30 July 2010

Friday Pub Talks: What is up with all these handbags?

Wesley: Thinking about last Friday's pub talk, I think this food photography fetish is indicative of a broader cultural difference. I need to get a little academic to explain where I'm coming from, so bear with me. There's this political scientist, Ron Inglehart, who wrote a bunch of books all explaining this one fairly simple observation: in the US and Europe, where people have achieved a certain amount of material security, there is this trend toward what Inglehart calls "post-materialism".

Inglehart hypothesized that once people achieve a certain amount of material security, and don't have to worry about starving to death or dying from lack of health care, their values change: they go from materialist to post-materialist. Using survey data from the US and Western Europe, Inglehart shows a trend, starting in the 1950s, where people are less concerned with economic and physical security and put more emphasis on autonomy, self-expression and quality of life.

This question that has been lingering in my mind since I got here. You can see it lurking behind several of my posts like this and that, so I figured it was time to tackle this issue more directly, if only for my own sanity.

Why hasn't HK, which has a level of material security much higher than most places in the US and Europe, transitioned to post-materialist values? Obviously, some Hongkies have post-materialist values, but I'm constantly baffled that this an urban, affluent, cosmopolitan population can't see through the obvious manipulation of European fashionistas and American gadget designers. Why would Hongkies rather have an LV bag (which does nothing to improve their quality of life) than clean air (which would make everyone healthier and happier)?

Henry: Wes, you really got me here. This is more puzzling than the food photo phenomenon. But I see that more people in my generation have woken up and are looking at values beyond materialism. The so called work-life balance is what lots of HK people are going after. Older generations think we're simply lazy, but we started to feel we should say no to 12 hours of slavery everyday. On the other hand, I agree that we are still very vulnerable to consumerism. I may be cheap, but paying 10K+ for a bag when most of the clerks here earn 9K to 11K per month sounds ridiculous to me.

What is your theory Wes? -isms coined by Westerners don't apply to Chinese?

Wesley: It's good to hear that Hongkies are fighting for a more reasonable work-schedule. But still, this obsession with these handbags is really crazy. Like really crazy. In the US and Europe, poor people, or even middle-class people, would never consider wasting their money in this way. And only the worst, most shameless rich people buy this kind of crap would buy this type of crap.

So why this difference? I really don't know. Five years ago, I thought that the obsession with expensive European brand names that I observed in Beijing and Shanghai was a product of China's unprecedented economic growth (the nouveau riche do stupid things with their wealth, like give it back to the Europeans who took it from them in the first place). So I wasn't ready to see 10 times the number of LV bags on the streets of HK than I would see on the streets of NYC. Perhaps because I've read too much political science/sociology nonsense like Inglehart's post-materialism theory, I was expecting HK to be a little more like Europe and a little less like China since HK became rich after WWII just like Western Europe. Like I say, I don't really get it. But that doesn't mean I don't have a few half-baked theories. Here are a few of them:

1.) For whatever reason, advertising seems to be much more effective in HK than in the West these days. Perhaps this has something to do with a difference in orientation to authority?

2.) Perhaps these European bags are just more "exotic" to Hongkies than they are to Americans? When an American has a bag like that, they are advertising the size of their bank account, nothing more. When a Hongkie has a bag like that, maybe they see it as advertising their cultural sophistication in a way that Westerners don't?

Henry: I agree that HK people are easy targets for advertisers. Just look at how unimaginative the ads here are but they still manage to sell! We're sort of educated to bow to authroity and trust anything said on TV and magazines.

But, cultural sophistication...that might not be the case. Using lots of LV bags and stuff could be considered redneck somehow here.

Wesley: Ok, so I'm wrong on that, but that's interesting...maybe I get it now. Is this what my coworkers are talking about when they say somebody looks "MK"?

Henry: Yeah, those young girls who match their LV or Gucci bags with bleach-dyed hair and filthy and tasteless clothes; those will definitely make William's eyebrows raise.

Wesley: Yeah, so I guess this is sorta like poor people in American ghettos wearing lots of gold chains and diamonds. So maybe this really isn't a difference after all....but wait. In the US, it's dudes who wear all the bling. They do it to attract women, which makes some degree of sense. So the difference here seems to be more about gender than anything else. I don't quite understand what women get out of these bags. I can't imagine that they actually attract men. In fact, it should repel any reasonable man.

So maybe post-materialism has reached HK. I was just blinded by the bags. But still this gender reversal seems weird. I think low-income Hongkies are actually much more secure than low-income Americans (much less violence, more access to affordable health care here than in the US). It seems like that might have something to do with it.

I tend to look at human behavior from an evolutionary perspective. When males are faced with a high risk of death at a young age (like men in American ghettos), their sexual strategy changes: they begin to pursue short-term mating solutions (meaning lots of women and low investment in them). In HK, even low-income men may prefer a longer-term strategy, which involves investing in one female, having a low number of children with her, and investing highly in those children (or child). With these bags, could these women be trying to signal that someone has already invested in them (and thus they are worth of more investment)? The curious thing about a handbag, unlike a dress, is that it doesn't actually make the woman look sexy, doesn't show off the goods, if you will. In the States, low-income women signal their fertility by wearing revealing clothes (thus signaling that they are a good choice for the short-term mating opportunities that the dude with the gold chain is looking for). In HK, could they be signaling prior investment by another male? This is still very strange to me. What do you think?

Henry: Bags do show investments on girls, not to males but to other females, I imagine. Let's put it this way, if you're a woman and you don't have a brand handbag with you everyday when you go into an office where all other women do, what does it say about you? Your man is a poor guy. On the other hand, if you're a woman with lots of brand bags, what does it say about you? Either you're a bitch who drains your man dry or you're single and staying with your parents, so you have all the money to spend on brand stuff. If there's a competition, it's one among the women. Men only play the part by paying.

Wesley: Ok, but when men compete with each other, they're ultimately competing for women. So when women compete with each other, I assume they're competing for men. This is making more sense though, so thanks. I really should consult local wisdom more often, rather than ruminating in the eco-chamber of my own brain. Looking at another culture through the lens of your own only takes you so far.

22 comments:

  1. I think you should consider how HK differs from more mature "wealthy" societies in Europe and the US:

    1. HK is a far more unequal. 50% of people live in public housing. 16% can not afford public housing. Whilst GDP/person is comparable, if not higher, the median income is around HK$10,000/month.

    2. The influence of business in society is much higher. More so than in Europe and the US, it is HK's uber-wealthy business set that set standards in everything from fashion to the way people view success. This unsurprisingly tends to be materialistic.

    3. It is a Chinese society. To risk sounding anti-Chinese, one should also consider the damage the communists intentionally and unintentionally did to the very values and institutions that would have kept material values in check. In western societies the values of Church and gentility would have provided an alternative. Following the collapse of communism as an ideal, materialism has become the new religion.

    4. Finally, this is society that has only very recently become comfortably wealthy. (Also note point 1). Wealth is for most people only a generation old. It takes time for people to come to realise that wealth does not define people, especially given point 2 and the power of advertising. A similarly vulgar display of wealth, and obsession with brand names, can be seen amongst Arabs and wealthy Indians, also perhaps unaccustomed to having money and perhaps with an inferiority complex born out of imperialism.

    Just a few thoughts.

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  2. Thanks Ev,

    I really appreciate those comments. Yeah, I was also surprised to note that HK's median income is so low compared to the mean income (and yes, that is very good indicator of wealth inequality). I just wasn't sure how to interpret that in terms of explaining materialism.

    The influence of business in society is higher than in Europe for sure, if it's higher than the US, it's not by much. The US two political parties that are really just two wings of a completely corporate-dominated political system. Not really that different from HK's functional constituencies, IMO.

    As for HK's relatively recent wealth, I'm not so sure that's accurate. HK has been rich much longer than the Arab world, China or India (in fact, HK is the only truly rich society in that group). In the 1960s HK became the first colony to be wealthier than it's colonizer, so the wealth is older than a generation (Europe was devastated after WWII, so HK and Europe got rich at around the same time). But your point about the distribution is important--if the wealth only reached a tiny percentage of the population, perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised by the materialism.

    I also like the point about the lack of values to compete with materialism, but aren't Confucianism and Buddhism (particularly Buddhism) pretty anti-materialistic? At least as much so as Christianity?

    But thanks for the thoughts. I'm learning a lot from this Pub thing. Mostly just learning how ignorant I am, but there is no lesson more important than that.

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  3. Great. You guys talk about bags without a woman. It's like two women talking about how pointless porn is. From the evolutionary perspective, it's the LEATHER!!! It smells sex and maybe has something to do with our ancestors' clothing and mating habit.

    I think women of both sides love bags, but I notice there's some cultural difference. Women here are crazy about monogram bags but Western women are more into luxury bags with no logos (Tod's, YSL, Balenciaga, Chloe...Will please help).

    Agree with your theory that Chinese tend to bow to authority, or to be more precise, they tend to conform to what others think is good. And they love face. That's why they're so desperate to express themselves through momograms as logos are easy to identify. At the same time, others are wearing the same logos so they feel safe. This also explains the 'MK' look thingy.

    On the other hand, as you said, Western people focus on autonomy and self-expression. They want to look different. That's why they use bags with no logos (which fashion-dummies may not notice). They focus more on style than brand names and price. That's why Western women would rather buy topshop and urban outfitters than LV.

    One strange phenonmenon is, lots of girls who are after LV bags earn slightly below the median income. Women of higher come won't be that crazy. I also suspect it has something to do with local girls' body image, which I'd better not go into depths here.

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  4. Bambi,

    You're right, we should have included a woman, so thanks for adding your comments. Nobody said the Pub talk had to stop with my post, and I've enjoyed the comments so far. The Pub is not a one-way medium, right?

    The leather huh? I never would have thought of that, but it's very interesting. Very primal. Do you think that explains women's obsession with shoes as well?

    But yeah, your observations about Eastern vs. Western women is conforms to my observations as well. Westerners think all these huge brand names are tacky (except the huge North Face logos, for some reason Americans love those).

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  5. Yes, I was about to ask others to get involved in this type of talk-post. Maybe Ev up there would be interested as well?

    North Face! I was hesitating about that when I bought my last North Face backpack...but then we have very limited choices in this village...

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  6. I've never understood the appeal of luxury bags either as I can think of a million other ways to spend my hard earned cash (e.g. traveling, latest gadgets, normal non-luxury bags/clothing, gifts for family, etc.)!!

    But girls are not the only ones buying luxury goods. What about guys buying expensive pens (Mont Blanc) and watches (Patek Philippe)? Not to mention expensive cars...?!

    As for the bag and shoe fetishes for ladies, it's not because they are made of leather. It's because they aren't size specific. That is, you don't have to be slim or pretty to pull them off. Any fat/ugly person can carry a luxury bag or wear nice shoes and instantly 'improve' themselves, at least in that sense.

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  7. the leather theory is from my observation, coz i saw my girlfriends get high by smelling their bags and purses. Same thing happens to nice leather seats in sports cars.

    the brands claim the bags cost this much because each bag is make of the whole skin of a crocodile. maybe it relates to men's hunting skills in Stone Age or it hints at the cruelty of a woman, which is somewhat sexy. (Sorry, PETA)

    To me, bags and shoes are different. The latter affects your head-turning rate but the former not. (if you ever care)

    No-no to North Face, I'd rather be freezed to death.

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  8. I think that Hong Kong has yet to go through its own Age of Enlightenment.

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  10. Wesley,

    For Hong Kong people at least, having a LV handbag has indeed something to do with their quality of life. To get something with a "better" aesthetic value and more stylish is an indication of better quality of life.

    Confucianism and Buddhism no longer has any influence on the Chinese (except "doctrines" such as filial piety). And Confucianism is not quite anti-materialistic, probably Taoism and Buddhism have more to do with anti-materialism. Anyway, neither has an impact on the Chinese anymore. They have been almost completely destroyed since The Cultural Revolution. (Especially Taoism, it has never had much influence throughout Chinese history).

    Miss Fong,

    Your observation is probably a more accurate one than Bambi's. I get "high" off smelling many things including leather for some reason as well, but I don't feel the need to purchase any leather products! (Perhaps this explains my obsession with perfume and colongue)

    By the way, men are no longer different from women in HK. Rather than just buying watches and pens, they are obsessed with electronic goods and fashion as well. They would spend a lot of money buying a pair of expensive headphones (just like me) or a pair of LVC or Visim's which their price is highly inproportionate to their income.

    Bambi,

    Your observation about that cultural difference is quite true. But I don't think monogram is the decisive factor to please the herd instinct, but rather, the brands. Though monograms may be eye-catching, but handbags with no monogram just like some of those Gucci's ones and Chanel's ones which were released years ago could draw as much attention as the monograms ones. (I'm surprised that you need help on those brand names though:P)

    Yes, that's true. Westerner value style more than brands, but I suppose those who live in metropolises like New York City would pay more attention to brands.

    What's wrong with North Face by the way? Some of the Japan version's look quite nice.

    This is not so much of a response to the post but rather to the comments. But I actually suspect that this obsession might have something to do with the Japanese as Hong Kong people tend to follow the trends in Japan. There's a similar obsession with hi-end fashion in Japan (especially for the young), but perhaps less rampant.

    W

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  13. Everyone,

    I'm sorry about this comment thing. It said it was too large to process, but then I realised....

    W

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  14. I agree with most of the theories here, especially that HK has not really been rich for many generations (considering most came as refugees from the War or from the spread of Communism in the Mainland). It's not right to compare it with Western Europe, which as Wes rightly said, was devasted in WWII, but it had been rich for a long time before the war.

    One thing I don't quite understand though, is why put the blame to the "Cultural Revolution"? True, it destroyed most traditional values in China, but that was in the Mainland. If anything, HK resisted so much to the Cultural Revolution, that in my mind maybe it became a bit too static to changes.

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  15. Yes, I thought Cultural Revolution has very little weight to HK people really.

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  16. Thinking deeper about this interesting phenomenon (buying LV bags and designer labels etc). I believe that it's all down to real personal confidence. I use the word "real", because it is not the superficial "cockiness" as demonstrated by most teenagers (anywhere around the world).

    Buying expensive bags / clothes / gadgets etc (when they are not really necessary) is a sure sign of lacking self-confidence. The label becomes the master, and the wearer merely an attachment. Whereas a person with real confidence would not need this, people would be mesmorised by the aura flowing around him /her rather than the labels he / she carries.

    Without sounding too racist, unfortunately, I am afraid that consciously or unconsciously, most people of the yellow race still have a great sense of inferior complex when compared to people of the white race. This includes the Japanese (who in the last 100-150 years, attempt to "escape" Asia, and join "Europe"). Deep in most of our minds, Western culture is superior (though many refuse to admit to this feeling), their people are physically stronger, their products much better in quality.

    That's why even in Japan, people flock to buy the latest LV bag, even though some of the designs by their own designers are just as good, if not better. And even when Japanese products are good in quality and style, they don't catch on as much as the "European" labels in most parts of Asia.

    This may sound a bit racist, but perhaps it's the truth.

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  17. Daveed,

    I'm not sure whether you were responding to me. But that was not what I meant about Cultural Revolution. Mine was simply a response to Wesley's point about Confucianism and Buddhism that they no longer have any impact on us.

    I don't entirely agree with you on buying expensive clothes, handbag, etc. It depends on whether they wear them with style or not. One's love of hi-end fashion does not necessarily mean he is lack of self-confidence. But, of course, I suppose many in Hong Kong are not of that kind.

    What you said about the East and the West is true. We tend to assume everything from the West is better. The Japanese do the same is because they are not known of their originality. What they do is that they adopt the Western concepts, add up their own elements, and try to integrate them with their own culture which makes them better than their Western prototypes. And they have done it quite successfully so far. In fact, their products have pretty much surpassed the Western ones in terms of quality and sometimes, perhaps, style. But it is the ideas from the West the Japanese value the most.

    W

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  18. Occam's razor points to one simple explanation: gullible.

    Or let's take it from your friend Erica, everything that ails Hong Kong can be explained by high property prices--read absofuckinglutely ridiculously outrageously high property prices. When your average person in Hong Kong can't really afford his or her own abode, she might as well just blows it on brands or luxurious goods. Life sucks dick here but one perhaps at least wants to suck it with a touch of style and glam and what better glams up one by using some made in Italy or France stuff, or so my theory goes. (note: there is absolutely nothing wrong using expensive goods to one's heart desire, it's not even a bad thing, it's a bad thing only when you are poor and want to max out your credit card to buy a stupid bag or a pair of shoes. Again, it's wrong only if you are poor. And why you are poor, because all your hard earned money goes to the real estate developers ...)

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  19. William,

    But Buddhism and to a certain extent Confuciusm still play a big part in the Japan society, yet Japanese OLs do exactly the same thing.

    Culturally speaking, Eastern people are more inclined a behave in "groups", and Westerners tend to be more indivualistic. People from the East feel awkward if they don't have a sense of belonging to a group, but it the family, colleagues in school / workplace, or society in general. Whereas Westerners tend to cope better (in fact sometimes prefer) when they are "loners".

    LV bags and such is yet another symbol for group identity.

    Like you, I'm fine with people buying expensive clothes etc if it's for the right reason, but many in the East do it to be regarded as part of a certain social-economic group, and is part of the herd instinct.

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  20. I somewhat agree with Daveed about the confidence thing, but I think insecurity is a better description. You have to remember that those who fled the cultural revolution to come to Hong Kong lost a lot of property and wealth to the commies, creating a generation of psychologically scarred Chinese who never want experience that type of loss again.

    So perhaps the Hong Kongers need to accumulate material wealth could be a manifestation of the insecurities that might have passed down from father to son advice through the generations. You know how homeless people push a shopping cart full of their belongings around, it's the same thing, people need to have a sense of security, and some find it by building up a huge collection of junk.

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  21. Daveed,

    I'm not sure about this in Japan because I think most of the values in Confucianism and Zen Buddhism have been lost in Japan as well, especially for the young, just like they largely forget what the samurai spirit is all about. I don't deny that these religions have much stronger influence in Japan though.

    Zombiehellmonkey,

    The Cultural Revolution has little impact on HK, if there is any. I don't think it has much to do with the older generations. The young is now suffering from the epidemic of amnesia. I seriously doubt they would remember what their grandparents said when they got their LV handbags!

    W

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  22. Then the other most simple explanation is that Hong Kong is a nation overrun by chavs ... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1V-rpXxWcA

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