lee Ker-ching, et alii. Random fact, a Del Monte tomato paste costs ~HK$17 from Wellcome. At Vanguard it’s HK$5.40. That’s like a 320% markup? Plus Wellcome would be located at their own malls/land… surely they wouldn’t charge “themselves” more rent. If that’s not consumer gouging… what is?

    Not sure where I’m going with this. So I’ll just leave it, right here…

  15. PropertyDeveloper says:

    Jonathan, welcome to the real world! Fresher air, human scale and above all individuals rather than corporations, whether in the market, shops or buying/renting accommodation.

  16. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Multi-brand and multi-subbranding are a common retailing tactic. By offering a wide variety of similar products under multiple brands/subbrands that you own, you get to take up a whole load of shelf space, displace competitors to less premium shelving (if they get stocked at all) and offer the illusion of choice to consumers who like to try different types of the same product.

    It also lets you take your product downmarket without taking the brand and pricing downmarket, by separately branding the premium priced product and the more downmarket branded version of the same product.

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