03 August 2015

10 Years in Hong Kong - Part 2 香港十年 - 下卷

I often tell overseas friends that Hong Kong is like a diva who gets a makeover every few years. In the past decade alone, the city has gone through several rounds of transformation that rendered postcards and guidebooks instantly obsolete each time.

The waterfront on the island side, for instance, has received a complete facelift. The twin piers in Central – Star Ferry and Queen’s – fell under the wrecking ball, replaced by a sprawl of reclaimed land to house new docks, a giant Ferris wheel and possibly the world’s most extravagant government office building. Across the harbor, the effect of relocating the airport to Lantau and relaxing building height limitations is finally felt. New skyscrapers have been popping up in Kowloon like bamboo shoots: K11, the Arch, and the 118-story ICC, the city’s tallest structure.

This endless cycle of urban development and redevelopment – and the image of prosperity and progress it projects – is like placing a pretty rug over a gap-toothed floor. Beneath the surface, a confluence of economic, cultural, social and political changes are threatening the status quo and demanding a new way of governance. They say change is the only constant; in our case, change is also the biggest variable. It is happening both too fast and not nearly fast enough.

The latest makeover

Economic changes

The soaring cost of living is everybody’s bête noire in Hong Kong. When I moved here 10 years ago, the taxi meter started at a reasonable HK$15. It is $22 today, a 50% increase. The flag fall fare will likely go up to $24 by the end of this year. The cost of a bowl of wonton noodles at Tsim Chai Kee (沾仔記) on Wellington Street – my personal measure of consumer prices – has doubled from $13 to $26. It is still a bargain considering the restaurants prime location and how many bowls of noodles they must sell every day to pay rent. 

Speaking of rent, I walked by a real estate agent’s office in Midlevels the other day, and saw the name of my first apartment building on Robinson Road printed in bold font on the window display. The monthly rent of a unit in that building is now more than twice the amount I used to pay in 2005. But things are even worse elsewhere. As property prices continue to skyrocket, competition for affordable housing intensified, resulting in a market anomaly: smaller flats in more remote areas are outpacing luxury homes in terms of rent increase.

During the same 10-year period, my salary has gone up by at around 2.5% each year, which is considered respectable among my peers given the Lehman fallout in 2007 and the financial tsunami that ensued. I couldn’t resist the temptation to crunch these numbers on a calculator, which led me to a sobering conclusion: the average renter who subsists on wonton noodles and takes a cab every now and then – thats most people in Hong Kong – is roughly 40% poorer in real terms than he was a decade ago

Citizens like to point the finger at the “hot money” coming from China. Mainlanders are driving up prices and drying up supply in Hong Kong, the same way the Russians and the Arabs are in London. In recent years, growing public outcry has prompted the SAR government to come up with a slew of stopgap measures to prevent a run on everything from real estate to daily supplies. In 2012, a 15% stamp duty was imposed on property purchases by non-permanent residents. Starting 2013, Mainland mothers are prohibited from giving birth at public hospitals in Hong Kong and no one can leave the city with more than two cans of baby formula. What’s next? A ban on shampoo sale to anyone who speaks Mandarin?

But our economic woes are far deeper than simple supply and demand. When it comes to innovation and industrial diversification, changes are not just happening too slowly – they are not happening at all. Hong Kong is increasingly behaving like a one-trick pony prancing in its own La-la Land of banking and finance, while neighboring economies like South Korea and Singapore are branching out to clean energy, life sciences and nanotechnology. Our Science Park and Cyberport, both opened for business circa 2005, turned out to be glorified real estate developments. C.Y. Leung’s proposal to set up an Innovation and Technology Bureau was derailed by filibusters in 2012 and again this year, after pan-democratic lawmakers accused it of being just another pork barrel project to benefit cronies.

And so we are right where we were 10 years ago – all our eggs are still in the same financial services basket. Perhaps our being stuck in the rut is more by design than by circumstance. Cynics argue that Beijing has made a conscious decision to keep Hong Kong a “single industry city,” in order to make its economy more fragile and the population more governable. It is believed that pet birds are easier to tame if their wings are clipped

Not for the faint of heart

Cultural changes

In 2006, Facebook opened its doors to any user over the age of 13. Around the same time, online chat room Golden Forum (高登討論區) gained traction by putting out funny parodies of local politicians. A few years later, a trio of twenty-somethings founded 100 Most (100毛) – a satirical  “infotainment” weekly that focuses on the hundred most talked about topics in town – and used their nimbleness to take control of the public narrative. Little by little, these new platforms began to replace traditional print media as the leading news source and the key battleground where public opinion wars are won and lost

Meanwhile, YouTube and streaming sites are pushing public television to the brink of extinction. For decades, TVB’s near-monopoly has given the broadcaster a false sense of security, allowing it to churn out banal soap operas and cringe-worthy awards shows without losing its viewership. Then came the wake-up call: the epic fall of rival ATV after its acquisition by mainland Chinese businessman Wang Zheng in 2010 and HKTV's failed bid for a broadcasting license in 2013. At first glance, the two incidents stand to bolster TVB’s market position even more. In reality, they have exposed how the lack of competition is breeding bad programming and slaughtering the television industry.

Joining the telly in the graveyard of dead entertainment is the once-revered Hong Kong cinema and Cantopop. In 2005, the number of locally produced films stood at 57, down from a high of 238 in the 1990s. The number dropped to a record low of 42 in 2013 and rebounded somewhat to 51 in 2014. The Guardian sums up the grim reality well: “The golden age – when John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark seemed to effortlessly knock off miracles of motion – is history.” No wonder industry insiders call it the “Hong Kong Crash.”

If you think movie production is depressing, the carnage in the music industry is even worse. A record label executive said to me the other day, “Nowadays, even an A-list singer would be lucky to sell 500 copies of a new album. And if the number breaks 1,000, which rarely happens, the studio will bring out the champagne!” The downward spiral is partly attributed to MP3 sharing and online piracy; but the real culprit is the lack of oxygen for local talent to thrive. 

It’s an open secret that both the movie and music industries are dominated by entertainment empires run by the local mafia, which perhaps explains why so many local films romanticize and glorify the Triads. At the same time, social pressure is making young artists wake up from their showbiz dreams and opt for safer career paths in banking and finance. These days, citizens can only cling to the past, remembering bygone superstars like Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui – both passed away in 2003  as if they were deceased family members. We watch with abandon as Hong Kong goes from a net exporter of pop culture to a net importer of music, movies and drama series.  

Tomorrow never came

Social changes

The biggest shockwave is the arrival of Mainlanders by the tens of millions. The number of visitors from China has nearly quadrupled from 12.5 million in 2005 to a record high of 47.2 million in 2014. For perspective, that’s seven times the city’s population. In 2005, Mainlanders accounted for 54% of the total number of tourists coming to Hong Kong. 10 years later, the percentage jumped to 78%. Among them are armies of parallel traders who load up on merchandise over here and resell it at a higher price back home. Apart from quality assurance, the big draw is the exchange rate: the renminbi has appreciated more than 30% against the Hong Kong dollar since 2005.

The striking imbalance in our tourist mix has many side effects, but none more glaring than the transformation of the citys retail landscape. 10 years ago, our streets were crowded but not impenetrable. Today, citizens are lucky not to be run over by rolling suitcases on Canton Road or Russell Street. The IFC Mall – a microcosm of Hong Kong’s retail scene and a place I walked through multiple times a day – used to be upscale but not inaccessible. There were a half-dozen affordable restaurants and two bookstores to hang out at during lunch time. Not any more. With 43 stores listed under the “Jewellery” category in its directory, the mall is now dominated by a homogeneity of luxury stores, making it virtually indistinguishable from an airport duty-free arcade. The last bookstore was evicted in 2014 to make way for a fashion label flagship. Shopping, the national pastime for millions of Hong Kongers, has all but lost its appeal – at least domestically. Many prefer spending their hard-earned cash in Taipei or Tokyo, where retail means more than Chanel and Cartier.

This unplanned, uncontrolled influx of Mainland visitors is a tough pill for many Hong Kongers to swallow. To the social conservative, their presence is tantamount to an invasion and raises the specter of social engineering by the Communists to dilute our “Hong Kongness.” 12 years since the Individual Visit Scheme (自由行) was introduced to relax travel restrictions on Chinese nationals visiting Hong Kong, cross-border tension and nativist sentiment are at an all-time high. Racial slurs such as locust and zhinaren (支那人; a derogatory term coined by Japanese imperialists over a century ago) are used liberally on social media to refer to our cousins north of the border.

Locals don't shop on Canton Road

Political changes

When I first arrived in the city in 2005, Donald Tsang had just been sworn in as the second chief executive after his predecessor Tung Chee-wah was fired by Beijing. Tsang was a career bureaucrat who did the city neither good nor harm – he hardly did anything at all. But as soon as C.Y. Leung took over in 2012, it was all downhill from there. With the help of the Liaison Office (the de facto Chinese consulate in Hong Kong) and emboldened by a new leadership in Beijing that is distracted by its own epic power struggles, Leung began to dismantle the city bit by bit.

The destruction was systematic in method and broad in scope. Leung started with academic freedom – from his effort to introduce a moral and national curriculum in 2012 to the attempt to quietly sabotage the appointment of a pro-democracy vice chancellor at the University of Hong Kong – and quickly moved on to the freedom of the press. He didn’t succeed with the former, but he and he allies have done well with the latter. PEN America, a Washington-based watchdog, published a damning report earlier this year about the accelerating deterioration of press freedom in Hong Kong. The document presents mounting evidence of economic pressures on pro-democracy newspapers, staff reshufflings at news organizations, and the intimidation of journalists.

In politics, action and reaction always go hand-in-hand. The appointment of C.Y. Leung has sped up Beijing’s political agenda for Hong Kong, but it has also radicalized the opposition. A decade ago, Long Hair and his League of Social Democrats party were the firebrand rebels on the fringes of the political spectrum. Today, they are the moderates and are labeled as pacifists – or “leftards” – by splinter groups like Civic Passion and HK Indigenous. The new radical kids on the block believe that the LSD and their fellow pan-democrats have been wasting everybody’s time with their kumbaya, let’s-sit-down-and-talk approach, and that they should get out of the way so that real warriors like them can take real action, which includes getting physical with police officers and harassing Mainland visitors. And because these people will always choose scorched earth over common ground, society has become more polarized than it has ever been.

In 2014, bitter debate over an electoral reform proposal and the flagrant meddling by Beijing in the consultation process touched off a citywide class boycott and the now-infamous tear gas crackdown on 28 September. The escalating events culminated in the largest pro-democracy protest in the city’s history. Even though the Umbrella Movement failed to deliver what the suffragists had wanted to achieve, it sent a strong message to the Communist leadership that the city would not roll over and take their political abuse lying down – as so many had thought we would. More importantly, the movement has planted a seed in our youths. Among people in their 20s and 30s, voter registration has surged and many more are now paying attention to local politics. With this unprecedented level of civic participation, all it takes is a spark for the next social uprising to take hold. So fasten your seatbelt  its only a matter of time before a bigger and more violent turbulence hits again.

Civic Passion ready for battle

Fight or flight

If all that sounds unsettling to you, that’s because it is. Little has gone unnoticed by the expatriate community, and many will flee the city at the first sign of trouble. Since 2005, there have been two waves of exodus of expats: the first was by force in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and the second was by choice following the conclusion of the Umbrella Movement last December. In the past six months, I have attended more farewell parties to send off friends and colleagues – bankers, business owners, writers and journalists – than I ever did in all of the past 10 years combined.

A week ago, I had lunch with Al, a barrister and a pan-democrat politician who repatriated from Toronto about the same time I did. He told me that lately he has been regretting his decision to renounce his Canadian citizenship when he ran for public office several years ago. We talked about ways for him to reapply for permanent residence in Canada, and went on to analyze the pros and cons of emigrating to the U.K., Australia and even Taiwan. The conversation was as depressing as my lunch partner was pessimistic. Al lamented the twin frustration – and futility – of going up against the tone-deaf SAR government and the uncompromising Death Star up north. “I’m afraid things will get much worse before they will get better, if they will get better at all,” Al sighed. I tried to lighten up the mood. “If we cannot outgun the Communists, then we just have to outsmart them,” I said, before offering my reassurance. “We Hong Kongers are known for our street smarts and quick thinking, arent we?”  

In the introduction to my second book published 18 months ago, I wrote:
“Throughout our history, we have been told time and again that we are a city in decline. Skeptics have long prophesized the end of Hong Kong. Plight after predicament, we have proven them wrong. Our optimism, resilience and that copyrightable brand of Lion Rock Spirit have always pulled us out of the rut. It is ever thus.  
But is it? 18 months later, I am starting to doubt whether street smarts and quick thinking alone are enough to get us through the challenges ahead. 10 years on, I am beginning to wonder if my optimism is simply blind faith, and if I am in denial out of my deep affection for the city. Like Al, I can use some reassurance right about now.

Are street smarts alone enough?

27 July 2015

10 Years in Hong Kong - Part 1 香港十年 - 上卷

This past Saturday marked my 10th anniversary in Hong Kong.

To be precise, it was the 10th anniversary of my repatriation to Hong Kong. I left the city in my teens as part of the diaspora which saw hundreds of thousands others fleeing from Communist rule ahead of the 1997 Handover. For nearly two decades, I moved from city to city in Europe and North America, never once returning to my birthplace in the interim. Until 2005. That summer, I turned in the keys to my Manhattan apartment, packed a suitcase, and headed east.

A personal milestone

My law firm agreed to transfer me from New York to their Hong Kong outpost half a world away. On my last day of work, Jon, one of the partners I worked for, called me into his office for a few words of wisdom. He told me that there was no such thing as a right or wrong decision, and that people could only make life choices based on what they knew at the time. “I assume you’ve done your due diligence,” Jon gave me wink, “in that case I should wish you good luck. Boldly go, Mr. Ng.” He stood up and shook my hand. “And if for whatever reason things don’t work out over there,” Jon offered, “there’s always a place for you here.”

On 25 July 2005, I boarded my flight, Continental Airlines CO99, at JKF Airport. My heavy carry-on bag was no match for my heavy heart. I never quite wrapped my head around why I decided to return to Hong Kong. Perhaps it was to rediscover my roots. Perhaps it was to find my true calling. Or perhaps it was just an impulse – the kind that makes a boy take apart his father’s watch or set off into the dark forest with a flashlight. Whatever it was, I had made my bed and now I had to lie in it. And lie I did, in the flat bed on the 15-hour transpacific flight. A short nap, two movies (Closer and Finding Neverland) and 12 time zones later, I was home. This sweaty, spastic, hyperventilating city was now my home. Well, not quite – at least not yet. 

My old hood in Manhattan

My first impression of the city was like reading the first two parts of Gulliver’s Travels simultaneously. Hong Kong was a fusion of Lilliput and Brobdingnag, where things were both bigger and smaller than how I remembered them. Buildings were of course taller and shopping malls larger. At the same time, the streets got narrower and the average apartment, the scourge of seven million minus the 1%, felt like a very expensive dollhouse. 

I made a point to visit my family’s old apartment in Tin Hau, the place where I spent my entire childhood with my parents and four siblings. I didn’t have the keys and so I followed someone into the building. For ventilation purposes, residents in old walkups often left their main doors open with the barred metal gates shut. So I was able to peek into one of the units the same size as ours, before being awash in old memories and new revelations. Among the mix of emotions was gratitude: how lucky that all seven of us were able to coexist in this shoebox without murdering each other.

The first thing a newcomer to any city does is get a mobile number. That first night, I walked into Three Mobile in Causeway Bay and walked out with a number that started with a 6. All the 9 numbers were taken, according to the store clerk. It took me back to the time when I first arrived in New York and had to reluctantly accept a 646 mobile number after all the coveted 917s had run out. I took comfort in the sudden realization that big cities weren’t that different from each other after all. 

My first smartphone in Hong Kong was a Sony Ericsson Walkman phone that made calls and played music. It stored up to 80 MP3s and even had a 2-megapixel camera. I felt empowered – it was like having the world in my hands. Updating my address book, however, was an ego deflator. I keyed in my brother Kelvin’s number and that of his wife and perhaps three childhood friends. Those were all the people I knew in Hong Kong outside the office. Big cities have a way of making one feel anonymous, sometimes invisible. My Sony Ericsson wouldn’t let me forget that.

For at least the first year or so, I would mentally divide every number by 8 (or 7.8 if I was up for an arithmetic challenge) to convert the Hong Kong dollar to USD. Cab fare from my apartment to the office was $32 at the time – that came to US$4 and was really quite reasonable. I would keep a list of things I needed to buy on my next family trip to Toronto and New York: toothpaste, dental floss, shampoo and other simple things that I could find in Hong Kong but that weren’t exactly the same as the ones I was used to. Then there were books and magazines – why are books and magazines so expensive here? On my annual “home leave,” I would bring an empty suitcase and come back with a year’s supply of reading material from Amazon.com. 

A maddening place

In December 2007, I opened a Facebook account at the urging of two summer interns visiting from California. I remember my first wall post was a picture taken at my housewarming party. I had just moved to a new apartment after my old lease had expired and my landlady had asked for a 30% rent hike. The party was well-attended – by then I had made enough friends to fill a respectful address book. Meeting people in Hong Kong turned out to be easier than I first thought, because everyone here seems to know each other and their third cousin. The three degrees of separation is both handy and frightening, depending on how one carries himself socially. Whatever regrettable things one says or does will come back and bite him in the rear within 48 hours. After getting myself burned a few times, I decided to make Polonius’ advice to “give thy thoughts no tongue” and “reserve thy judgment” Golden Rule No. 2 in my personal Hong Kong Survival Guide. I will come back to Rule No. 1 later.

The rise of social media and the incestuous social circles have turned the already competitive megacity into a cage fight. For all its beauty and wonder, Hong Kong can be a miserable, even toxic, place. It didn’t take me long to realize that the toughest part about living here is neither a lack of space nor the high cost of living. It is peer comparison – the blood sport played by the middle and upper middle classes. It is bad enough to measure success by what one has: where he lives, how much money he makes and which schools his children attends. It is so much worse, and borderline pathological, to peg one’s self-worth to what other people have that he doesn’t: where his friends live, how much money his friends make and which schools his friends’ children attend. No wonder people look so stressed out and high-strung all the time – there is no slowing down on the hamster wheel as long as someone else has more, better things. And someone else always does.

Refusing to play the game, I needed a change. Two years after my transfer to Hong Kong, I left my law firm and became an in-house counsel for a bank. The job gave me a more predictable timetable to explore the universe outside the endless cycle of paychecks and credit card bills, that self-defeating seesaw of making money and spending it on things I didn’t need and never wanted. 

Then, in November 2008, Barack Obama was elected the first African American president of the United States. I was so inspired by his acceptance speech in Chicago’s Grant Park that I finally did something I had put off doing for ages: I wrote my first blog entry. I began writing about politics because that’s what I love. Contrary to popular belief, local politics is anything but dull. There are so many proverbial elephants roaming in the city that the more I write the more there is for me to write about. Call it the butterfly effect or the law of unintended consequences, one thing soon led to another, and my blog grew into more than a bottle tossed into the ocean. Unbeknownst to me at the time, writing would take over my life and rescue me from an existential crisis.

My very first blog post

Time goes by like passing clouds in a time elapse video. But 10 years can also feel like a lifetime. My Manhattan apartment and all the friends and coworkers I left behind in New York are such distant memories that they now belong to the dusty pages of a biography set in a different place in a different time. 

Every now and then, the nagging question of why I decided to return to Hong Kong in the first place still pops into my head. 10 years on, I believe I am close to solving the mystery, and the answer lies in my puzzling reluctance to visit my hometown during all those years of bumming around overseas: I didn’t feel ready. There is something strangely human, even parental, about one’s birthplace; and there is something solemn, almost sacred, about one’s homecoming. For the longest time I was terrified of disappointing the place I loved with what little I had to show for. By 2005, nearly 20 years after I joined the diaspora, I finally felt I was ready. I had seen and experienced enough to come home to do my city proud, if only by a wee bit.

A lot can and did change in a decade. Continental Airlines merged with United three years ago and no longer exists. Sony Ericsson was rebranded before getting decimated by the iPhone, which is now in its sixth generation. I got used to the toothpastes and shampoos local pharmacies carry and stopped stockpiling daily supplies from Wal-Mart and Costco. I still feel like Gulliver sometimes – the relativity of time and space will always confound me no matter how long I have lived here. 

If there is one thing I have learned about surviving Hong Kong, it is that I have to go against the grain and boldly go where no one bothers to go. For life is a funny thing: happiness and fulfillment often lie in places that look dim and unrewarding. That includes writing, a pursuit that few take up because it promises neither fortune nor fame. All that takes me back to Golden Rule No. 1 in my Hong Kong Survival Guidechase not thy own tail and play not the game everyone else plays. Old good Polonius would agree.

If I ever run into Jon on the streets of New York, I will shake his hand once again and tell him that things have worked out quite well for me in Hong Kong. I will tell him that this sweaty, spastic, hyperventilating city is now my home, and that it has probably always been. 

This, my home

*                *                 *

From personal to political – read Jason’s look back on how Hong Kong has changed in the past decade, for the better and for the worse, in part 2 of this article to be posted later this week.

24 July 2015

Hong Kong's New Disease: Ridiculitis 香港新病:荒謬症

Cynics in the local media like to say: there’s no such thing as the most absurd, only the more absurd. The Cantonese saying may not translate well, but the message is clear – just when we think we have seen everything, something more bizarre will come along to knock us off our feet. That about sums up this past week in Hong Kong, where a spate of mind-boggling events in local politics left citizens jaw-dropped and thinking only one thought: are these people for real?

Several days ago, a woman was convicted of attacking a police inspector with, of all things, her breast. No, this is not one of those “his face ran into my fist!” excuses we used to hear in second grade – it is an actual ruling by a local magistrate. The 30-year-old defendant was found guilty of hitting the officer’s right arm with her bosom during an anti-parallel trade protest in March. It is unclear what kind of injuries the victim had sustained – no medical expert witness was called to testify.

Franklin Chu caught red-handed

In a separate incident which also involves a police officer, superintendent Franklin Chu was accused of using excessive force, after being caught on video whacking innocent onlookers with his baton during a protest last fall. In an investigative hearing, the now retired officer explained that the baton was a mere “extension of [his] arm,” with which he had “patted” passersby to speed up pedestrian traffic. The defense was so creative, and the argument so cutting-edge, that it would make Johnnie Cochrane smile in his grave.

Just when citizens were wondering whether they had been reading the April Fool’s Day edition of The Onion, they were bombarded with still more head-scratching and hair-raising headlines: Watergate, Laundrygate and Livergate. The first refers to the lead-contaminated water supply at a long and growing list of public housing estates, whereas the other two relate to medical blunders at public hospitals involving moldy bed sheets and miscalibrated machines to diagnose liver disease.

Watergate is the most stunning scandal of the three, not only because of the large number of public housing residents it affects, but also the spectacularly blatant attempts by the government to downplay the incident. One official told reporters, with a straight face, that the lead intake is rather safe “if the amount is averaged out over the resident’s lifetime,” while Housing Secretary Anthony Cheung threw a local subcontractor under the bus and pinned the entire blame of the public health crisis on one scapegoat. Meanwhile, the Health Department was under fire for underreporting lead levels – many water samples were collected after the faucet had been running for a few minutes, which allowed the level of contaminants to drop significantly from the actual levels to which residents have been exposed for many years.

Public housing residents being rationed lead-free water

Citizens had barely the time to process these surreal events when our chief executive decided to drop yet another bombshell at a hastily called press conference Monday afternoon. Addressing shellshocked reporters all by himself (which in itself was unusual), C.Y. Leung announced that Tsang Tak-sing, longtime bureaucrat and brother of Legco chairman Tsang Yuk-sing, would step down as Secretary for Home Affairs, and that the position would be filled by Lau Kong-wah, former vice chairman of the pro-Beijing DAB party. Also fired – I mean retiring – was Civil Service Secretary Paul Tang, who would be replaced by Customs Commissioner Clement Cheung, a political unknown.

The sudden cabinet reshuffle is astonishing for two reasons. First, both departures have added to the massive hemorrhage of personnel at the top level of government since C.Y. Leung took office in 2012. 11 other high ranking officials have either resigned or forced to leave in the past three years. The revolving door that is Leung’s cabinet speaks volumes about the boss’s people skills and ability to lead. Second, the appointment of Lau Kong-wah as Home Affairs Secretary flies in the face of meritocracy and reflects Leung’s “bite me” attitude toward critics. Lau is a washed-up politician so reviled that netizens compare him to a public trash can. His failure to keep his Legco seat in the 2012 elections drew revelers to celebrate outside his councilman’s office. Lau's surprise promotion this week, which will nearly triple his current salary as Mainland Affairs Undersecretary, feels like a practical joke for Leung to spite opponents.

The cabinet reshuttle: (from the left) Tsang, Tang, Lau and Cheung

Anywhere else in the world, any one of the foregoing events would have caused a public uproar. Having all of them happen in the same week would have sent angry mobs to the streets – vehicles would have been set on fire and government buildings stormed. Lawmakers would have initiated a vote of no confidence to remove the political leader. Not so in Hong Kong. After the initial shock has passed, the news cycle hurtles on. Each headline elicits a dry laugh from citizens and makes them pause for a moment, before everyone returns to whatever it is that they busy themselves with. Hong Kongers now have the memory of a goldfish and the attention span of a hyperactive toddler.

To get a sense of this collective ADHD, look no further than what has been trending on social media these past few days. Two pieces of entertainment news received wall-to-wall coverage on Facebook, and completely eclipsed political issues of far greater importance. The first relates to Canto-pop singer Hacken Lee, who has won some singing contest in China wearing a mask on stage to conceal this celebrity identity. Whoopie doo. Then another pop singer Juno Mak posted a trilogy of gut-wrenching ballads with which love sick listeners seem to resonate. Whoopie whoopie doo. Suddenly, all that outrage about police brutality, lead poisoning and Mr. Trash Can vanished from the public consciousness. Anger and indignation are switched off and replaced by a whole different set of emotions. But Hacken and Juno shouldn’t celebrate too quickly either  the moment the next cat video or grumpy baby meme comes along, they too will suffer the same fate and disappear into the echo chamber of the Internet.

Hacken Lee, a major distraction

The phenomenon is hardly limited to the general public – even the victims in some of the news stories are having a hard time staying focused. Take the Watergate scandal as an example. Tens of thousands of public housing residents have been exposed to lead for years, which may have caused kidney failure, heart disease, reproductive problems, and for babies and young children, brain damage. So far, at least 39 residents were found to have excessive lead in their blood, of whom 27 are children under six and the remaining 12 are lactating mothers. Does it mean riots at the housing estates or heads rolling at the Housing Department? Not quite. As soon as the government brought in free bottled water and free water filters, and promised to replace faucets and pipes in the coming months, the complaints subsided. Lead-poisoned residents happily accepted the government’s band-aid solutions, never mind the long term health effects or holding the negligent parties responsible. Allegations that a Chinese state-owned construction company had supplied substandard faucets swirled around for a while and faded away. Like everything else, the issue flamed out after the news cycle passed.

Hong Kong is suffering from a bad case of ridiculitis. Each government action or inaction gets more absurd than the last. But instead of demanding answers and accountability, citizens are more blasé and easily distracted than ever. Their attention span may have gotten shorter still after the Umbrella Movement ended last winter. Since then, many have been mired in hopelessness and detachment. Hong Kongers can’t help but feel that nothing they say or do – even after taking the drastic step of staging a massive protest that paralyzed large swaths of the city for 79 days – is able to change a thing. Their government and, to a larger extent, Beijing, are like a brick wall, immovable and impervious to any amount of kicking and screaming. In other words, their cynicism is merely a coping mechanism. For if they take things too seriously and fight too tenaciously, they will wind up hurting and disappointing themselves.

If this didn't work, what will?

So we end up right where authorities want us to be: in a state of willing submission where “oh well” is the response to every policy and decision, no matter how shocking or absurd. Nevertheless, if we genuinely care about our city and don’t want to be the docile subjects we are gradually becoming, then we had better start paying attention to things that actually matter, and keep our eyes on the ball until common sense is restored. Everything else, like Hacken and Juno, is just social anesthesia.