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Hong Kong suffers an identity meltdown in 'Hello' promo

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaAfter three years of travel isolation, the much awaited 'Hello Hong Kong' campaign dives off a cliff and misses the point — as well as the sea. How did the city make such a mess of wooing visitors with ample time and money at its disposal to produce a world-beating video campaign?

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor 14 February 2023

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The little poeple of Hong Kong provide its true essence

The people HK forgot: (far left) Yiu, a Po Toi boat operator attributes his youthful looks to eating binges, "cholesterol or no cholesterol," while, (centre) Jean the Lantau buffalo whisperer reaches out across nature's divide, and (right), flight attendant Marvix marvels at the sights/ photos cropped from: HongKongShifts.com

AT THE heart of any tourism outreach is one simple question: why do people want to travel? What is it that drives people from a comfy sofa sipping beer at home watching Netflix to a comfy sofa at a pricey resort sipping beer watching Netflix?

Travel has always been synonymous with curiosity, knowledge, power, and sophistication. It was credited with great curative properties and many attained great stature through their wanderings. Mark Twain once famously said: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." He was right. There is something humbling about travel. Yet there is so much humbug in travel advertising.

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Ibn Battuta's travels (AD1325-1355) were spectacular in their scope from North Africa to Central Asia (the lands of the Golden Horde Mongols) to India, where he endured the violent whims of King Mohammed bin Tughlaq, before fleeing to the Maldives and then venturing north to China. The great Chinese pilgrim scholar Xuanzang (also spelled Huen Tsang, AD602-664) had earlier visited India and its great Nalanda University.

This presaged the continent-spanning journeys of a host of future travellers, adventurers and chroniclers, like Marco Polo (AD1271-1295) who brought back from China, the compass, noodles, paper and silk; Christopher Columbus (who sailed the wrong way in his quest for India, thus naming the American natives Indians, giving them a headache and bringing back syphilis); Vasco da Gama (who did 'find' India in 1498, his labours soon rewarded with a fatal bout of malaria); Chinese Admiral Zheng He (who seemingly beat them all by sailing well-travelled trade routes to India and Africa in the 1420s); Ferdinand Magellan (whose circumnavigation of the globe was rudely ended in Mactan, Cebu, by Chief Lapulapu); and naturalist Charles Darwin who sailed around the world (1831-1836) encountering erupting volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, rare species and native exterminations.

{No one came here for cardboard celebrities dancing woodenly down the Peel Street steps, showcasing not HK's essence, but the clichéd and dull...

By contrast, travel today, iPhone in hand with the Google map lady hollering, "Turn Left, turn left," is alarmingly tame. For those of us who came to Hong Kong in the Seventies and Eighties when Cathay Pacific took its first tentative steps internationally (connecting London with a one-stop via Bahrain in July 1980), times were extraordinary. In this free-wheeling territory, it was the little guys who created the magic — the sampan lady, the can-do corner tailor, the beaming vegetable seller, the grouchy taxi driver and even the insanely rude old ladies at the Red Lips bar in TST where people paid for epic in-your-face effrontery. The city ran on adrenaline, powered by average everyday people.

No one came here to rub shoulders with cardboard cut-out celebrities dancing woodenly down the Peel Street steps, showcasing not the essence of this sleepless city, but the hackneyed, contrived, clichéd and dull. But this is exactly where expensively wooed visitors are being transported by the city's latest mega campaign, 'Hello Hong Kong'. It's worth noting that there's a tour agency with the same name. Expect campy jollity complete with mall muzak and cheesy voiceovers. The handout of 500,000 free air tickets is very much out of the low cost airline playbook but it pales when compared with AirAsia's mid-February pledge of five million free tickets to kickstart ASEAN.

Hello Hong Kong video shows celebtrities like Aaron Kwok dancing down Peel Street

In the opening scene of the 'Hello Hong Kong' promotion video, celebrities awkwardly clatter down Peel Street steps. But don't blame the celebs. They're just chipping in. It's the creative concept that seems borrowed, dated, hackneyed and unimaginative.

The millions that have been spent on Hong Kong's promotional videos fail to bottle the essence of this sleepless metropolis, once on every wanderluster's list. This is not to fault the city's hard working, frantically dancing, celebrities. The concept just lacks imagination. It is an opportunity seemingly missed. But it can be righted. Fortunately, this is a city getting back to art shows, music concerts, international rugby and more. It will find its groove. Fortunately, the HKTB does feature upcoming events, the great outdoors, and some interesting people.

Asia has always had some hugely competitive head-butting kids on the block. Hong Kong had attitude, while Singapore had discipline. Bangkok had traffic. Macau had Mokes. Delhi had monuments. Manila had troubadours. Beijing had cycles. Tokyo had neon. Yet it often boiled down to a choice between Hong Kong and Singapore. Hong Kong had adventurers who took risks. Singapore had corporate suits who cabled for instructions. Fast-paced Hong Kong made mistakes and learned from them. Singapore followed the rules and rarely deviated. Both cities were safe enough to entice rich Japanese who flew in on their own national airline and visited Japanese department stores, restaurants and hostess clubs. Fact is, cities have unique personalities. And this is what drives visitor traffic and revenues.

{Planes once had to bank steeply to catch the sliver of runway at Kai Tak. Aircraft tails protruded from the sea where pilots had missed the approach...

Flying into the territory, planes once had to bank steeply to catch the sliver of runway at Kai Tak. A few miserable aircraft tails protruded from the shallow waters where pilots had missed the approach and passengers frequently clapped when the wheels touched down. A sense of adventure was always keenly felt. It kept the adrenalin pumping. Around the late Eighties, Cathay (CX) introduced its brilliant 'Hong Kong Supercity' campaign, mirrored by some excellent Hong Kong Tourism Board promotions, climaxing in its 1995 "Wonders Never Cease" campaign with Tina Turner belting out her hit, 'Simply the best'. Action hero Jackie Chan was trundled out as the celebrity ambassador. In all, it was a powerful partnership. And, as with other such combinations in Thailand and Singapore, it was a huge success.

A few years later, Cathay Pacific B747s — kitted out with Rolls-Royce engines and the city's skyline etched across the racing green — literally embodied 'The Spirit of Hong Kong', as the tagline read. Then came the brushwing livery combining a sense of the Orient with a modern palette and clarity.

The saucy British Caledonian ads with redone The Beach Boys lyrics (I wish they all could be Caledonian…girls) had since disappeared. And TV sightings of the impish pink-cheeked Benny Hill wandering about bumping into large breasts accompanied by loud honking sounds and canned laughter, had become rare. The world of entertainment and advertising  had moved on.

The 2015 annual MasterCard Global Destinations Cities Index with ratings based on total visitors and spend, rated London in first place, with Bangkok second, Singapore seventh, Kuala Lumpur eighth, and Hong Kong tenth. By the 2019 survey before Covid ended the ride, Bangkok was No.1, Paris No.2, London No.3, Dubai No.4, Singapore No.5 and Kuala Lumpur No.6. Hong Kong trailed at No.20. Earlier, in a 2018 Euromonitor International ranking of Top 100 City Destinations, Hong Kong had placed No.1.

It will be a long hard climb back and the 'Hello Hong Kong' Cantopop-K-pop mashup will not achieve lift-off. It is twee at best and twaddle at worst. It does not appear to be directed at an international audience and fails to buoy the chief executive's tireless foreign endeavours.

Stars have always been a part of the Hong Kong scene. In 1974 the versatile and popular singer Frances Yip kicked off Cathay's Australia campaign with a Perth to Sydney tour, along with a Gurkha bagpipe band and some intrepid pilots and stewardesses. An odder team would be hard to find. But it worked. There was a special magic. Jackie Chan moved on from the mid-Nineties 'Wonders' campaign to later re-emerge with Hong Kong Airlines as it launched its Vancouver service.

Older Hong Kong promotions and posters had style and right focus

Ads and posters of yore really put some excitement into the frame, and with flair. Cathay launches London (left) while old HK posters (in a collection at the Hong Kong Baptist University) showcase Lantau and the Peel Street steps.

Over the last two decades a monoculture has crept into Hong Kong's tourism advertising, almost all of it directed at the Chinese market. Chinese travellers brought huge cash dividends but Covid demonstrated the perils of putting all the marketing eggs in one basket. Hong Kong made a spirited stab at reaching locals and regional travellers with its 2016 "I Never Knew" campaign. It was a hit, bringing in a large number of peer reviews and recommendations for everything from unique sneakers to Michelin-star food easier on the wallet.

Simple advertising can be vibrant and engaging, as Hong Kong Baptist University's collection of old travel posters, demonstrates. Take a look at Lantau buffaloes and Hakka ladies, Shek O beach, and the very same Peel Street through an artist's eyes. Back in present times, the glorious Wanchai MTR wall-length art with pirouetting ballerinas and quixotic street scenes immortalises the city in a visceral way. It tells a story of adventure, whimsy and mystique that 'Hello Hong Kong' fails to do.

Elsewhere, we're back to the babel of banal brands that have eviscerated this city's verve and creativity by eliminating the little guys. The doll's house boutiques of Island Beverly (opposite SOGO), Granville Circuit's RISE, or along any Sham Shui Po alley, were the epitome of local flair and quiet industry. These are the fast disappearing people and places of everyday Hong Kong that are the essence of this city, and it is here the HKTB must scout for inspiration.

Hong Kong Shifts features a remarkable, beautifully photographed showcase of local people from garbage-trundling grannies, Star Ferry sailors, lifeguards, and domestic helpers, to fountain pen fixers, taxi drivers, tai chi practitioners, and dim-sum servers. These are the people that impart such energy to Hong Kong. And each one has an amazing story to share, funny, sad, uplifting.

Here are some. Man, the convenience store cashier at North Point: “I think it’s important to live your life in a way that’s true to your principles and values. For me, honesty is a key value." Yiu, a boat operator from Po Toi: “I’m 70 years old. Some people tell me that I look quite young for my age and ask me what my secret is. I don’t have one! I eat everything — soda, milk tea, sweets. Cholesterol, no cholesterol, I don’t care." Jean, the buffalo whisperer from Lantau: “I’m originally from Cheung Chau but moved to Lantau with my husband after we got married. In 2007, an injured buffalo wandered to my house with a broken leg and I decided to look after him until he was healed. I named him Ngau Ngau and he is still with me to this day." Marvix, the flight attendant: “Did you know that each of the pilots have to eat a different meal? It’s to minimise any risk of them being affected by anything at the same time." 

Then there's Tsuen, the mechanic: “I have three kids. The youngest wants to go to university. I tell him that we have no money to put him through school — he will just need to figure it out himself." Carman, who runs Little Life Warriors: “Here at Little Life Warrior Society, we provide care and support to children diagnosed with cancer. As the little warriors go through their lengthy treatments, they often have a lot of waiting time before and after hospital sessions; so I prepare games, crafts, videos and educational materials to play with them and keep them engaged." Tsan, a Tsing Yi, Styrofoam box collector: “I got divorced when I was 40 years old, and raised all four of my kids on my own. Back then, I had to hold down several jobs at the same time in order to make enough money to feed my kids."

Hong Kong MTR poster art with whimsical ballerinas and crazy street scenes and Cathay Pacific brushwing livery

Hong Kong MTR poster art at Wanchai (right) features whimsical ballerinas pirouetting through crazy street scenes selling a powerful message of energy, excitement and fun. (Left) 'The Spirit of Hong Kong' emblazoned across Cathay 747; and its minimalist brushwing design - the mystique of the Orient in a stylish, contemporary form.

Lal, a Sham Shui Po, second hand goods dealer: “I collect and repair used merchandise and resell the stuff here. You’ll be able to find almost anything in my stall — electronics, clothes, bags, shoes, furniture, you name it. It’s not garbage — everything can be repurposed and reused."

Listening to these people one knows there is always hope for Hong Kong. Come and take a look around people. Hong Kong is one of the greatest shows on earth. And as for the HKTB report card? "Can do better."

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