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Travel Blog: Hong Kong Consumerism as an Identity

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As I write, I am sitting in Hong Kong International Airport awaiting my flight to Narita from Hong Kong.  I knew my first post-Hong Kong blog post had to be about one thing: consumerism, and specifically consumerism of brand name products.

That’s because one of the first things you’ll notice about Hong Kong is the prominence of high-end brand names: Atelier, Balenciaga, Chanel, Ermenegildo Zegna, Dior, Fendi, Givenchy, Hermes, I.W.C., Jaeger-LeCoultre, Kenzo, Louis Vuitton, Montblanc, to name china-chowtaifook_pek50just a few.  Pacific Place and IFC are just two of the places where you can literally find everything on a “high brand” shopping list.  It’s not just foreign brands that are popular, either.  On practically every street corner in Hong Kong you are almost guaranteed to see a beacon of bright red and gold – jewelry stores Chow Tai Fook, Luk Fook, and Chow Sang Sang.  No matter what direction you turn, there are opportunities to brand the most special moment of your marriage with their trademark.

Is it just the mainland Chinese tourists that are driving the wealth of brand name outlets?  Indeed, fakes are so prominent in China that the rich Chinese must come to Hong Kong to make sure that they get the real deal, and can brag to their friends about their HK shopping trip.  Brand names are seen as reliable quality products and safer, given that toxic chemicals in Chinese manufactured goods are a real health problem.  Although the “mainlanders” do support these businesses in Hong Kong, they are not the only reason that high brands set up shop.  Despite the high cost of living in Hong Kong, plenty of Hong Kong citizens still fork over cash for luxury.

In Hong Kong, it seems important to use the highest quality brand, or knock-off, that you can.  At first glance it looks like everyone can afford a real Rolex, but if you look closely you’ll see plenty of fakes.  You’ll see people shamelessly wearing Balencaega and Balenclaga sneakers with dirty jeans and threadbare Gucei or Ducci t-shirts.  Most women seem to carry some knockoff LV or Gucci. It seems that if you cannot afford the real thing, then it is totally acceptable, nay fashionable, to carry a fake. A quick trip to Shenzhen, China on the MRT LoWu line will bring any Hong Konger to the doorstep of a mall devoted to the sale of fakes (more on that in another blog!). It seems that only a foreigner traverses the concrete Hong Kong landscape in an outfit devoid of brand names.

Why is HK so brand obsessed?  Obviously, in North America these brands are equally as well known, but you’ll still get by if you limited your wardrobe to t-shirts from Walmart and your wallet is made out of nylon.

Saving Time by Spending Money

Maybe it’s because people in Hong Kong work so hard and for so many hours.  Spending time putting an outfit together seems like a waste when you could instead put on whatever jeans and a brand named shirt and sneakers and give the illusion of caring about fashion. If a brand name item saves you fifteen minutes every day, that’s almost two hours per week.  Given how tired people look, I would not hasten to guess that brand names are saving people time.

Materialism

Hong Kong people are materialistic.  I did not make this one up – it’s a direct quote from a friend who is a Hong Konger herself.  People in Hong Kong tend to be motivated for the most part by money and status, and wearing a brand name advertises your purchasing power.  Having been to Japan and Korea, I have noticed that those countries are actually interested in making fashion statements and innovations; Hong Kong clothing is mainly about advertising wealth.

Even a fake is more expensive than unbranded, or Chinese brand, clothing.  This seems to be why wearing fake brands is better than none.  That Supreme t-shirt might be a rebranded Hanes or Gildan, but that’s still higher quality than whatever else you would find at a market without a brand.

Nothing Better to Spend Money On

Somewhat depressingly, I think Hong Kong is obsessed with brands because there is really nothing to look forward to spending money on.  Yes, fifty percent of Hong Kong citizens own their own home, and the number is growing, but the size of homes is indisputably tiny.  Many Hong Kong people eat at restaurants every day, entertain guests outside of the home, and hang out in crowded public places rather than stay home.  And while people may own a condo, they have no car and no parking space.  Therefore, spending money on small consumables is just what people do, and it has become a way of life.  Compare this with North America, where young people save eagerly for their first car, or months of travel, or a comfortable home.

Longing to Be Unique

How-to-Be-Unique-Even-When-You-Dont-Feel-Special

Finally, I think that people in Hong Kong are like people anywhere: they want to be unique and esteemed by others.  But in Hong Kong, that’s an almost impossible dream.  Although Hong Kong is ethnically diverse (many Indians and Southeast Asians set up home there, too.), most people look east Asian, having black hair, similar facial features, and similar height. There are only so many hairstyles and glasses trends, and so people do not have to opportunity to really be unique in physical features.  Career-wise there is so much competition, and a person’s peer-group – even in a category of excellence – is huge.  If you want to feel insignificant, hire a taxi and ride around Hong Kong while looking at building after building of condos.  The number of people crammed into this region will make you remember just how unique you aren’t!  Perhaps the obsession with wearing high brands is a method of craving significance: a brand gives you an approved identity and wearing a special brand can make you look like a member of an exclusive class.

Now, I only was in Hong Kong for eight days, so I do not consider myself an authority.  But this last point about being able to stand out, about searching for an individual identity and seeking status really appears to be true when you consider how crowded and competitive Hong Kong is.  In North America, it’s relatively easy to stand out and pull ahead of your peers if you truly desire to do so.  And if not, it’s easy to set up a comfortable life that fosters the illusion of luck and esteem.

Critical Thinking Questions:

  1. Are knock-off brands ethical? In some places in the world you’ll be looked down on for carrying fake goods, but in other places it is admired. Is creative property really public property?
  2. Can creating a myth about yourself make life meaningful?  Do you have a right to make up your life story to be whatever you want it to be?
  3. What would it be like to live in a world where brand names have no social power?  Who would our friends be?
  4. Is a brand name a fashion statement?
  5. Why do human beings desire to be unique?  Does everyone want a unique identity?

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