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Cathay Cowboys, budget bounties and the island’s ‘poor’

The Indian budget was a page 16 clip, but the few Hong Kong’s financial analysts who did take a look gave it a thumbs down, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.
None | By Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Hong Kong
UPDATED ON MAR 09, 2008 11:14 PM IST

Many subcontinentals vaguely believe Hong Kong is Way Out There on the Pacific Rim. But its only five hour’s away if you take Cathay Pacific’s direct flight.

I had always placed Cathay in the category of Efficient-to-the-Point-of-Characterless. Little did I know of the roguish streak behind its prissy façade. On the weekend of my arrival, the local media was still going on about the “Top Gun” aerobatics of the airline’s chief pilot, Ian Wilkinson. He had taken a brand-new $100 million Boeing 777 and plunged it to a height of 8.5 metres above the ground with landing gear retracted. He did it above a Seattle runway and the plane was largely empty. But a video made its way to YouTube. A furious management – “made us look like cowboys” an airline official said – sacked Wilkinson. Cathay is still trying to spin the fact its director, Christopher Pratt, was on board during the daredevil stunt. The YouTube video wasn’t Hollywood material, but one version had a James Bond movie soundtrack as the backdrop.

Budget bounty

Budgets were the story in New Delhi and in Hong Kong. Though elections aren’t really part of Hong Kong’s story, the Asian financial centre had also passed a budget replete with giveaways to the general public. So generous, in fact, that the lines for the annual Kwum Yum Treasury Opening Festival in Hong Kong were shorter than normal. In this festival in honour of Kwum Yum, the Goddess of Mercy, worshippers are given a red box at the temple with a number signifying how much the deity would “lend” them this year – a supposed indicator of their likely earnings.

The Indian budget was a page 16 clip, but the few Hong Kong’s financial analysts who did take a look gave it a thumbs down. At a time when China is heading for an economic slowdown, India had a chance to overtake its northern neighbour. The Manmohan Singh government’s mix of minimal reforms and maximal red ink, meant India would slow down even more than China.

The only South Asian getting media attention that weekend was Fatima Bhutto, niece of the assassinated Benazir. Present for the Man Literary Festival, she was busy denouncing Pakistan’s feudal polity and damning Benazir with faint praise. No surprise: she believes Benazir was complicit in the murder of Fatima’s father, Murtaza. Though a columnist, her presence at the festival was a little difficult to explain. Her only literary product has been a forgettable volume of poetry.

Poor Little Rich

Hong Kong has all the characteristics of a City of Finance: tall gleaming towers owned by investment banks, ritzy pubs and restaurant districts, and streets full of people walking aggressively. I’ve always given its no-nonsense attitude towards money high points. Name another major airport whose foreign exchange booths treat rupees in the same way they do dollar and euros?

Which is why Hong Kong dwellers have greeted a recent determination by their Council of Social Service that one in five of their population lives below the poverty line with phlegmatism. The bulk of these are elderly. Nearly 40 per cent of the old are BPL. The island’s financial secretary said the government can’t afford to do anything about this — the population, as the case with much of developed Asia, was aging too rapidly.

Of course, Hong Kong’s definition of poverty is nothing like the World Bank’s “one meal a day” standard. You’re poor if you earn less than 4,000 Hong Kong dollars a month — about Rs 20,000.

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