Customers line up inside a bank in Hong Kong. Bloomberg News
Shotgun in hand, the uniformed bank guard was a scary, hovering presence in the small counter-service branch - until he uncradled his pump-action robber blaster, leaned it against a wall and walked away, out of sight, leaving that lethal power unattended. The year was 1982 and I, then a tourist, had just walked into a Macao bank.
That was my first jarring exposure to the inscrutable logic that operates within banks and to the bewilderment that Michael Moore must have experienced when, in his anti-National Rifle Association mock-you-documentary, Bowling for Columbine, he walked into a Michigan bank that was giving customers a choice of six shotguns or a limited edition rifle as carry-away gifts for putting $879 or more into 20-year certificate deposits. Only large canvas bags as an add-on gift could have amplified the illogicality of the gifts and the probability of a heist.
What was that guard thinking? Perhaps his logic was this: "If I am not here, I will see no robbers; therefore, there will be no robbers." Logic for ostriches and philosophers, maybe - but not for bank guards. Or maybe he was thinking, on analogy with "guns-don't-kill-people-people-kill-people", "Guns are scary, not people. So, if only the shotgun is here, would-be robbers will be scared."
That surreal experience was decades ago and certainly not to be repeated in ultra-sophisticated 21st-century Macao, Hong Kong or Beijing. But even though bank security has indubitably improved, daily bank logic hasn't, as I have regretfully discovered, after three years on the mainland and now here, after only a few months in Hong Kong.
Fast-forward from 1982 to 2009. I've just returned to Hong Kong, ready to open an account, and give them my money so they can make more money. I wander into a conveniently located prominent bank branch.
"We need your permanent address, on your driver's license," the polite, but cautiously groomed bank rep with short well-tailored responses, jacket and skirt says.
I point out that the address on my license is almost four years out of date, that I have been living on the mainland for three years and have a certified 1-year lease here in Hong Kong, complete with the door-opening, case-closing "revenue stamp" that certifies the deal.
"We need the address on the driver's license," she robotically replies, with Stepford-wife politeness.
Restating the obvious, I say, "I don't live there anymore - haven't in four years, and never owned the apartment."
Not to be awakened from her logic coma, she persists: "We need the address on the license."
I parry, "Even if it is incorrect?"
"We need the address on the license," she catechizes.
Exasperated and still trying to raise her consciousness, I blurt, "Look. In the West, we too work like ants; but, sometimes we move to new, faraway ant hills like Hong Kong."
"We need your permanent address," she recites, waiting for this to end.
Joined by her colleague and eventually the manager, whom I requested to see, she gets to pass the mantra to a higher level of authority, albeit not to a higher level of consciousness. They tell me to give them photocopies of my lease - only to reject them as unacceptable two days later. What do they then ask for instead? Of course, my driver's license address.
Exasperated, after so many visits, hours and neurons wasted at the same branch of this top-tier bank, I tried another of its branches. There, I meet a very personable - they are, in the banks, all personable - young guy, a new employee with flawless English (a useful crutch, given my limited Chinese). I bring him up to speed and beg him to be logical. He nods agreeably and tells me I just need "proof of permanent home address".
I beg him to not revisit the license farce. So, he switches to requesting a "different" kind of proof. I wave the certified lease from my serviced luxury apartment building offices.
His response? Not acceptable, not proof.
So, what will count, if not an ironclad lease? He says, "Utility bills." - from the serviced apartment hotel I just finished telling him about, in which there are no utility bills? From a place where I, like so many who are only tourists, may be staying or may have stayed only a few days - in contradistinction to my lease, which clearly PROVES I will be there at least a year, or forfeit my huge deposit?
Yep. Show us the bill.
Deal-breaking bank logic again (to be repeated weeks later by a welcoming, diligent, otherwise intelligent investment manager-in-a-suit at yet another Hong Kong big bank, on the grounds that the phone bill is "more recent", despite being very feeble evidence of a "permanent address". My logic 101 lesson for banks: ask for BOTH the lease and the bill.
You may think that however entertaining or logic-proof these staff were, they must be exceptions. Right? Guess again. Space does not allow the foregoing kind of detail, so here's a summarized litany of logical trauma endured at not one, but four Hong Kong and mainland big banks and their branches:
* When, in Qingdao, I forgot my password for a bank cash card, I was told to go to Beijing to reset it. Yes, to fly or travel 6 hours by train and at great expense, just to reset my password. Bank logic: "Your password was set far away; therefore, it must be re-set far away" - so, the same principle applies to my watch, if I have to travel far enough to reset my password?
* One of my favorites: the bank ATM machine that informed me that only several password entry attempts are allowed, but only after it seized my bank card, which - you guessed it, I was told, required flying and or a long train trip to another faraway city to replace. Bank logic: "You may not know the policy; therefore, it is ok for us to inform you of it only after we irrevocably apply it."
* The friendly manager and assistant of a huge international bank, struggling to find out where a remittance I sent to the mainland disappeared to for weeks said no international phone calls are possible from their bank to contact the bank or beneficiary - even if I offer to pay. Bank logic: "We're an international bank; so, everyone will call us. No need to call them."
* When I informed the teller that the beneficiary's bank branch of registration closed years ago, she told me he has to go back to that (now non-existent) branch to enquire about the matter. Bank logic: "If something no longer exists, it is logical to ask it why." (Note: The funds were finally received by the beneficiary, but only more than a month later.)
* When at yet another bank, a remittance also got "lost" for about a month (a very suspicious pattern in the making, I thought) and where I had to pay HK$150 to have just the beneficiary's name translated from pinyin into Chinese characters, the bank had, as a matter of accounting policy, no in-house record of the name - in any language! Bank logic: "We have sent the name; therefore, we can't keep it."
* It gets worse: The two banks that mysteriously misplaced and delayed remittances to mainland banks told me I had to pay an additional HK$100 "service fee" to get the mainland banks to correct their mistakes. I flatly refused both times. Reminds me of Plato, who said that if you want to hire someone who knows what to do to protect your wealth, hire a thief. Bank logic: "We will bomb your country, but only if you pay for the reconstruction and the bombs." (Think Iraq.) Or, "Our bad; therefore, we'll punish you."
* Currently, I have HK$89 left on a mainland bank cash card. ATMs will not dispense anything that is not a multiple of HK$100. So, I asked a bank rep HOW I can get the money. Answer: "The machines give out HK$100 bills." Bank logic: "You are asking me about X; therefore, I will talk about Y."
How is this logic gap to be explained - in Michael Moore's Michigan as well as in Hong Kong? That's another long story, but for now perhaps the following speculation will suffice: banks can't consistently grasp the difference between making sense and making cents.
The author is a China Daily editor and university lecturer in philosophy and critical thinking. Comments and queries can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(HK Edition 11/07/2009 page3)