Today’s Hong Kong edition of China Daily has three stories and two photos on the front page – all ranting about the pro-democracy Occupy/Umbrella movement. The stories are: ‘Arrested protestors to clog up courts for years’; ‘HK Chief Executive suave, sincere and in total control’; and ‘Evil Western foreigners say Occupy Central is evil foreign plot’. The two pictures show: hundreds of innocent people suffering in the first ever traffic jam in the history of Hong Kong, caused of course by Occupy Central; and one of those characteristically seedy-looking patriots going berserk attacking a photo of pro-dem publisher Jimmy Lai.
The South China Morning Post’s City section is an oasis of sanity in comparison, featuring a ringing declaration that what today’s Hong Kong kids most need is a version of the Clash. In deference to its tycoon-owner’s need to shoe-shine the Communists, the paper also carries the latest mind-numbing leak-smear about Jimmy Lai. But it goes on to bring us genuinely heart-warming news: retail sales slump 40%. The article then explains that it’s ‘30-40%’ and the figure reflects only the National Day holiday period last week. But it also makes clear that the decline is not so much to do with the protests as with the fall in demand from Mainlanders generally, probably as a result of Beijing’s anti-corruption drive. We are hearing this more and more, and some candid luxury-brand bosses see it as a longer-term trend.
The propaganda tells us that Hong Kong’s economy – its people’s prosperity – is reliant on ‘tourism’, which effectively means Mainlanders coming here to shop. It certainly looks and feels that way when you walk around the Nathan Road/Argyle Street area and see three branches of Chow Tai Fook jewellers crammed among its competitors’ outlets on just one side of a 100-yard stretch of road. The implication is that without the Mainland-oriented stores, this would be a wasteland and the shop staff would be jobless and starving. But of course that’s not true: go back a few years and the area was full of diverse shops and restaurants serving local consumers. Mainlanders’ demand (diverted from their home cities by sales taxes and product-quality concerns) translates into higher rents for landlords, but no net material benefit for ordinary Hongkongers – indeed, if anything, they suffer from higher rents, more crowding, fewer stores meeting their needs and fewer opportunities to start up a business themselves.
If this artificial and distorting phenomenon were to fade away, that would be great. In my own neighbourhood, something strange is happening, but I’m not sure what. Along Lyndhurst Terrace, it seems every fourth or fifth store is currently under renovation. Why have so many leases come up at the same time? A mystery. The first one to emerge from its cocoon is to be a Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe®. This fake nostalgia confectioner concept originates in Britain. Would-be franchisees are invited – seriously – to see the brand as a contrast to sameness, standardization and predictable shops and products in towns and cities.
In the UK, a store full of jars of candies would at least have some cultural resonance; they still have places like that, if not with the plastic faux-Victorian appearance. Presumably, the British would see it as a bit of a joke. But what will the tourists in Lyndhurst Terrace think? They are mostly Japanese and Korean as well as Mainlanders, and they will cluster to this spot because it is next door to the egg tart emporium, which they are for some reason required to visit. Japanese housewives being dedicated Beatrix Potter fans, they will perhaps pick up on the visual clues and imagine this is a genuine example of Ye Olde Lyndhurste Terrace’s colonial-era Shoppes. The Koreans will be mystified. The Mainlanders will recoil at the horrifying sickliness of the sweet aroma and rush off in search of infant formula.
I will check out the Pineapple Chunks – 4d per quarter-pound, no doubt – when it opens. Meanwhile, we wait to see what, if anything, Hong Kong’s leaders do about the Mainland tourist infestation and other landlord-profiting public nuisances in the wake of the Umbrella Uprising.