ON the first week of my arrival in Hong Kong, my predecessor and I went to the launch of a documentary programme for an international television channel.
The ceremony to introduce the programme was held at the podium of a shopping complex in Tsim Sa Tsui. It was supposed to be a simple affair but my colleague C.K. Lim cautioned it would be anything but simple.
“There are many things you can say about Hong Kong but one thing they do very well is in the presentation. No matter how simple a ceremony, one can be assured of a good show,” he said.
For many months, as Hong Kong spiralled into a deepening recession, it continued to put on a good show for the world to see.
Whether it was a controversy over cutting civil servants' salaries or organising a campaign to restore the confidence of the people of Hong Kong; whether it was the government, civil liberty activists, unionists, singers, actors or Filipino maids, it was always about the hype and how to get maximum publicity from the media.
This is where they excel. Even the most radical of protestors – Leung Kwok Hung, who is often referred to by the media as Cheong Mo (Long Hair in Cantonese) – would wait patiently for reporters to arrive before burning his next effigy or allowing the police to arrest him.
After all, this can only be expected from a city once described as the Hollywood of the Far East when it was the third-largest producer of movies in the world. Everything in Hong Kong that can be stage-managed is manicured by some of the best stagehands and production managers in the world.
Nothing is missed or left to chance. The Greenpeace branch in this territory faxes to media organisations at least 48 hours before they carry out a protest.
Their demonstrations are planned in such a way to give attractive visuals for TV and still cameras.
Even the government is not above such tricks. Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa gave separate “exclusive” interviews to the three main local TV stations at his home just in time for airing before his policy speech earlier last year.
He took the interviewer and TV crew from his front door right to his kitchen onto his small garden. It was obvious that the message was how humbly Tung lived despite being the political leader of Hong Kong.
It was also a signal for the people of Hong Kong then to tighten their belts, but it did not work.
In the past 20 months of my tenure here, there had been endless bad news. Even the most mundane of matters was spoilt by some bad news.
Take John Travolta’s visit late last year that had been planned ages ago. An avid pilot, Travolta was supposed to fly into the territory’s Chek Lap Kok in his own Boeing 707. The media gave the event a lot of attention but it fizzled out when the authorities refused to allow him to land at the airport.
Travolta had to land in Macau and took a helicopter ride over to Hong Kong. The event organisers tried to hush up the issue but the Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction star openly admitted the diversion.
There were plenty of red faces that day.
Malaysian expatriate Sunny Liew, a Hong Kong veteran of 20 years, remarked that Hong Kong’s reputation of being a world city, an important financial centre and a major regional tourist attraction was all based on “hype.”
“On the surface, the reputation seems deserved. However, if you scratch below the surface, you will see through the hype. In Cantonese there is a saying “Hoe dai ng hoe sek” (Nice to look at but not nice to eat) and this aptly describes Hong Kong,” said this banker turned insurance agent.
However, Liew admitted it was not always like this.
“Hong Kong has changed over the years and I don't think it has anything to do with the handover to China. I blame the switch from manufacturing to service-industry economy. That has changed Hong Kong. Once accountants and PR managers took over, the people of Hong Kong lost their industrious attitude,” he said.
Stockbroker BK, another Malaysian expatriate, was equally pessimistic about the territory’s future.
“I have been here 20 years and I have not seen Hong Kong face such problems before. Previously, we would say there is hope next year but we cannot say it now. The prospect of reversal is remote and whatever the outcome may be in future, the good old days are gone forever,” said BK.
Hong Kong is going through its worst recession and now holds a world record of continuous deflation for over 60 months. Property prices – the boon of many investors in the early 1990s – have fallen some 60% since 1997.
The burst of the property bubble market was followed by the Asian financial crisis. Although Hong Kong survived the crisis relatively unscathed, the Sept 11 terror attacks in the US brought the territory’s battered economy to its knees.
Burgeoning government expenditure also put pressure on the economy and a slash-and-cut budget was introduced this year to trim the deficit of HK$70bil. Much welfare, educational and social aid will be taken away in the 2003-2004 budget approved just last week.
So far this year, there has been a string of bad news. On Chinese New Year day, Secretary for Home Affairs Patrick Ho, on the orders of Tung, went to the famed Che Kung Temple in Sha Tin to pray for the territory’s good fortune.
When he drew a fortune stick (chim in Cantonese) that he said was for the whole of Hong Kong, he picked the worst one possible – it predicted that Hong Kong was in for a very bad time.
Ho then said things were already so bad that the low-fortune stick was a good indication that things could only get better.
He was wrong. Things have gone from bad to worse.
The severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak that hit Hong Kong officially on Feb 22 – just 18 days after Ho drew that bad-luck stick – has ravaged the territory and knocked the people's confidence.
(According to local legend, the Che Kung Temple was dedicated to General Che, a soldier during the Sung Dynasty. After his death, local Sha Tin Valley residents prayed to him for help because there was an outbreak of plague. It is said the inhabitants were saved after the temple was built.)
Spin-doctors, copywriters, PR personnel, event stage managers and politicians are now working overtime to come out with some positive line on the SARS outbreak.
They, together with the government, have drawn up a campaign to get Hong Kong folk to work together to fight the disease. The “Let's all smile, Hong Kong will win, we shall overcome” campaign was launched yesterday and had the support of every Hong Kong pop and movie star. There is even a theme song based on We Shall Overcome.
Hopefully, this joint effort will cheer up some people. But this time, all the hype and razzmatazz may not be enough to get Hong Kong out of a tailspin.
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