Monday, August 01, 2005

Kipling and the High Costs of Hong Kong

Today, by the way, is Army Day in China, celebrating the 78th anniversary of the formation of the People's Liberation Army. Those of you militarily inclined may enjoy the guest post I squeezed out today on Simonworld on some of the macro-trends of the PLA and its master, the Chinese Communist Party. Yet the relationship between the two organizations has sometimes been harmonious, sometimes acrimonious. As I mention in the post, Mao once said, "power comes from the barrel of a gun," and perhaps it is no surprise that China's annual May Day parades celebrating its socialism came exactly nine months after its Army Day, like some other things that take three trimesters!

I say I rather squeezed out the post because we've been rather busy today, preparing, among other things, for another trip to Singapore mid-week. So unfortunately for today, I must only leave you with a short snippet from the annals of Hong Kong history.

Today's comes from Captain Jones Parry, who stopped in Hong Kong in 1879 to visit a friend; his trip was described in his book entitled, "My Journey Around the World," published in 1881. He discuss his visit to his friend, and the high cost of living in Hong Kong:

"I spent some agreeable hours with my friend of the Peninsular and Oriental. They have a princely office, and the employees mess together, living very comfortably; but alas! Here, as everywhere else, trade is so bad that everything has to be cut down, and there is hardly a good opening anywhere for a young fellow in these days. No, dollars counted by hundreds look well on paper at home; but they go by thousands out here, and nothing is left, nothing saved; and this not from extravagance, but simply from necessity, aided by force of example. I had to pay thee shillings for having my hair cut; if I had been shampooed or any nonsense of that kind, it would have been six shillings. Living, that is, simply beef, mutton, and fish, is cheap enough; but house-rent, like everything else, is extremely dear; and a climate that necessitates a chair [a sedan chair, carried by coolies - Ed.] to go barely further than across the street, necessitates also a thousand other costly luxuries. I do not think anyone is too well paid out there, and only the heads of merchant houses and doctors make fortunesÂ…"

Alas how little has changed! I guess to that last list we'd just need to add some bankers, some lawyers and the property tycoons. But then Captain Parry already recognized the extravagance involved in keeping a house or an apartment.

The positive side of the cost of this high living was that even then, there was a highly sophisticated consumer culture in Hong Kong that enticed you to buy, buy, buy. Rudyard Kipling recognized it on his trip to the city. He had this to say about our town:

"The shops are meant to catch the sailor and the curio hunter, and they succeed admirably. When you come to these parts put all your money in a bank and tell the manager man not to give it you, however much you ask. So shall you be saved from bankruptcy."

Wise words from Mr. Kipling. Unfortunately, not very likely is it?

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