The HP Series showcases excerpts from excellent Honours Projects by students from the Department of English Language and Literature. [Read all entries here.]
Supervisor: Dr Jason S Polley
In September 2015, while on boyfriend duty, I accompanied my girlfriend in search of a supposed ‘shop’ in Tsim Sha Tsui. She had ordered a skincare product through someone on Instagram.
This is a method of commerce that has gained more and more popularity in Hong Kong in recent years: people use social networks – mainly Instagram and Facebook – to set up virtual shops. Once you find the product you want – usually through Google searches or hashtags – you contact the shop-owners personally to get their bank account information. After you transfer payment to the shop-owner’s account, the handover of the goods will generally happen in one of the following three ways:
- The shop-owner will ship the goods to you. This is a less popular way, as there will usually be an extra shipping cost tagged along with the goods.
- The shop-owner will arrange to meet with you to hand over the goods – usually in an MTR station. In these cases you can sometimes even pay on the spot. This is usually my go-to method. I like the human connection that lingers despite the fact that this new form of commerce rises from the soil of technology – which people commonly see as being responsible for the lack of human interaction in this new era. I naturally develop a tendency/game of guessing what sort of person the shop-owner is – based on the types and varities of goods that they sell, the compositions of the product pictures they take on the Instagram or Facebook pages, the fonts they choose, the tones in their languages both in the product descriptions and when they are texting. I have become quite good at this game. But there was one time I was confident that the shop-owner would be a cute young girl after I’ve gone through all of my usual analysis. It turned out it was a cheerful high school boy who was really into Japanese shōujo manga. I stop playing that game after this.
- The shop-owner has an actual physical shop that you can go pick up the goods at. And this is why I was in Tsim Sha Tsui.
The address that the shop-owner gave us was a little bit fishy. It wasn’t on the street or in a mall. It was, rather, in an office building in Tsim Sha Tsui. I have seen these ‘shops’ operate in industrial buildings where there are multiple modest-sized units on one floor, but never in an office buildings where there are often only one or two large office units that spread across the entire floor – the reason I find it unbelievable is that rents for offices in Hong Kong, just like housing prices, are insanely high, while on the other hand a unit in an industrial building is going to be much cheaper to rent or buy.
It was a humble looking building – when compared to its neighbours: the typical modern, luxurious high-rises in Tsim Sha Tsui – with a well-lit entrance that allowed me to take a quick glance at the board listing the businesses inside, and the name of the ‘shop’ we were going to was not on it. We took the elevator to the 11th floor. The first thing I noticed – as always – was the smell. It was the smell of air-freshener – the nice, non-aggressive kind – covering the scent of freshly done interior construction that smelled almost acidy. The entrance was bland: alice-blue light illuminated aggressively the plain white walls that presided over a dark grey carpet – no plant, no front desk, no paintings or posters, only a metal board and two glass doors opposite the elevator.
Slowly but surely, I realized what was going on with this ‘office’. Someone had bought the office and divided it into tiny units as shops for sale. When I say ‘tiny’, I mean inhumanly minuscule. As we pushed open the glass door, we entered a slender corridor that was good for at most two people, with tiny shops on each side. Each shop was about the size of a single bed – if you lay down in one of the empty shops, that’d be it, you would take up all the space.
It was still early afternoon, so a lot of the shops were still in slumber. We reached our destination, a cubicle in the middle of a corridor. The shop-owner was a lady probably in her 20s, stylishly dressed. She sat in the corner of the shop behind a small counter the size of an end table, surrounded by three shelves that had about six or seven levels each, filled with tiny jars labelled ‘sample’. Giant cardboard boxes that piled up almost to the ceiling – all with holes carved out of their sides – surrounded the room and occupied most of the remaining space, leaving a path barely the size of one human being.
I had to fully extend my arm to hand her the phone that contained the WhatsApp conversation about the order. We needed to step outside the shop to clear a path for her to come out from the counter and grab what we needed. She carefully studied all the markings on the cardboard boxes that were in ant-size font. She then put her arm into one of the boxes and started to search blindly. The slightly frustrated look on her face made it look like she had her arm comically stuck in the box. She eventually found the skincare product we needed, and she returned to the counter to get a small paper bag, while I needed to stretch my arm to its full extent again to hand her the money.
This is heartbreaking – to see what the ‘shopping paradise’ has become: the chains, the franchises and the rich dominate the street, the city, while the small businesses – those that sell cheaper and more diverse goods, and provide better services – are reduced to tiny boxes and resort to virtual space in order to survive.
But they are able to survive.
This new form of commerce based entirely on social networks encourages a new generation of entrepreneurship – one that rises against the strong disheartening current that is the inhuman rent for a space and the supremacy of the big corporations in Hong Kong. And this very spirit is exactly what Hong Kong people have always been so proud of throughout the decades – the Lion Rock Spirit.
 You need to take a picture of the receipt you get from the ATM after transferring the money.
 This is becoming challenging. MTR Corporation Limited has realized people are using their stations as hubs for handing over goods so they have started taking action under their by-laws in September 2015 saying that those who sell or offer sale without authorised permission from MTR in their stations will be charged and face a fine of up to $5000 HKD and 6 months in prison.
 This model of commerce has allowed a lot of youngsters in Hong Kong to do business at a young age – often they are collectors of various pop culture products (manga products, accessories, toys, CDs etc.) who want to get rid of items from their collections, so they do not need any capital to start up a small e-business.
 Japanese comics that are tailored toward young girls. ‘Shōujo’ literally means ‘young girl’ in Japanese.
 That is why a lot of smaller businesses in Hong Kong usually occupy these industrial buildings.
 The light in the shop was dim, so I could not tell if the counter was actually just an end table.
 A lot of these ‘shop-owners’ try to sell more diverse goods in order to stay competitive, which usually means they need to either have more unusual sources for ordering certain kinds of goods, or personally travel to other countries to hand-pick the goods they want to ship back to Hong Kong and sell. For instance, I have been a customer of a shop that ships professional goalkeeper gloves of smaller brands from Singapore. They are much cheaper than your typical Nike and Adidas, and just as good. But currently no one is retailing these brands in Hong Kong except for this virtual shop.
 Many consider the Lion Rock Spirit to be the core value of Hong Kong. A TV series by RTHK in 1973 called Below the Lion Rock coins this term. It is a story about how the ordinary people of Hong Kong cope with the toughest situations. Hence, Lion Rock Spirit is all about perseverance, even in the toughest times.
Finn Lai is a soon-to-be graduate of the Department of English Language and Literature (Class of 2016).