Generation 40s – 四十世代

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The poverty of a material life

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South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Kelly Yang

Kelly Yang says for all the instant highs and claimed benefits, shopping and the pursuit of material pleasure can never replace a truly fulfilling life

The shimmering lights make the marble floors glisten. Nearby, a waterfall cascades into a pool of crystal blue water. There are palm trees everywhere and an aquarium, one of the world’s largest, houses exotic marine animals. A lovely breeze sweeps through the entire place. Beautiful people walk around, all of whom look effortlessly cool.

The place I’m describing is not a museum or a park. It’s a mall, but it’s one so beautiful, it could almost be considered a piece of art. And if a mall can be considered a work of art, then can shopping be considered a sport?

Here in Hong Kong, it certainly feels this way. Walk into IFC or Pacific Place on any given weekend and you’d think the place was a set for a game show, where the objective was to buy as much as possible in 45 minutes.

A recent study shows shopping can improve health, as making shopping choices “helps to restore a sense of personal control over one’s environment, and thus helps to alleviate sadness”.

For many people, this sense of personal control can feel empowering and addictive. On a flight back from Taipei, I sat next to a mainland woman who was visibly upset. She told me she was frustrated because this was her first trip outside China and, in Taipei, she had only managed to spend 20,000 yuan (HK$25,000), not the 50,000 yuan she’d planned to.

I tried to cheer her up and told her that I didn’t think it was a small amount. She said it was not good enough. When the plane landed, I asked her what she wanted to buy most in Hong Kong. She said it didn’t matter; whatever it was, she would buy HK$30,000 worth.

For anyone who works in retail, this is a great story. Mainland China’s burgeoning middle class, and their newfound obsession for shopping, is a godsend. Last year, nearly 100 million Chinese tourists went abroad. They spent a total of US$102 billion overseas in 2012, making them the world’s biggest spenders. It is estimated that, by 2015, Chinese tourists could spend US$194 billion.

But the euphoria caused by shopping is short-lived. A distant cousin from China, a seasoned shopper, recently travelled to Europe, where she discovered something miraculous: the return counter. She found it amazing that she could buy something, experience the high, and then, once the infatuation passed, return the thing and get her money back. So she proceeded to spend her entire vacation in Europe buying things, returning them, buying new things, and returning those, too. During her entire time in France, Italy and Switzerland, she did not hike up a single mountain or check out a church. She shopped.

When I heard, I was mortified and felt deeply ashamed of my cousin for squandering the opportunity to explore and be inspired. “But I was inspired,” she protested. “I bought 12 new watches – do you know how inspiring that is?” Inspiring, maybe, for the Italian economy. But, for life, it’s downright depressing.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.


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