Skip to main content

It’s Complicated 化繁為簡

I grew up in a small flat in Hong Kong. To keep our shoebox of a place organized, my parents gave each of the five children a drawer to store their earthly possessions. Everything I owned growing up – coloring pencils, comic books, a secret stash of Haribo extra-sour cola bottles – had to fit inside a space roughly the size of a briefcase. And everything did. Throughout my childhood, that drawer was my whole life and my whole life was that drawer. When I left for boarding school in my teens, I emptied my belongings into a bag, packed a few pieces of clothing and went on my freewheeling way.

My childhood in a drawer

Twenty some years later, things cannot have been more different. The age of owning just one – one backpack, one pair of jeans, one Casio digital watch – is long gone. My current flat, though bigger than the one I grew up in, is bursting at the seams with stuff. Just stuff. I have two iPads, three wine buckets and six area rugs. My kitchen is a Noah’s Ark filled with gadgets I use once or twice a year. Whatever the difference is between a blender, a juicer and a food processor, I have at least one of each. Over the years, I have managed to amass nearly a dozen miniature Eiffel Towers – in the form of key chains, fridge magnets and snow globes – which I had inadvertently purchased myself or reluctantly received from friends.

Then there is my closet, that Ninth Circle of Inferno. Twice a year, I change out my wardrobe, putting away off-season clothes and swapping in things to wear for the coming months. I went through the Great Migration just last week. By a quick count, I own nine pairs of jeans, 16 polo shirts and 26 pairs of shorts. 26 pairs of near identical shorts! Yet, like most people, I only put on the same couple of favorites and complain I don’t have anything to wear. And so I keep on buying more. To make room for the new, I give away anything I haven’t worn in a year. That makes my brother Kelvin, who wears the same size as me, the primary beneficiary of my shopaholism.

Does your closet look like this too?

I have to wonder: how did I go from the wise kid who lived by Mies van der Rohe’s motto “less is more” to this out-of-control packrat who hoards like Scrat in the Ice Age films?

A big part of it is basic supply and demand. In the two and half decades since the halcyon days of my youth, consumer goods have become much more affordable. Cheap labor and economies of scale in China – the World’s Factory that manufactures 90% of the planet’s personal computers and 60% of its shoes – have driven down production costs and pumped up our purchasing power. Whereas worker bees a generation ago would think twice before investing in a winter coat, impulse buyers these days grab one in every color without batting an eyelid. When a polo shirt costs less than a beer, shoppers can binge at H&M or Uniqlo like it is an all-you-can-eat buffet.

What’s more, globalization and social media have enabled new product rollouts to reach every corner of the world with the click of a mouse, instantly turning our wants into needs and needs into needless clutter. What was once fashionable can become hopelessly uncool in a matter of months (try using an iPhone 4 at a party). And things that didn’t even exist a few years ago suddenly become must-haves we can’t live without (count the number of noise-cancelling earphones on any given flight). All those old phones, old cameras and old laptops, each with an unwieldy charger, get dumped into a box labelled “too expensive to toss, too embarrassing to use.”

Their low wages make us feel wealthier

On a deeper psychological level, being surrounded by things, especially nice things, gives us a sense of security and self-validation. Rolexes and Birkins are as much a reward for our hard work as they are wearable milestones that mark our progress in life. Furthermore, we buy in order to fulfil an emotional need. One of the reasons I dropped a silly sum of money on hiking gear – headlamps, titanium walking sticks and a trekking watch with a built-in barometer and altimeter – is to compensate for not getting out enough. The less we do, the more we must own.

What we own can end up owning us, warns Tyler Durden, underground boxer and anti-materialist in the movie Fight Club. I don’t need to be a soap salesman to know the truth in that. With my flat filled to the brim with clutter, I had to rent a 50-square-foot locker in a remote storage facility to house my junk. That means month after month, good money is thrown after bad simply to keep things out of sight and out of mind. As a watch collector, I dutifully polish and hand-wind my timepieces every week. A spate of burglaries in my building last winter gave me a panic attack and prompted me to purchase a safe to keep my collection out of harm’s way. Then there is the wine vault to store my prized Bordeaux and a dry cabinet to house a full suite of camera lenses. Little by little, I become a glorified security guard watching over possessions I never thought I needed and sometimes forget I have. I can only imagine what an indentured servant one must feel to own a 60-foot yacht or a 15-room estate, no matter what bragging rights they promise.

Rolex-mania in Hong Kong

The 21st Century epiphany that we can live more by owning less has spawned a minimalist movement in the developed world. In the United States, marketing director-turned-life coach Dave Bruno started a “100 Thing Challenge” in 2007. The idea is to pare down one’s life to 100 items and get rid of all the rest. It takes courage to let go, for even family heirlooms and spare underwear are fair game. But the sacrifice is worth it, says Bruno to his disciplines, because going from riches to rags allows us to hop off the middle class treadmill and focus on what really matters: family and friends. The campaign has put Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s treatise on simple living, back on the national bestseller list.

The notion that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication has its appeal. Downshifting is both financially smart and emotionally liberating. It cuts down unnecessary expenses and frees our minds from mundane thoughts. But does it really? Critics of Bruno’s challenge are quick to point out that living with less can be expensive and stressful. To maintain a minimalist existence, we may end up spending more, for instance, to replace useful things we have chivalrously thrown out. We rack our brain trying to decide whether to use our precious quota on a coffee machine or a toilet brush. The 100 Thing Challenge, it seems, has simply replaced one existential obsession with another.

Bruno's book is now a national bestseller

In the end, we cannot achieve happiness by owning either too much or too little. True luxury, after all, is about not having to think about these questions in the first place. There is nothing wrong with being materially comfortable, as long as we are cognizant of what earthly things can and cannot do. Life gets more complicated with each generation and that’s the way it will always be. I can never go back to living out of a drawer – nor do I want to.

Still, I concede there is something to be said about decluttering and reducing waste. I have devised a simple trick: I will take pictures of my bloated closet and storeroom and look at them each time I take something to the cash register. The stress of not knowing where to put my new purchase will quell my urge to buy. The money I save will then go toward an early retirement fund. It is a win-win proposition that doesn’t require hawking heirlooms or recycling dirty underwear.

Lots to learn from the Japanese
____________________________

This article was published in the May/June 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."

As printed in MANIFESTO

Popular Posts

“As I See It” has moved to www.jasonyng.com/as-i-see-it

As I See It has a new look and a new home!! Please bookmark www.jasonyng.com/as-i-see-it for the latest articles and a better reading experience. Legacy articles will continue to be available on this page. Thank you for your support since 2008. www.jasonyng.com/as-i-see-it

From Street to Chic, Hong Kong’s many-colored food scene 由大排檔到高檔: 香港的多元飲食文化

Known around the world as a foodie’s paradise, Hong Kong has a bounty of restaurants to satisfy every craving. Whether you are hungry for a lobster roll, Tandoori chicken or Spanish tapas, the Fragrant Harbour is certain to spoil you for choice. The numbers are staggering. Openrice, the city’s leading food directory, has more than 25,000 listings—that’s one eatery for every 300 people and one of the highest restaurants-per-capita in the world. The number of Michelin -starred restaurants reached a high of 64 in 2015, a remarkable feat for a city that’s only a little over half the size of London. Amber and Otto e Mezzo occupied two of the five top spots in Asia according to The World’s Best Restaurants , serving up exquisite French and Italian fares that tantalise even the pickiest of taste buds. Dai pai dong is ever wallet-friendly While world class international cuisine is there for the taking, it is the local food scene in Hong Kong that steals the hearts of residents a

The Moonscape of Sexual Equality - Part 1 走在崎嶇的路上-上卷

There are things about America that boggle the mind: gun violence , healthcare costs and Donald Trump. But once in a while – not often, just once in a while – the country gets something so right and displays such courage that it reminds the rest of the world what an amazing place it truly is. What happened three days ago at the nation’s capital is shaping up to be one of those instances. From White to Rainbow Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-to-4 decision on same-sex marriage, the most important gay rights ruling in the country’s history. In Obergefell v. Hodges , Justice Kennedy wrote, “It would misunderstand [gay and lesbian couples] to say that they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find fulfillment for themselves… They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”  With those simple words, Justice Kennedy made ma

The City that Doesn’t Read 不看書的城市

The Hong Kong Book Fair is the city’s biggest literary event, drawing millions of visitors every July. The operative word in the preceding sentence is “visitors,” for many of them aren’t exactly readers. A good number show up to tsau yit lau (湊熱鬧) or literally, to go where the noise is. In recent years, the week-long event has taken on a theme park atmosphere. It is where bargain hunters fill up empty suitcases with discounted books, where young entrepreneurs wait all night for autographed copies only to resell them on eBay, and where barely legal – and barely dressed – teenage models promote their latest photo albums. And why not? Hong Kongers love a carnival. How many people visit a Chinese New Year flower market to actually buy flowers? Hong Kong Book Fair 2015 If books are nourishment for the soul, then the soul of our city must have gone on a diet. In Hong Kong, not enough of us read and we don’t read enough. That makes us an “aliterate” people: able to read bu

Brexit Lessons for Hong Kong 脫歐的教訓

It was an otherwise beautiful, balmy Friday in Hong Kong, if it weren’t for the cross-Channel divorce that put the world under a dark cloud of fright and disbelief. Asia was the first to be hit by the Brexit shock wave. BBC News declared victory for the Leave vote at roughly 11:45am Hong Kong time – hours before London opened – and sent regional stock markets into a tailspin. The shares of HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank, both listed on the Hong Kong Exchange, plunged 6.5 and 9.5 per cent, respectively... It ended in divorce ________________________ This article appeared in the 29 June 2016 print edition of the South China Morning Post . Read the rest of it on SCMP.com as " After Brexit, Hong Kong voters should take a careful look at what our own localist parties are really selling localist politics ." As published in the print edition of the South China Morning Post

The Beam in Our Eye 眼中的梁木

With 59 confirmed deaths and over 500 wounded, the Las Vegas mass shooting is the deadliest one in modern American history. Places like Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, Sandy Hook, Orlando—and now Sin City—are forever associated with carnage and death tolls.  They don't get it Not a week goes by in America without a horrific gun attack in a shopping mall, a school or a movie theatre.People outside the U.S. can’t fathom why the world’s wealthiest country can be in such denial over a simple fact: more guns means more gun-related deaths. But they don’t get it, don’t now? Instead, they tell us foreigners to stay out of the debate because we don’t understand what the Second Amendment means to the Land of the Free. So the anomaly continues: each time a shooting rampage shocks the nation, citizens respond with prayers and tributes for a while, but their lawmakers do nothing to change gun laws. And we—the foreigners—shake our heads in disbelief and wonder how many more innocen

A Farewell to Arms 永别了,武器

America is a bizarre country. To be an American — or to live in America — is to accept a few things that defy common sense. For starters, pizza is considered a “vegetable” under federal law. Two tablespoons of tomato paste on the dough is enough to make the pie healthy enough to be served at every public school cafeteria. Speaking of health, emergency rooms across the country routinely turn down trauma patients who fail to produce proof of health insurance. Facing skyrocketing healthcare costs , the uninsured are left for dead and the insured are worried sick about rising deductibles and annual premiums. Not bizarre enough? Here's another good one: gun shootings have become so commonplace that the evening news no longer reports them unless they are deemed a “shooting rampage.” And each time after a massacre, gun enthusiasts line up outside Wal-Mart to stock up on assault weapons for fear of tougher gun laws. That’s right, in America you can buy a military-style semi-automatic rifl

Dining Out... - Part 1 出街食-上卷

The Michelin Guide published its first Hong Kong/Macau edition in 2009. Since then, the little red book has sparked spirited debate and sometimes even nationalistic rumblings among citizens. Hong Kongers balk at the idea of a bunch of foreigners judging our food, when most of the undercover inspectors sent by the guide can’t tell a fish maw from a fish belly or know the first thing about dun (燉), mun (焖), zing (蒸), pou (泡) and zoek (灼) – to name but a few ways a Chinese chef may cook his ingredients with steam. For many of us, it seems far wiser to spend the HK$200 (that’s how much the guide costs) on a couple of hairy crabs currently in season than on a restaurant directory published by a tire manufacturer. The launch Food is a tricky business. It confounds even the most sophisticated of cultures and peoples. The English and the Germans, for instance, excel in everything else except for the one thing that matters most. Young nations like America, Australia and Canada..

The Art of Profanity 粗口藝術

We react to life’s little vicissitudes – nicking the car door, dropping the phone on a concrete pavement or losing hours of work to a computer crash – with a curse word or two. If some brute walks by and knocks the coffee right out of our hand, the appropriate response is: What the fuck?  Swearing is one of those things that we do everyday and nearly everywhere. But like breaking wind and picking our nose, profanity is only bad when someone else does it. Most of us are too squeamish or sanctimonious to own up to it. Rarely in the human experience has something so universally shared been so vehemently condemned and denied. Turning society into a nanny state Profanity exists in every culture. Curse words are the first vocabulary we learn in a foreign language and the only one we remember years later. The linguistic phenomenon can be traced as far back as Ancient Egypt and Babylon. Literary giants like William Shakespeare, James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw were known to u