Community & Education Opinion

Hong Kong’s two systems – one for the rich, and one for the poor

My first job in journalism was as Sports Editor of a local weekly in North Lancashire. This was a sought-after way of starting because you got experience of editing and production, as well as reporting. Also it was effectively a part-time job, so you spent half the week doing the usual news stuff, thereby qualifying for a transfer to mainstream reporting later if you wanted it.

My Saturdays were devoted to the doings of the local football team, Morecambe FC, who are now clinging precariously to the bottom of Division Two but in those days were not in the league proper at all. If they were playing at home it was an easy half-day. If they were playing away I travelled with the team.

Christie Park

Christie Park, former home of Morecambe FC. Photo: Wikicommons.

When I had been doing this for a year or two one of my female colleagues expressed a desire to try football reporting. Her father was a faithful supporter of Manchester United and she had seen many matches. Still, this was a daring ambition at the time. I spent five years as a full-time football person and in that time I only came across one lady football writer.

She wrote a couple of home games, which were received with great trepidation in the office but made it into print after lots of people had read them. The question then arose of an away match. This turned out to be a problem because the team coach did not carry ladies. Directors who wished to take their wives to away games had been firmly refused in the past.

An exception was made. In order to reduce the cultural shock my colleague, who already had short hair, dressed in a gender-neutral style: trainers, jeans, duffle coat. And so we arrived on a midweek evening at the ground of Blyth Spartans, who hang out somewhere near Newcastle.

Of course we arrived long before the kickoff. My routine was to obtain the latest version of the opposition’s team as soon as possible. The only other pre-match chore was to locate the bar. This was my contribution to the happiness of the team. It was considered faintly embarrassing for a professional athlete to emerge from the changing room and ask “Where is the bar?” My boys could ask “Where is our reporter?” and get the same directions.

Blyth Spartans FC v FC United

Blyth Spartans FC v FC United of Manchester in 2014. Photo: Matthew Wilkinson, via Flickr.

The Spartans were aptly named. The usual palatial accommodation for directors and visitors was absent. They did, though, have a large wooden shed with a bar in it for the spectators generally. My colleague and I had just got past the door when we were intercepted by an elderly gentleman in a flat cap and a pronounced Geordie accent.

“You can’t go in here,” he said.

“Why not?”

“I don’t believe he’s over 18.”

I gently pointed out that not only was he over 18, but also he was a she.

“You still can’t come in,” said the guardian of the door. “We don’t admit women either.”

And that, gentle reader, was the last time I was refused admission to a boozer until last week, when to the great amusement of many of my friends I was thrown out of the Hong Kong Club. Not physically, of course. Gentlemen do not struggle with doormen. My wife and I got as far as the lift and then were told to leave by a lad who in a less up-market milieu would be called the bouncer.

There were some ironies to this. I am the secretary of a society which has no premises of its own. We meet and hold events in various clubs of which our members are also members. Our Annual General Meeting is traditionally held in the Hong Kong Club.

hong kong club

The Hong Kong Club. File photo: Wikicommons.

Accordingly I had secretarially circulated the notice of meeting, agenda, minutes of last year, and a separate email warning that the Hong Kong Club was having one of its bursts of enthusiasm for its dress code, which outlaws denim and sports gear.

The man on the door decided that my wife’s shoes were trainers. This was nonsense but one can sympathise. Trainers are no longer always in white with the odd stripe or two. The choice of colour and materials, especially for ladies, is now so wide that almost any pair of flat shoes could be trainers.

I was less impressed by the announcement that my respectable pair of brown leather shoes, of the style which I think used to be called “loafers”, were “sailing shoes” and accordingly came under the prohibition on athletic footwear. So we went home.

Apparently I was not the only person to be subjected to a rather arbitrary assessment of his footwear, because a few days later I was told by a member of the Club that the policy had now changed. Guests with controversial feet or other sartorial deficiencies would no longer be refused admission. Instead the staff would take up the matter later with the member who had invited the guest concerned. Which is sensible.

Still, incidents of this kind leave me with a lingering nostalgia for the days when lamp-posts were decorated with hanged aristocrats. Readers who are tempted to take this remark literally will find the relevant song, with subtitles, here:

In a modern city one cannot, I realise, expect to roam freely everywhere. We obey the promptings of MTR station staff, keep out of electricity sub-stations, stop for red lights and so on. Private property is private. But there is something uniquely irritating about restrictions which appear to be designed to preserve rich people from contact with the poor.

Unfortunately Hong Kong is addicted to this sort of thing. When I first came here Lane Crawford’s, which was then in Central, still had a sign saying “No slippers”, for which there was no conceivable practical justification. It was just a way of saying “no admission to people wearing cheap shoes”.

Periodically we have stories about signs, discovered by some new arrival who is not yet used to this sort of thing, excluding domestic helpers from part or all of some members’ club. Members can bring in their families, their friends, their business contacts, but not their home help. Some of the more luxurious estates carry social apartheid to its logical conclusion and have separate lifts for helpers.

Hong Kong Land no doubt wishes to forget that it once proposed that Filipinos should be banned from Central on Sundays because they were harming the trade of the luxurious shops in whose vicinity they picnicked.

Well I suppose if a group of people wish to get together and jointly run a legal society to which entrance is selective there can be no objection in principle, though clubs which exclude women are having a hard time of it these days.

domestic worker helper

Migrant domestic workers sit on the street in Central. File photo: Robert Godden.

What puzzles me is why so many exclusive clubs, whose members must be supposed to be comfortably off because membership is outrageously expensive, are cosseted by our government. They receive a massive subsidy in the form of exemption from the need to pay a market price for the land on which they sit.

The currently notable example of this is the Hong Kong Golf Club. Indeed the government has got as far as to include paving over a golf course or two in its list of possible solutions to the land shortage. Other equally exclusive and land-hungry organisations have escaped mention.

Do we need six golf courses is a good question. Do we need two racecourses is a better one. Perish the thought that we should move the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, but is that huge open-air car park a sensible use of a piece of Causeway Bay?

A government with guts might also question the requirements of the PLA, which appears to have little use for its extensive holdings in Hong Kong. The barracks in the urban area are all overlooked, and all notoriously empty most of the time except for the small squad which mounts a 24-hour guard on the gate.

But I digress. The problem is that we are asked to believe the government is a cuddly caring organisation devoted to comforting the afflicted. Yet while claiming it cannot afford the usual ways of doing this, which come under the general heading of social security, it does not even bother to collect a real rent from plutocrats who want space to play expensive games.

So we do not believe it. And then our leaders complain that we do not love them.

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Hong Kong's two systems - one for the rich, and one for the poor