Grumpiness in Hong Kong: A sign of pessimism or impatience?

Updated: 2014-08-11 05:43

By Albert Lin(HK Edition)

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'Have I picked the wrong time of the year to visit Hong Kong, or is everybody here miserable and morose all the time?" That was the question I was asked recently by a good friend who migrated to the United States several years ago and is back settling certain family affairs. He describes Hong Kong's recent mood swing as "highly unwelcoming" and says "the only smiles you see here today are the usual artificial ones from waiters sniffing for a tip."

"What's happened?" he asks. "The Hong Kong I left behind was a happy, pleasantly pushy sort of a go-getting place where everybody was full of optimism and the spirit of get-up-and-go. Now it seems everybody you pass on the streets is grim-faced and distinctly unfriendly - they only want to push past you and hustle along the sidewalk as if their lives depended on it. Everybody scowls at one another and nobody steps aside to make room for the aged and feeble. How could all this have happened?"

The airlines and tourist agencies still bleat the old refrain; "You're welcome in Hong Kong - the world city", but it is no longer a welcoming city. One hears criticism of mainland visitors everywhere one goes, accusing them of disturbing the city's peace and civility, but it seems to me that Hong Kong people have reacted by becoming ill-mannered in response, he continues.

My friend is staying at one of the new high-profile hotels in Western district overlooking the harbor. He is scathing over a "heart-wrenching sight you see up and down Queen's Road and Des Voeux Road every morning - stooped old women and wizened men in rags pushing around trolleys heaped to head height with folded-up cardboard boxes or other grubby stuff gathered from back lanes and rubbish dumps. How can Hong Kong society hold its head high when such a shameful display of grinding poverty among the poor is permitted to take place every day?"

My friend adds cuttingly that Hong Kong has "billions upon billions" of fiscal reserves stashed away yet does not have a "proper social welfare net" to care for these members of our silver society, who must live from hand to mouth by the sweat of their brows - though most are in their 70s, and older.

When raising the subject of these desperate scavengers at a dinner party he found no sympathy among fellow guests. The hostess dismissively said; "We're sick and tired of these tales of old cardboard collectors. Don't be deceived - they're well cared for by the system, but some are greedy for extra cash and do this to excite the sympathy of gullible passers-by like yourself." Sadly that caustic remark "typifies the cold, hard place Hong Kong has become," said my hyper-critical friend.

Perhaps it is because such a large proportion of the population is unwillingly graduating to the ranks of the elderly, and they realize the miserable fate that awaits them.

We should never forget that the economic miracle of the 1960s and 1970s, which dragged Hong Kong up by its bootstraps to its present level of prosperity, was fueled by the muscle and sweat of today's "silver society". And we are not talking solely about men, but women too - they did their bit.

Now these people are entering the twilight of their lives - an age when they are increasingly likely to encounter health problems. Can't we make things easier for them and spare them the indignity of collecting recyclable discards for resale?

The author is a veteran current affairs commentator.

(HK Edition 08/11/2014 page9)