Thrown together in a little over 200 years, Hong Kong society reflects the tenacious characteristics of the immigrants who settled the city. Ambition, success, and hard work are the keystones of life here and have helped create a society that very much believes in bettering oneself. If the American dream is based on the pursuit of happiness, the Hong Kong dream is based on the pursuit of success.
Hong Kongers pride themselves on being bolder and brighter than their counterparts and the desire for better exam results and fatter pay checks stretches from kindergarten to the board room. Life is often a constant climb up the career ladder; Hong Kongers endlessly shift jobs on the hunt not only for more money but for a snazzier title, brassier business card, or an office with a view of the harbor. Prestige is as important as pay. It’s a relentlessly driven society, sometimes brutally so, but one that encourages its citizens to go from rags to riches in a generation.
This appetite for success is matched by an obsession with consumption. Conspicuous displays of wealth are encouraged in Hong Kong, where owning the newest piece of gadgetry or throwing the most elaborate feast are cutthroat competitions. While Hong Kong’s constant desire to parade its wealth may seem crass, in a society that places such importance on success, ownership is proof of one’s achievements and is integral to the idea of face (the Chinese concept of social standing and respect). It would also be simplistic to describe this as hollow greed. As immigrants or the children of immigrants, Hong Kongers often have humble histories riddled with uncertainty; wealth offers an insurance against the unknown.
The engine that drives this determination to succeed is faith in the Chinese and Confucian values of paternalism and duty, specifically the desire to earn the respect of one’s parents. Hong Kong society remains strongly hierarchical and deference to superiors at work and elders at home is compulsory and universal. And, while older people may grumble that youngsters today lack respect, usually citing barbarian manners and an unwillingness to pitch in at the family business, in practice family life is the axis around which the average Hong Konger’s daily life rotates. Family life has also kept many traditions and traditional beliefs alive from feng shui to burning paper money for the dead.
The strength of belief in these traditions sometimes shocks visitors who imagine Hong Kong as all skyscrapers and suits. The truth is these beliefs have provided the anchor to which Hong Kongers have clung to through a history of persistent change and doubt. Little in Hong Kong has been constant and the city’s identity and very existence has, over the years, been questioned. This has made it tough for Hong Kongers to lay down roots and any sense of belonging is to family, rather than to society. Outside of the family, independence and individualism are prized and there remains a steadfast belief that to achieve something you have to roll up your sleeves and do it yourself. While this spirited self-reliance drove Hong Kong’s breakneck transformation, to an extent it’s also hampered Hong Kong’s sense of community. If you don’t know them personally, Hong Kongers can certainly seem a little cool and are rarely expressively happy or helpful to strangers. Don’t take it personally. In a city literally bursting at its seams with people, strangers simply don’t register on most Hong Kongers’ radar; they don’t have time both literally and figuratively.
In many ways Hong Kong society is still in its formative years, still defining its identity, and certainly still going through some growing pains. Much of Hong Kong’s population has a history here that stretches back only one generation, often less. Hong Kongers come from a wide variety of backgrounds, often raised in other countries. It’s this range of experiences and backgrounds that are Hong Kong’s great strength. As a city of immigrants, Hong Kong is progressive, tolerant, and, perhaps most importantly, confident in its ability to adapt. The times are also changing; since returning to China, Hong Kong feels more settled and secure, more comfortable in its own skin and confident about the future. Questions of identity are unlikely to evaporate overnight, but in an increasingly globalised world, Hong Kongers have never been more self-assured about their internationalism and multiculturalism.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Hong Kong.