Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Money, thinking aloud

So I bought the red envelopes in preparation for New Year.

In a week or so, I'll slip a clean, folded note into each envelope, then hang them on the door. Unless something disastrous happens, like the envelopes are torn open in unseemly haste, the kids can run off to spend their sudden gained dollars in any way they want.

I feel I should do a little of this, 'when in Rome', even though I'm not sure what I'm doing and why.

Take the red envelopes. I don't know why they came about, or why I should put in money and not, say, a length of string and a picture of a man wearing a hat. My cultural ignorance of New Year preparation probably extends to other things too. I bet that I hang scrolls honouring dead grandmothers the doomed way round; that I shovel the equivalent of chips and pineapple into my rice bowl, or generally commit all manner of unsocial acts in public everyday.

But I can see cash is a gift in itself. It's not considered vulgar, or thoughtless, to hand over money, especially to children. Accepting it readily is not considered greedy. While we have this problem talking about money in the west, there's no such issue here. Maybe that's pragmatic. There is a cultural assumption that you save for what you need, that you are wise in managing money, and that it is a resource to be shared around family and friends.

Anyway, I have an excuse with the dollar bills in the envelopes. I'm learning by doing. I'm just sharing the experience publicly. Thinking aloud. But don't hold me to it. On most cultural observations I make, I accept I can be proved wrong. It's not like I've married into here or have been folded into the China bosom. I'm watching, and trying to make sense of things. I accept I have only a tiny pin-prick of a viewpoint here in Hong Kong. Skewed too.

Take this thing about money. In England, don't people have a cultural suspicion of large amounts of money acquired through commerce? Maybe that's a snooty social thing: should I blame the Normans? Was it they who brought in a system that means we divide everything up, top to bottom, then somehow expect to keep it the same and pass it on down the centuries? Maybe we get to one thousand years down the line, and that's long enough for us to think it's okay to pass money on like that.

But to go out and make money? Acquire a lot of money, suddenly? Within a life time. Maybe there is a feeling of discomfort about that. Why, I don't know. Blame the socially obsessed Victorians or Henry VIII for helping kick-start England's protestant history.

Wherever it's come from, there's a feeling that acquired wealth - unless it's through demonstrably working class heroics of hard work, honest graft and sacrifice - well, sudden acquired wealth, more than you need, especially with any display, or ostentation and 'showing off', it's all perhaps a little disreputable or dishonest. Money comes with an unspoken suspicion. Is there exploitation, sacrifice of moral principles, mean spirits, a less than honourable person involved?

And do the English show much generosity of thinking if anyone suddenly acquires money by chance? If the good fortune came by way of buying a ticket and matching some numbers, maybe that shows a fundamental character of speculation and idleness. You just got lucky, no hard work, no skill there.

Maybe you just can't win in England.

In China, money doesn't seem to come with the same discomforts. I'm struck by how the issue of wealth and wealth creation is linked into ideas about personal success, happiness, well being. People seem genuinely to wish wealth, fortune and prosperity without the social daggers of resentment and suspicion. I'm surrounded by expressions which tackle the acquisition of money head on, pull no punches. Expressions which translate ideas such as 'Get rich good luck', 'Make money good fortune' 'Get money first and accumulate blessing', The luck is coming, everything's done'. They sit alongside businesses who promote themselves freely as 'Big Profit Company'.

I think I need to take my western ideas about money, then turn them on their head. In Chinese culture, acquiring money quickly shows your virtue, not your vice. It shows how prosperity is coming to you because you're a good person: you've done all the right things, behaved with due respect for your ancestors, have forethought for your future unborn families, generally lived well with your fellow human beings. For all of that, material reward and wealth is truly deserved.

What can you do with your wealth? I think this expectation I can turn upside down too. Here, there is the cultural assumption you will share your wealth around the family, clan, wider society. Your good fortune, brought about by your good nature, will show itself in the good that you will bring to others, the loans you make, the social funds you commit to, the charities you begin. Whether that truly happens in practice, I wonder. I read that the gap between rich and poor is increasing in Hong Kong, that social injustice is evident in housing policy and employment opportunity, and that over a million people here now live below the poverty line.

Hmm. I'm only thinking aloud. I have other things to do. I've spent long enough thinking about money, considering that I have only a few dollars in my purse. I resolve to spend them soon. I shall go to a street trader and buy New Year red lanterns. On the lanterns, don't ask me why. But I'll hang them all around the house, probably just on the day that to do so, brings bad luck.


sharon said...

Just don't put any red lights in those red lanterns - although you may then have the opportunity to make some money!

Couldn't resist that - sorry ;-)

Hope you all have fun spending your New Year dollars. Maybe fluffy bunnies all round for the girls, it would make a change from the unicorns.

Dreamingaloudnet said...

Really thought provoking. Great to have ones basic assumptions turned on their heads. Thank you!

I have been writing about Money too this week!

Big mamma frog said...

Oh yes I totally conform to the English view of money. I'm resentful when others have it (and I don't), and guilty when I have it (and others dont).

Maybe I should take a leaf out of the Chinese book. Does that mean I have to start with the one at the back?

Gweipo said...

hmm, I also have been wondering about money recently. I'm reading "Factory girls" about the Chinese factories just over the HK border. Meanwhile, quite a few parents at my kids' school are HK entrepreneurs, aka own factories just over the HK border.
There can be no question that they're wealthy and successful.
But then I read another chapter and I wonder. Is "he" the one who did something like that? does "their" factory look like that / treat it's employees like that?"
And how much of these things permeate down to their homes and families.

I don't know. I just wonder.

Grit said...

hey sharon, i hadn't thought of that red connection. i'm either fantastically naive or i have swum in the culture here and the difference never struck me. and the traditional bridal ceremony dress is red in china, isn't it? we see white bridal in hk, but i'm assuming that's brit. influence.

hi, dreamingaloud. thanks for the link. there are ways of living in hk, i can see, from the high-expense lifestyles, to the cage apartments and robinson crusoe huts, types of which we pass on our island trails. i would be hard pressed to think of anywhere that places rich and poor side by side in such astonishing contrast as in hong kong.

big mamma, you have struck an interesting line there. metal stele, historic codex, everyday scroll, cheap paperback with terrible glue binding. china got them all.

thank you gweipo for the book ref. i shall look out for that, and add a little more to my world view from here!

MadameSmokinGun said...

I am so rubbish with money. I cannot attract it, nor hold on to it if I do find some. Always been the same. Like I think it's dirty or something - but even that sentence is strange - I am constantly surrounded by dirt. My favourite music, 'art', books, humour, kids, men etc are all dirty. So - inspired by your piece, I shall now endeavour to flip my thinking about money, to revel in the dirt of money and try to draw it into my reach. But then there was the bit about deserving money by being a good girl...oh! I knew there was a catch!

Helen of SJ said...

I always thought of the Chinese way of wishing great wealth to each other as a reflection of a people obsessed with money, but you have a great point. Every society is obsessed with money, but the Chinese are just more honest about it.