Thoughts on Hong Kong’s consumer culture

Graveyard in Macau - No relation to the post. I just thought it pretty dramatic.

I’ve been thinking a lot about consumer culture here in Hong Kong. It’s a lot of speculation on my part, and nothing I can substantiate right now – two months can lead one to make a lot of specious assumptions with no real knowledge. Part of this is asking questions I couldn’t even begin to answer.

Being in any sort of shopping area brings me extreme discomfort. As much as I love the atmosphere of the markets, it is here especially that one tends to be pounced on by the vendor of the stall immediately. I’m not sure if the same is true for everyone or if because I’m Caucasian, they figure I’m a tourist and therefore going to be susceptible to spending more money.

There are times when I’ve been in more traditional areas where vendors are selling authentic Chinese goods and they have been kind enough to educate me more on the symbolism and the purpose of the items. While it is wonderful of them to do so, it makes me feel uncomfortable to walk away without purchasing anything, as it seems there is still an implicit relationship of buyer and seller. They have given their time to educate me about their goods, and I in turn purchase something.

There seems to be a point when the vendor in your average market stall will know they’ve lost the potential sale – the friendliness they greeted you with disappears and their faces are closed to you, sullen and cold. If I haven’t fled from their initial pounce, I will at this point – wondering about their practical situations – how much money they make and if it’s enough to survive – if they hate this job with an utter passion (I would) – 10-8, and how tiring it must be to endlessly try to peddle their wares to people – dealing with obnoxious tourists who will laugh at their prices, only accepting the rock bottom concession that is made by the vendor as they walk away.

Man Selling Shrink Wrap Machine

Man Selling Shrink Wrap Machine - I can't help but think that all the ladies were watching because he was good looking. I mean, really? A shrink wrap machine demonstration??

I can’t get over what feels like the shiny newness of the sales industry (I don’t mean the markets themselves). Hong Kong was primarily a manufacturing economy and in the past two decades has become a service economy. In the markets it is not uncommon to see someone with a hands-free microphone selling some gadget, charismatically giving demonstrations. What amazes me is that often I don’t know why the item would warrant such a sales act or why people would even buy it despite the act – a shrink wrap machine, a cleaning mitt, and sometimes even just little chachkas. All the same, the salesperson extols the value of the product like gospel.

Man selling I don't know what - I couldn't figure it out before I got a "Missy, missy - no no!!!" because I was taking pictures. Chachkas??

The atmosphere in your retail stores is much different than the market, but still makes me think “new”. You are greeted by every single person you encounter and I have yet to come across an unfriendly salesperson. I know some stores back in the US require you to greet each shopper you encounter, but it is nowhere near the scale of Hong Kong.

I’ve been wondering about class and the idea of being a retail salesperson – in a culture where consumerism and business are prized above all else, are these people proud of their jobs in a way that retail workers in the United States aren’t? Is a retail job in a shiny new mall more highly regarded than what is probably a much better paying manufacturing job? Or is this perhaps a holdover from colonial Hong Kong where a subset of people are expected to serve without complaint? I’m also really curious about how I’m treated and how it might be different in comparison to someone who is perceived as a native Hongkonger.

Despite the image that Hong Kong tries to put forth – a glittering, wealthy metropolis – how much of the population is truly able to partake in the life it represents?

The things the man was selling... nightlights?? Chachkas!!

  • Cynthia

    I believe you’re right in that being Caucasian affects how you are treated. I have Asian American friends who tell me they are treated differently in Asian than other Americans. Fascinating observations!

  • Erin O'Rourke

    Thanks for your comment Cynthia! Do you remember how your Asian American friends got treated? My guess is that it seems I’m treated better than most groups because I’m Caucasian. In a similar vein, I’ve heard that in Japan white people are treated better than Japanese people from Brazil because they are considered imposters – Japanese people who know nothing of the “real” Japan. which is considered worse than an ignorant foreigner. So complex!!

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