Runaway housing costs, inequality, poverty: are HK’s best days behind it?
New data puts the city's cost-of-living crisis in stark relief
Last week, Hong Kong online media outlet 100 Most released a graphic displaying new data released by the city’s Census and Statistics Department.
The numbers compare data for 1996 and 2016 across a handful of indices affecting people aged between 15 and 24. In 1996, the average salary for the age group amounted to HK$7,500 (US$960 in today’s money). In 2016, it was HK$10,750, a 40% increase. In the same period, a Big Mac meal deal at McDonald’s increased in price from HK$17.8 to HK$34, representing a rise of 91%, if you want to take that as a guide to general inflation.
The most damning comparison of all, however, came in relation to how many years’ salary it would take for a young person to buy a property of 400 square feet – assuming they didn’t spend any of it on anything else. In 1996, it would have taken “around 21 years” of “not eating, or drinking”; in 2016, make that 41 years.
People of older generations will always tend to reminisce about the things that used to be better. No doubt nostalgia helps to make the picture rosier. But there are, certainly, aspects of how the Hong Kong of yesteryear gets painted that make it seem a more alluring place. Not in the sense of the grand colonial structures that, pre-reclamation, once lined the city’s harborfront, but rather in things like a sense of community and the “Lion Rock Spirit” – a popular expression that distils an idea of Hongkongers’ core values and their will to better themselves through hard work and perseverance. A Hong Kong version of the American Dream, if you will.
I didn’t get to live through “the old days,” but even so it’s hard for people of my generation and younger not to long for a time when day-to-day living didn’t seem like such a struggle and our hopes and dreams didn’t feel so out of reach.
As I was growing up, in the 1990s, Hong Kong was undergoing a definite transitional period. There was no doubt considerable uncertainty, ahead of the 1997 Handover of sovereignty from Britain to China. But there was, at least, a sense that if you put your mind to it and put in the hard yards, you could make something of yourself.
It’s hard for people of my generation not to long for a time when our hopes and dreams didn’t feel so out of reach
Buying property has always been a measure of success in Hong Kong, so let’s go straight there. Back in the 90s, this was not the unthinkable feat for first-time buyers that it has become today. Nowadays, HK$5 million is really the minimum outlay for a small one-bedroom flat on Hong Kong Island. With such soaraway prices – driven by unscrupulous developers and a government that pays little more than lip-service to the idea of controlling them – we’re pretty much being set up for failure on that front from the get-go. Why work hard and persevere when, at the end of the day, you’ll still struggle even to afford a down payment?
And while the divide between property-owners and the rest widens, so too does inequality between the rich (and the “striving” classes) and the very poorest. Hong Kong is a city that is set up to benefit the rich immensely but one that increasingly shows the poor its middle finger. Last year, the Hong Kong government’s own figures showed that one in five Hongkongers are now living below the poverty line. Meanwhile, another Census and Statistics Department report found that the city’s wealthiest households made 44 times more than the poorest – the widest gulf in five decades. As Hong Kong’s underprivileged and disenfranchised feel this disparity, social tensions can only deepen.
Yes, I acknowledge that older generations in Hong Kong had to suffer through their own hardships and bear their own burdens. But being confronted with the stark statistical realities of now and seeing how dramatically this town has changed since my childhood, it’s not difficult to imagine the past was an easier and simpler time. Forget what the trajectories of the city’s asset markets say: Hong Kong’s best days are starting to look well behind it.