My City Is Dying [Series]

Episode #1: Worked To Death

The video below has inspired me. The entire thing is in Cantonese so I will provide translation and commentary at the same time. Although the video specifically refers to those working in the accounting industry for the “big 4” firms in Hong Kong, it speaks to a larger culture of work habits that is ruining office work in the city. This marks the beginning of a series of posts on what I see as the decay of a city I once loved.

The piece begins with ex-“Big 4” accountants talking about how working overtime without* extra pay as considered the norm. Bosses would say to his subordinates “when I was in your position, I worked OT and I didn’t get anything, so why should you?”

It then moves to a soliloquy by an anonymous accountant who reflects upon why he is working to 4 in the morning on a regular basis. The important thing to take away from this is that there is no sympathy on part of the superiors, who think that this kind of life-ruining work style is a fact of life that they just have to deal with. The anonymous accountant goes on to counter the notion that their hardships are compensated by salary with the deterioration of his health and relationships with his families and friends.

The next ridiculous phenomenon that the video talks about is that office people stick around in the office to “OT” even if they don’t have work to do. To paraphrase, “to leave early means that either that person is lazy or isn’t competent enough for more work, therefore everyone just sits in the office, waiting for the boss to leave.”

It doesn’t stop there. It is here that I’d like to remind readers once again that working ethos like this is not limited to just the Big 4 accounting firms in Hong Kong; similar things occur in banks, ad, and property management firms. The video then goes through the lives of some who have since left behind their grueling Big 4 days, and talks about how during busy times, they’d inhale lunches and dinners to save time, eventually leading to stomach issues that cause them to take sick days.

Quoting part of a larger sentence, “if we want to leave early, say, 9PM…”

The ex-accountant then talks about the culture of OT as a given thing, that if a worker leaves on time, that means that he is not given enough work, therefore piling on more work. He also talks about how he used to work until 5am, go home, take a shower, sleep for an hour or two, then hop on a taxi and back to work at 9am. He aptly points out that their big-4 counterparts in the West achieve similar business without its workers working the same number of hours. As the video cuts to a montage of him leaving just after 6 and having dinner with his family, his mom talks about how she worried for not just his physical but mental health as well, that she wanted him to get out of this ‘hell’ of a work place.

The next segment of the video interviews another man who used to work in Big 4 firms, during which 70-80 hour work weeks were commonplace. He currently is working with other accounting firms to address the issue of overworking. This is intercut with the previous interviewee, who now has more time on his hands (in his Big 4 days he’s had to work weekends) to do the things he likes or finds meaningful, such as caring for rescued dogs.

The video ends with some chilling statistics: Hong Kong workers top the world in work hours; concurrently, a university study has found that 83% of those interviewed finds life in Hong Kong difficult.

I have never worked in a Big 4 firm and I have never worked 70 hours in a week (there are 168 hours in a week, IF you count Saturday and Sunday, that’s almost half of your entire week). But I have interned at an ad firm that required me to stay at the office until 2am for a couple nights. This happens, a lot, in Hong Kong. And the people, many of whom lack either the courage or the knowledge to speak up about the wrongness that has been bestowed upon them, suck it up day in and day out, eventually leading to irreparable health and social issues.
As a lead in to a future post: this type of work culture is not limited to the office work place in Hong Kong; it came from somewhere. The same type of people who run the accounting firms are the same ones who run the local education system. These are the people who believe more work for children means they become better test-scorers, which means better students. More on that later.

On top of shaky politics, mainland influence, a dying Disney (and the larger tourism appeal), a (largely) oblivious expat community, and a ruthless property-developing oligarch, the latter two of which make up the top >1% of the city’s population, the city to which I call home for two-thirds of my life is dying before my very eyes.

Feature piece by rthk31. Thanks a million, for you guys made a piece that has finally pushed me over the edge and start a series to talk about this from my perspective.


Friedman: Is the rest of Asia trying to contain China?

In his latest column in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman makes the claim that the Asian countries have been acting extra-cozy with President Obama during his visits because China has been flexing its muscles in several regional disputes.

Read the column here

Currently traveling in Hong Kong, I can say that China has made it quite clear in recent years to step on the pedal and expand its domestic economy as well as its international prominence. Having hosted the Olympics in 2008 in Beijing and the World Expo in Shanghai this year, China has dramatically improved its public infrastructure and its citizens are slowly recognizing their statuses in the world.

As such, the Chinese government has ridden on this wave of economic progress to use its military to assert its dominance in the Southeast Asian region.

I can’t say much about the dispute over South China Sea, which Friedman mentions in the column, except that it’s no surprise that China would be aggressive over anything that has to do with oil because it needs to sustain 1.5 billion people.

Friedman also brings up the dispute that happened near The East China Sea, called the Senkaku Islands, of which Japanese Coast Guard vessels were hit by a Chinese fishing boat. The Chinese (and Hong Kong’s) media has reported this story as if it was totally the Japanese’s fault, because Chinese has claim to the Islands, and should release the captain of the fishing boat.

I for one thought that something was up when the matter escalated to an international dispute, one in which even U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had to comment on. I thought, “why are these two countries, which boasts two of the largest economies in the world, trading harsh words and threatening more serious actions over a bunch of tiny islands in the middle of nowhere?” I really didn’t think that the Chinese cares that much about the islands, and neither does Japan. The islands serve no strategic purpose; it’s only disputed because it lies on contested waters between the two countries.

An article from Hong Kong Magazine, an English weekly leisure magazine, echoes my sentiment, but with an environmental twist. The article claims that the Hong Kong media, as well as its people, are prioritizing the wrong things to discuss, in that we seem to be all chatting about a bunch of islands that don’t matter at all while not doing anything to solve the city’s garbage disposal problem (Hong Kong is one of the biggest trash-producing cities in the world, and it is struggling to find disposal spaces).

My point is this, the Chinese government have used the Senkaku Islands incident as a tool to pursue its sort-of imperialistic agendas. By labeling it as a matter of national pride (which, again, it really isn’t. Because who really cares about a pile of rocks in the middle of nowhere?), China has the support of its people to hit Japan hard with an economic maneuver, thus demonstrating its ability to dominate the region.

Although I don’t necessarily think that the rest of Asia are now scrambling to find an ally just in case China gets to greedy in its territorial (and therefore natural resource) claims, I do think that more attention would be paid to China’s every move from now on to see if it continues to make its presence felt.