I have been visiting family in Hong Kong for ten days, a place I’ve been to many times before for business, but always so briefly that I never really paid much attention to anything other than work and getting a run in.
This time, in Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and Macau, the thing that has impressed itself on me through airports and downtowns is the bombardment of luxury advertising: Vertu conspicuous consumption cellphones, fancy hotels, apartment complexes, jewelry …. And the presence of luxury stores in profusion. Kowloon main street is a mile-long luxury mall, block after block jammed with super designer stores, multiple Tiffany’s, literally several Chow Tai Fooks per block, etc. These stores run at constant density for a long long distance and then fade rapidly into a few midscale stores for only a few blocks, and then suddenly you’re into Yau Ma Tei. The slope is very steep; one minute it’s luxury, then it’s hotels advertising two-hour rooms and some areas that look like Blade Runner’s LA.
I’m only sampling, not doing detailed statistical analysis, so forgive the exaggeration. But what strikes me is the rapid gradient from oligarchic wives’ appeal to very very survivalist stuff. In New York it feels to me as though the big ads are for H&M, Zara, Banana Republic … Uniqlo has bus-stop ads with Susan Sarandon touting cheap cashmere sweaters, aiming at old middle class people trying to buy cheaper nice stuff. Here, I don’t see ads aimed at middle class people. I see ads and stores aimed at people with lots of money to throw away, or people who aspire to that. It’s a little sad.
A Chinese friend of mine says there is no middle class in Asia, only super rich and very poor. I don’t know how true that is, but it explains the advertising.
Macau, with its really charming IndoChine (well, Portuguese colonial) old city seems a bit of a counterexample. The old city stretches for kilometers (I was expecting a few prettified blocks) and is reminiscent of Mediterranean towns, very different from Hong Kong. My son says it’s the difference between British Colonial and Portuguese Colonial, and it seems right. The old city, though it’s not well off, still has a kind of surviving working-class feel as you get away from the giant gambling emporiums, though maybe that’s where they all work.
Moving between ferries and airports, insulated and seeing the superrich ads, I thought about Fifties America. I didn’t live there, and was still a child, but it seems to me that what Fifties America did was bring bourgeois stuff to the masses: mixmasters, refrigerators, stoves, ACs, televisions, Oldsmobiles, Buicks, suburban houses, and advertising for them. Nixon showed Khrushchev modern kitchens. 2010s Asia ads seem more focused on conspicuous luxury rather than convenience.
It says something, and that something doesn’t seem good.