Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Having your buttons pushed: Western perceptions of Hong Kong manners

I spent last night in Macau, an overnight trip to celebrate the wedding of two good friends. In the elevator of the Landmark Hotel Macau, I snapped this picture with my phone:

The camera photo heard around my Facebook feed

The next day, I posted it to Facebook with the very simple description, "I feel like this photo tells you so much about Macau/Hong Kong/China." To my surprise, the picture was an instant hit, receiving an inordinate number of Likes. The Likes were also disproportionately representative of my expat friends in Hong Kong. Clearly, the picture and what it symbolizes resonates with westerners who have spent a lot of time in the southeast China region. Below are a couple of comments from the thread:

There's no doubt about it. Chinese people love to mash the close door button. Often before you've had the chance to get in or out of the elevator. And they are absolutely unapologetic about it. To a foreigner unaccustomed to the Chinese ways, it is definitely shocking that a person would mash the button with such apparent disregard for others, but no local will ever bat an eyelash. People are always on the move in Hong Kong. Get to where you are going, and be quick about it. 

But perhaps the button-mashing mentality is representative of one of the greatest parts of Chinese culture. No one ever questions that the Chinese culture is one of diligence and hard work. In a sense, the jamming of the elevator buttons, the desperate cramming on to the MTR, and myriad other examples of chaos is what gives rise to the incredible skyscrapers, exciting commerce and success of the great harbour city. These people hustle and grind so that slackers like me can reap the rewards of a leisurely walk around town.

Yet from a mathematical standpoint, the button mashing makes little sense. The difference between mashing and waiting for the person to be comfortably situated in the elevator is probably 0.5 seconds at best. Even if you are constantly in an elevator throughout your work day, it is fairly unlikely you can even save a full minute per day. So this behaviour earns the performer well under 0.1% of their day. Hardly seems worth the number of bruised shoulders caught in elevator doors, not to mention the unfortunate souls who have to wait minutes -- full minutes! -- because they didn't get through the doors quick enough and were left to helplessly watch the elevator depart without them. Can't we just take that 0.5 seconds and lower our collective stress levels?

To be sure, the practice of slamming elevator doors in the faces of your fellow men is certainly one I would remove if I were given magical powers (a good indication that if there is such a thing as magical power, it would be a waste to bestow them upon me). Though an ethnic Chinese, I've spent most of my life in Canada and such practices offend my Canadian sensibilities of politeness. Hell, I'm so Canadian, I usually don't even hit the button until the person exiting the elevator is far enough they can't even hear me hitting the button.

But allow me to propose an idea: perhaps politeness is simply a form of currency. If that is the case, then it follows that overt politeness is simply a form of conspicuous consumption. Here, let me hold the door open for you; I am in no rush. The implicit message is: "I have plenty of time. I can afford the time." If politeness is a form of Canadian currency, then is extra politeness to Canadians what abalone, shark fin soup and Johnnie Walker Blue Label are to the Chinese?

In Chinese culture, we give money as gifts, be the occasion a birthday, a wedding, or a holiday. It's always money, and the more the better. In North America the practice of money as a gift has fallen into disfavour; instead gifts are more valued if there is the feeling the sender put a great deal of thought and/or effort into the gift. The divide thus comes down to time versus money; in the Chinese tradition, the value is measured in the money spent by the giver whereas in the West, the value is indicated by the the giver's time.

Time versus money. Two sides of the same coin. It is an interesting paradigm in which to view the East/West divide. Or at least, that's how I'll try to look at it the next time someone slams the door in my face.


  1. This is a great post. I hope you write more about Asia and Chinese people and stuff like that.

  2. Very interesting and educational. However, I do wonder about one thing. Do the same cultural practices apply in rural areas where the competition for time and resources is not as severe? I note that urban areas tend to be more self-centered, regardless of the nation/culture. I'd like to know if these same practices would apply to a village or agricultural community. It's easy to see why this happens in Hong Kong. Less so in some remote province. Accordingly, is the practice really "cultural?"

    1. Good question! Wish I knew the answer! Suspect your speculation is right at least to some extent.