In a city where the government deliberately engineers a shortage of available housing, you can put the most unpleasant property on the market and charge whatever you want for it. Combine this with a real-estate cartel suppressing competition among developers, and you get an inevitable side effect in the form of shockingly bad marketing. Today’s property ad beyond parody comes from New World, who are offering Happy Valley serviced apartments by ripping off Rene Magritte and concocting something called ‘bespoke artisanal living’…
(‘Bespoke’ recently officially displaced ‘artisanal’ as the latest word to be mutilated by rampaging advertising zombies.)
While New World faces copywriting challenges, Hong Kong’s other three big developers have problems of their own.
Sun Hung Kai has suffered various misfortunes. One of the three Kwok brothers was never quite the same again after being kidnapped (the trauma of physical abduction reportedly being compounded by the knowledge that, with his life on the line, his siblings haggled over the ransom with the captors). Another is currently in prison on corruption charges – and life in those small and sweaty non-air-conditioned cells at this time of the year must be a little wearing for someone accustomed to every convenience and luxury.
CK Hutchison has to deal with the long-term reality that founder and big boss Li Ka-shing will not be around forever. Li has built a modest mausoleum for himself, complete with Buddhist monastery with bullet-proof accommodation (and a possibly karmatic dispute over shoddy construction). It’s all to do with Avalokitesvara’s spirit of boundless compassion and benevolence, apparently. After making billions exploiting Hong Kong’s rigged housing market and its lack of anti-trust legislation, could it be that Li is applying his renowned financial and asset-management skills in one last cosmic hedge – an exquisitely ‘Hong Kong tycoon’ version of Pascal’s wager?
The property sector’s most cringe-making attempts to grapple with nagging looming-mortality issues must surely be those of Henderson Land’s Lee Shau-kee, aged 86. The mysterious multi-billion-dollar benefits from discretionary bureaucratic decisions like the one at Grand Promenade and the sale of ’88th floor’ apartments in a 46-storey tower are just par for the course for our property developers. But old man Lee seems to have an extra special twinge of guilt and a fear of the darkness that lies ahead.
After arranging for unmarried number-one son to acquire designer (male) triplets to perpetuate his fabulous DNA for perpetuity, Lee has attempted to leave Hong Kong with positive memories of himself by making some sort of grand gift. He has donated land for various subsidized housing projects, in (irony-free) recognition that overpriced homes are a major cause of our social divisions. And he is now offering to donate HK$1 billion – per year – to charity if the stock market goes above 30,000. It will do this, he maintains, if the Legislative Council passes Beijing’s quasi-democratic political reform package. When you achieve this level of wealth, concepts like ‘contradiction’ or ‘embarrassment’ cease to have any meaning or indeed existence. So not only does Lee win our undying admiration for his generosity, he gets to shoe-shine the Communist Party into the bargain.
Obscene effortless profits remain part of Hong Kong’s property order for now, but it is hard not to sense – as the tycoons surely do – twilight approaching.