Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Savaging the Hong Kong Ethos

As we all are aware, Hong Kong is a materialistic city. Money speaks first, and speaks loudest. We can all debate the reasons for it - a city of immigrants, a city of pragmatic Cantonese, a city built on commerce and opportunity - but anyone that cannot bring themselves to acknowledge this fact faces a rather unpleasant sojourn.

Nevertheless, we do find people that find it difficult to live with the mercenary attitudes of Hong Kong residents, in a city without allegiances except to Mammon. Here is an example of 'Dolly', an anonymous poet that decried these attitudes over a century ago (taken from an anthology of old writings by Barbara-Sue White entitled Hong Kong: Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth):
Away with books! Nor let in Pleasure's train,
One single elevating thought remain;
What boots it, though in ignorance we live?
The human mind was made for naught but gain.

Away with books! Let Sport and Dollars rule;
What need of Culture? We who went to school,
Learned all required of us to fill a place,
In bank or business on the office stool.

'Degenerate'? Why use so harsh a word?
From gaining dollars who would be deterred
By wish for knowledge, yielding no return
For time and trouble uselessly incurred.

Away with books! Let Pallas yield her place
To Comus, and the Terpsichorean grace;
Carlyle and Huxley? What care we for them?
Who once have pulled an oar, or won a race?

Away with books! Dash Wisdom's trophies down,
And Intellect in sparkling vintage drown;
Our servitude to Folly freely give,
And Bacchus and Athene's laurels crown.

This be our cue; to try to emulate
The lower brutes, in their contented state,
That strive for naught beyond their daily food;
And spurn with scorn the books that elevate.

Away with books! Yet stay, we fain would keep
The novel, so it's lesson be not deep;
The 'Deadwood Dick,' of blood-and-thunder strain,
That will not rouse us from our sottish sleep.

So we can boast that we in Hongkong here,
Are far without vain Learning's futile sphere;
And count, where 'ignorance is bliss,' that we
Are doubly happy in the larger share.
This poem may be illuminating to those of you who think that the lust for cash is a purely Chinese phenomenon that expats simply fall into from over-long residence in Hong Kong. On the contrary, the ethos of Hong Kong and its 'business-first, put bread/rice on the table' mentality was very much a fact of life in Hong Kong from the moment Jardines opened its 'Matheson Opium Store' in 1841. It just so happens, it seems, that the Hong Kong Chinese are the proud inheritors of that commercial tradition.

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