September 26, 2011 11:31 pm

The ultimate dinner party topic

Property sales and rent renegotiations dominate conversation in Hong Kong, writes Rahul Jacob

Property prices and rent renegotiations dominate dinner party conversation in Hong Kong. Bankers grumble about a 90 per cent increase in the rents they pay for their flats, but renew their leases anyway. In recent months, newspapers have jumped in with giddy headlines about yet another property agents’ survey confirming that Hong Kong’s stratospheric residential property prices are now the world’s highest. Friday’s South China Morning Post featured a story that quoted Savills research showing that Hong Kong’s properties for billionaires were more expensive than anywhere else in the world.

At £6,700 per square foot, Savills estimates that “trophy” homes in Hong Kong are twice as expensive as those in London at a trifling £3,090 per square foot.

Banx cartoon

Unfortunately, the article featured a photo of a villa in Hong Kong on the market for a cool US $38m that was so unattractive that even middle-class people might think twice about living there if they won it in a lottery. Perhaps it’s not coincidental that the billionaires most likely to be buying at the top of Hong Kong’s frothy market are mainland Chinese. They are often not really looking for places to live in, but for financial diversification or a place to park their money in case they fall out of favour in China. (Agents say many of these fancy homes are not even occupied and rarely rented out because wealthy mainland Chinese believe new trophy apartments lose value if they are perceived to be “second-hand”.) Aesthetics, after all, are not a requirement when you open the equivalent of a Swiss bank account.

Poll-fever HK-style

Hong Kong is in the grip of election fever but the campaign is not proving an inspiring test-run for full democracy. Columnists dubbed Henry Tang the favourite as chief executive, Hong Kong’s de facto mayor, because Beijing believes he has the support of the civil service, which he currently heads as chief secretary. The trouble is, his support from the man on the street slipped after he dismissed concerns about aggressive policing during the visit of Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang in August as “complete rubbish.”

Earlier this summer, at a time when the public mood in Hong Kong had soured against the city’s property tycoons, Mr Tang suggested that young people stop complaining and work on emulating Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong and Asia’s richest man.

Mr Tang is the oenophile son of a Shanghai textile tycoon and Hong Kong’s government has long been essentially a plutocracy. But, as a way of winning public support in a city with the highest income inequality in the developed world, it was an odd remark, recalling former Texas governor Ann Richard’s crack about George Bush Sr. The late Ms Richards quipped that Mr Bush had been born with a “silver foot in his mouth”. Mr Bush went on to win the 1988 presidential election, anyway. Perhaps Mr Tang can afford to be forthright to the point of being impolitic because he is believed to have the vote that counts – that of Beijing’s leadership.

Outflanking China’s opera censors

Hong Kong Opera might have expected a pat on the back for producing an original work on Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Chinese Republic, set to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 1911 revolution next month. The world premiere was slated for September 30 at Beijing’s National Centre for Performing Arts, a titanium and glass fantasy rising out of an artificial lake. However, the production in China’s capital has been cancelled, officially for “logistical reasons”, but most observers blame censorship. The mystery is what might have offended Beijing’s censors. Some bet that the love story of Sun and Soong Ching-ling, who was his third wife, might be the culprit. The premiere will now be in Hong Kong on October 13.

Lars Nittve, the former director of London’s Tate Modern, who now leads Hong Kong’s contemporary art museum in the making, recently argued the city could be a regional arts centre because of its tradition of free speech. Beijing’s loss may be Hong Kong’s gain – just as Beijing’s reluctance to allow the renminbi to be freely convertible is partly responsible for putting Hong Kong in the happy position of being China’s financial centre for the foreseeable future.

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