Panda in the Hugo Boss

I apologize up front as this post is a little longer than usual, and some of the comments in this post may not be politically correct.  But I think I’ve finally been able to verbalize some of my own complicated feelings towards Hong Kong and Mainland China as an American-born Chinese.

I’ve also been thinking about some of the events of the summer and fall almost 23 years ago.  Some of you aren’t old enough to remember 1989 and the seismic fall of the Berlin Wall or Tiananmen.  But the summer of 1989 was a personally significant year.  It was the year that I first fell in love with Hong Kong. So please excuse me as I delve into past memories of this complex 23-year relationship.

Fade back to the summer of 1989—eight years before the 1997 Handover and just one month after the June Fourth Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing.

It was the beginning of our family side-trip to Hong Kong.  My parents, brother and I had flown from Seattle to Taipei for the summer to visit family and to attend a wedding.  At 14, I was thrilled to get a better glimpse of another world dramatically different from my home in the rural wheat fields of Eastern Washington.  Since we were already in Taiwan that summer, a bonus visit to glamorous Hong Kong was a reward of sorts, as it was an easy one-hour plane ride from Taipei.

Growing up, my parents and aunts and uncles kept reminding me that even though I was Chinese-American, the future—my future—would somehow be linked to China’s rising star.  And so keeping up with my Mandarin would be important, even though it was not considered particularly cool.  I suspect all immigrant parents repeat the same clichés to try to motivate their children to keep studying and practicing their native languages.

But on this trip to Hong Kong, we were forbidden from speaking in Mandarin.  My mother feared that we’d be mistaken for Mainland Chinese (“Dalu ren”) and treated like unsophisticated, vulgar Communist bumpkins.  Even in the late 80s, Hong Kong was still clinging to its fading British colonial sheen and no one would be caught dead speaking Mandarin in public.  All around me nothing but rapid-fire Cantonese or de rigueur Queen’s English was audible.

Over the next few days, we managed to hit most of the main tourist sites including Victoria Peak via the Peak Tram funicular, Star Ferry and Ocean Park.  We sampled amazing food.  But the pinnacle of the trip was high tea in the grand, creamy-white marbled lobby of the Peninsula Hotel on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui.  It was like stepping back in time with a Rolls Royce fleet parked out front and white-gloved doormen who swung open the giant glass doors for you.  Upon entering the lobby, I was swept up into a glamorous gilded age surrounded by beautiful neo-classical ivory columns and a live string quartet playing soothing chamber music from the music alcove above the lobby.  The glory of British colonialism was alive and well at the Peninsula where the elaborate décor screamed: “God Save the Queen!”

I was intrigued as a wide-eyed small-town girl, and I didn’t realize that this intrigue would soon blossom into romance.  I had already visited Hong Kong a few times growing up, but standing in that lobby was the first moment that I became cognizant of the energy and the extravagance of this cosmopolitan place.  It was intoxicating.  I was surrounded by people from all over the world, but I also saw the disparity in the ways people behaved.  Hong Kong is a discriminating place and the people there can size you up immediately to tell if you’re a Somebody or a Nobody.  And while speaking good Cantonese never hurt in getting better service, unlike other large metropolitan cities where last names and background matter, in Hong Kong, money is the great equalizer.  They don’t care as much about pedigree.  As long as you “show them the money,” you will be catered to.

Us Chinese, we tend to be clannish.  We discriminate between each other based on dialect and what province in China your ancestors came from, even when you’re not living in China.  Northerners, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Hokkien, Sichuanese, the list goes on and on, constantly dividing Chinese among lines of language and geography.  And the affiliated stereotypes abound: Northerners are more belligerent and like to fight.  The Cantonese are loud, rude, and obsessed with weird foods.  They are conniving in business, but not as conniving as the Shanghainese who are the shrewdest of us all so beware of the Shanghainese—particularly Shanghainese women.  The Hokkien are cheap, and the Sichuanese, well, we all know they like spicy foods.

Today, while Mandarin is the official national language of China, many regions (particularly in Southern China) still commonly use local dialects for everyday purposes.  The different regions in China are diverse in language and cultures and it still surprises me that despite hundreds of years of historical and bureaucratic use, Mandarin did not officially become China’s national spoken language until around 1932. But given Hong Kong’s unique British colonial history, Mandarin was not widely used and held negative associations with Mainland China, particularly before the 1997 Handover.

Fast-forward 11 years to 2000.  After graduate school, I was now a wide-eyed 25-year-old in Hong Kong starting my first real job—the kind of a job where you get an embossed business card on thick cardstock. As a Chinese-American expat not conversant in Cantonese, I was fully prepared for the din of Cantonese static when I moved to Hong Kong.   I recalled my impressions from my 1989 visit.  And despite my Chinese face and proficiency in Mandarin, I dutifully followed my mother’s advice about “being American” and speaking only English in Hong Kong.  God forbid they mistake me for a Mainlander!  Secretly, I was desperate for Hong Kong to accept me as one of her own, even though I didn’t speak Cantonese and held an American (and not a UK or Commonwealth) passport.  I still loved Hong Kong, but she obviously did not love me back.

I stayed well within my own personal expat Bubble: a 1-mile diameter area in Central and the Mid-Levels where I could get by easily on foot armed only with English.  The Bubble included my flat, office, and all the shopping malls, bars and restaurants that I frequented.  Most of my expat friends also lived within the Bubble.  And even though it was only 10 minutes away, I avoided occasions of having to cross over to “the Dark Side”—to Tsim Sha Tsui on the southern tip of the Kowloon peninsula, just across Victoria Harbour from the northern tip of Hong Kong Island—much like how a Manhattanite loathes crossing the bridge into Brooklyn.  Looking back, it was a limited sheltered existence, but one that worked seamlessly for me as a non-Cantonese speaking Chinese-American expat.

So imagine my surprise when I started to hear pockets of Mandarin being spoken in the streets, particularly after the 2003 implementation of the Individual Visit Scheme, which allowed select travelers from Mainland China to visit Hong Kong independently.  I was shocked.  Slowly I started to notice a few local vendors, restaurant servers, and retail sales clerks who also spoke Mandarin—albeit with a heavy Cantonese accent—particularly to cater to the growing number of tourists from Mainland China who started flocking into Hong Kong to spend their excess Renminbi.  Even the taxicab drivers were starting to speak a bit of Mandarin.  (Some of my most frustrating experiences in Hong Kong were associated with address confusion given my terrible butchering of Cantonese street names.  But I’d always first attempt to say the street names in bad Cantonese before reverting to American English to prove to the cabbie that I was still a good Chinese-American who was “making an effort” so that the cabbie wouldn’t judge me.)

At first, it seemed as if Hong Kong welcomed these Mandarin-speaking Mainlanders with open arms given their lucrative stimulation of the post-SARS Hong Kong economy.  But as with everything, Hong Kong would have to swallow the whole package, taking the good economic benefits along with related and sometimes undesirable side effects.

What was going on?  Was Hong Kong slowly warming to the Mainland and was its thawing attitude towards Mandarin indicative of the changing power dynamics between Hong Kong and China?  Or as one friend put it: was Hong Kong the proverbial frog in tepid water, slowly and unwittingly being boiling to death?

While the exponentially growing volume of tourists and expats from Mainland China has been advantageous to Hong Kong’s economy, I could also sense a growing backlash among true Hong Kong people on a slowly encroaching Mainland.  My Hong Kong friends would complain about the excessive spitting and eating in the subways by oblivious and rude Mainland tourists.  My mother’s words still rang true.  Despite the fact that I was trying my best to blend in, I realized that many of the Mainland Chinese tourists who came to Hong Kong in droves weren’t interested in blending into Hong Kong like me.  They seemed to be more interested in buying it up piecemeal, spending bagloads of cash on luxury goods and property.

It was January 2007 just before Chinese New Year, the biggest holiday of the year in Hong Kong.  By then I had become a seasoned shopper and this was the one time during the year that I would venture into a boutique.  January boasted the biggest markdowns on the current season’s winter collection.  We’re talking 40% off on luxury brands, people!  So basically you could get really nice high-end stuff at heavily discounted prices if your size still happened to be available on the rack.

I was walking that weekend in Central indulging in a bit of retail therapy.  I happened to pass by the Hugo Boss store on Queen’s Road and noticed a small black 40% off sale sign discretely set up in the corner.  What the heck, I needed to find a nice birthday gift to send to my father, and so I decided to duck inside.  I entered into the store glancing at the new spring collection (not interested, not on sale) and made a beeline straight back to the discount section, and started browsing leisurely.

“Can I help you Miss?” the black-clad sales associate inquired in English as she sauntered up to me.  I could feel her eyeballs zoom in on me as she was sizing me up, checking out my clothes and my handbag to correctly conclude that I was: 1) Unmarried (no ring), 2) Chinese-American, and 3) a Nobody.  No big sales commission for her here.

“Uh, no, I’m ok. I’m just looking,” I replied as I went back to my bargain hunting.  My body language clearly communicated to her: Please leave me in peace and I just might buy something small and on sale.  Stop judging me.

Right then, the doors opened again and I heard a large booming voice in Mandarin yell: “Yes, but let’s look in HERE, they’re having a SALE!”

I could tell he was a Northerner, most likely from Beijing or Tianjin according to his Mandarin, which flowed with lots of “-er” sounds at the end of each sentence.  Southerners don’t add the extra “-er” to words when they speak Mandarin.  He sported a gaudy orange VERSACE t-shirt with the huge snake-entwined head of Medusa logo emblazoned diagonally across his chest.  His buzz cut black hair was in need of a trim, revealing a poofy East Asian hair growth pattern commonly known among Chinese men as “the Chi-fro.”  Rotund and fuzzy, he reminded me of a Chinese Panda, but not as adorable and certainly more obnoxious and high-maintenance (though, I’ve heard that for bears, Pandas are actually quite high-maintenance.)

I realized that I was about to witness the archetypical nightmare Mainland Chinese tourist in his natural Hong Kong retail habitat.  I clicked into David Attenborough mode, BBC voice and all, making sure to observe the scene closely out of the corner of my eye.

His entourage was weighed down by the dozen shopping bags from other luxury boutiques down the street.  They made their way to the lounge area of the store and collapsed on the austere German designer leather couches.  All were clearly on a mission to spend.  Who knows where all the money came from and everyone in the entourage except Panda looked exhausted from spending it.

But Panda was on the hunt and started foraging among the bright-colored non-sale spring collection, picking out collared golf shirts for himself.  The black-clad salesgirl quickly perked up and hustled over to help Panda.  Cha-ching I’m sure she was thinking in her head.

“This is our new spring collection.  I see you’ve picked out some great pieces.  Would you like to try them on?” she asked Panda in her heavily Cantonese-accented Mandarin.

“Yes, thank you, I think I will,” Panda replied with several definitive “–ers.”

And right then and there, he dropped his shopping bags on the floor.  In one deft motion, he stripped off his orange VERSACE t-shirt to reveal his very rotund, undefined hairless Panda torso for all in the store to see.  There was no undershirt and it wasn’t pretty.

Before the salesgirl or anyone could say anything, he quickly donned the green Boss golf shirt and started rumbling around to store in search of a large mirror.  Despite his size, Panda was pretty quick.  I don’t think the poor salesgirl had any idea it would be this hard for her to earn her commission.

“Sir, I’m sorry, we have a fitting room for you here in the back!  If you’ll just follow me…”

“Ah no no, it’s fine.  I prefer to try on the clothes out here.  It’s more convenient and the lighting is better,” Panda protested as he checked himself out in a large floor-length mirror in the center of the store.  The green golf shirt was a bit too tight, in my opinion.

This process continued until I could no longer stand being flashed by Panda’s large shapeless torso.  I had to get out of the store before Panda decided he wanted to try on pants!  As I made my way to the glass door, I felt a burning sense of shame as a Chinese person and as a fellow Mandarin speaker.  But for the first time, I also felt a righteous indignation on behalf of Hong Kong.  Panda was the new face of power and influence and Hong Kong has little choice but to adapt, and I was angry.  Had I finally become a true Hong Konger?

It was then that I finally realized that if Hong Kong was forced to adopt and eventually love the obnoxious flashing Panda in the Hugo Boss, then surely… surely Hong Kong would find a little more room in her cavernous heart to love me back as well.  I know she does because we have over 20 years of history together.

Change is happening all around us, and often times the shifts are so unwittingly gradual that we do not notice until suddenly we find ourselves drifting across a chasm.  1989 is a long time ago.  Even 2007 seems like a lifetime ago.  I left Hong Kong in 2008, and I admit that as someone watching Hong Kong from the outside now, I feel a perilous sense of loss for the Hong Kong in my memory–particularly for those rare characteristics that make Hong Kong such a unique and sophisticated entrepot.  While I am curious to see what Hong Kong will be like in the future, I fear that she will become just like any other city in China.  And I will once again be just another outsider looking in.