Newsstands play smoke and mirrors over cigarette pack images

Updated: 2017-05-08 07:40

By Chitralekha Basu(HK Edition)

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Apparently the Hong Kong government's recently resuscitated drive to encourage people to quit smoking is affecting the city's reading habits.

Here's the logic. When potential buyers - ostensibly alarmed by the images of child victims of passive smoking displayed prominently on cigarette packs - stop going to newsstands for their daily fix of tobacco, the sales of magazines and newspapers drop too, owing to the decrease in customer footfalls. There might be some truth in this. Neither printed matter nor cigarettes seem to enjoy the following they once did. Still, it's difficult to ascertain if there's a correlation between quitting smoking and reading because both are retailed from the same facility.

Either way, it's bad news for vendors. In view of the government proposal to have 85 percent of cigarette packs covered by warning signs, many of them are worried about going out of business. It's also being alleged that if people stopped smoking altogether it would result in the gradual demise of a certain lifestyle that's part of Hong Kong's social heritage - the sort of community bonding that supposedly takes place between smokers milling around the city's generic cylindrical trash bins. Pang Ho-cheung's 2010 film Love in a Puff is an ode to such a tradition of socializing. In that film Pang had apotheosized trash bin tops overflowing with stubbed cigarette butts as a liberated space where strangers bond over shared fags and even a romance is possible between the unlikeliest of protagonists.

Newsstands play smoke and mirrors over cigarette pack images

If it were indeed the case, by banishing cigarettes from our lives are we smoking out the possibility of finding friends and potential partners? Are we ready to say goodbye to a long-sustained social custom?

My answer to these questions would be: Everything that's part of our history is not worth preserving, unless these are still relevant to our lives.

Take the case of the old Central Market, for instance. The Urban Renewal Authority's (URA) plan to give a new life to this Grade III heritage structure is drawing major flak from certain conservationists. The URA's move to pull down parts of the building's interiors and build a glass facade around it has been condemned for disrespecting history. The conservation lobby would rather this rare specimen of 1930s pre-war modern architecture was not tampered with.

However, experts say leaving the building in its current state - as a tribute to a period in history - would hasten its disintegration. According to Lee Ho-yin, head of Hong Kong University's architectural conservation program, the hardware of the existing structure won't support it for much longer. Besides, the Central Market may not work so well as a museum piece built, as it was, to serve as a public utility, with no distinctive architectural features to speak of.

Lee says the only way to breathe life into such an "obsolescent" building would be by making it functional again - by bringing its hardware up to the modern standards and making its software adapt to the city's present-day needs.

Similarly, it would probably make sense to find ways of making the city's newsstands and other public rallying points more relevant to our lives without having to factor in nicotine addiction. In these times of alarming global pollution, pitching a shared smoke as a prelude to a date or simply as a way of observing a local custom is as short-sighted as trying to pitch Central Market as a historical relic worth memorialization.

The idea of smoking making a lifestyle statement is just not cool anymore.

(HK Edition 05/08/2017 page9)