Remember the good old days when privileged and entitled assholes like Marie Antoinette could get their heads chopped off for pretending to live like peasants?
For those of you who aren’t aware of this moment in history, French queen Marie Antoinette built a faux farm in Versailles called Hameau de la Reine where she and her buddies could pretend to be shepherdesses and milkmaids while still living a thousand times better than the actual peasants.
Marie Antoinette and her friends stayed in fancier versions of peasant cottages (minus the smell and dirt and limited wardrobes and random plagues, of course), milked cows with buckets made from Sèvres porcelain, and even brought in real peasants to make the place more authentic. All this while real peasants starved and suffered.
You could say that people back then were just too ignorant to feel compassion or empathy for the poor (even though Jesus and Buddha had already preached about both), but it’s interesting that this kind of privileged blindness continues to persist. You’d think beheadings would be a big deterrence, but I guess it’s true that the death penalty doesn’t actually prevent anything.
The question of why privileged people are such assholes flared up in pop culture during the 1990s, arguably the last time pop music was inundated by artists from working class or impoverished backgrounds whose music was informed by class: N.W.A., Public Enemy, Nirvana, Oasis, Dead Prez, Wu-Tang Clan, Pearl Jam, Pulp, among many others.
It wasn’t as simple as these people representing the working class or the poor–in fact, many of these artists were alienated from their backgrounds–but there was a kind of dialogue about the intersections of culture and money and authenticity that has since disappeared from pop culture.
One of the songs that best encapsulated this is Pulp’s “Common People,” which has been described as “a satire of cultural tourism, an indictment of the valorization of working class authenticity by those who do not belong to it….’Common People’ is essentially a middle finger to interloping posers, to those who have the privilege to pose as working class by having the comfort of not being subject to its stigma.”
Doesn’t that sound awfully familiar?
Rent a flat above a shop
Cut your hair and get a job
Smoke some fags and play some pool
Pretend you never went to school
But still you’ll never get it right
Cause when you’re laid in bed at night
Watching roaches climb the wall
If you called your dad he could stop it all
“Common People” lyrics
During the 1990s, people like that were called “faux proles”, and I was one of them so I think I can speak with some authority on this. Thanks to a business deal, my father ended up becoming rich in the 1980s, which was a huge step up from the poverty that he and my mother had grown up in. Both of them had dropped out of school in order to work, and after years of struggle, managed to hit the jackpot. Unfortunately, our riches didn’t last because people who develop poverty mentality don’t hang on to money (think of lottery winners and overnight successes who end up blowing all of their money). My parents had no clue how to save or how to invest their money properly; they didn’t know how to deal with conmen, and in less than ten years, everything was gone, with the additional burden of financial debts.
My family is back to square one again (or maybe negative one), but there’s a difference: my siblings and I were raised with privilege, even if wasn’t for our entire lives. At some point, we went to good schools where we met other privileged kids. We traveled, and we had the exposure to culture that privileged people get, we developed the cultural capital and class flexibility that my parents never had because of their upbringing.
Let me put it this way: when my family lost everything, my parents had no choice but to do menial jobs like cleaning for other people. The worst jobs I took were teaching English and working in an upscale furniture shop. Not great–especially retail work–but I earned much more than my parents did with less labour. There’s a limit to how far you can fail if you’ve grown up with privilege. If I had worked my rich contacts, I probably wouldn’t have even had to work retail.
So what’s the point of saying all of this? Let’s return back to the 1990s when I was a faux prole. Like most people, I was drawn to what we called “alternative culture” back then. As much as I was enjoying having money, I also felt kind of out of place because of my relatively poor childhood. The anger and the disenchantment of alternative culture with its working class roots appealed to me more than the shopping and mindlessness of the privileged people I knew.
But it didn’t matter: by virtue of my family’s then-money, I would always be that chick in the “Common People” song. After a few months of being an asshole, the realization that I would be shitting on the poverty that my parents had endured by pretending to be poor knocked some sense into me.
So, fellow privileged people: I get it. For some reason, we’ve been taught to fetishize a kind of “authenticity” that we associate with the poor, and especially poor artists. The poor are more “real” and so those of us who are privileged want to access that. The impulse itself isn’t bad because it could be the foundation of true empathy and compassion, but the problem is that most of the time, we don’t actually want to have the authentic experience of being poor or living in a hovel. We want to sanitize it and make it palatable and fun for ourselves without addressing reality. We get to experience a version of authenticity without actually needing to take on the problems and suffering that comes with it.
And so we have Marie Antoinette, we have the heiress in “Common People”, we have Derelicte from Zoolander.
And even more recently, in Hong Kong, we have a hostel called Wontonmeen that is an upscale, hipster version of the cage homes that are a true shame in this wealthy city. I won’t link to the hostel because I don’t want to give them any publicity, but the Guardian started it all with an article about coffin homes in Hong Kong that mentions:
“The plight of Hong Kong’s coffin dwellers is well known throughout the city. The tight living conditions have become so infamous, one hostel styled its dormitory as a sort of hip hybrid of coffin homes with modern details.
The hostel bills itself as ‘authentically HK’, which strikes me as insensitive, as no one who has spent a night in a coffin home would ever think there is anything trendy about how the poorest live.”
The owner’s friends immediately jumped to her defence, and I thought it would be useful to highlight their arguments as examples of poor rebuttals. First, they said that the similarity to cage homes is just a coincidence.
“Alright, here goes — I can see why you would see similarities to cage homes, based on the use of wire mesh in the bunk beds.”
“Dorm beds + “authentically Hong Kong” = cage home exploitation? That is a huge leap of logic.”
Alas, this poor guy doesn’t seem to understand what logic means since the owner and the designer both proudly admit that the hostel really was inspired by cage homes. Basically, this dude is saying “Who do you believe, me or your lying eyes?” (hat tip to Richard Pryor) and what’s sad is that he writes about “grassroots” urban housing.
UPDATE: previously, I wrote that this dude wrote for VICE, but it turns out that he’s only written one thing for them. I apologize to VICE since I’m sure they don’t want to be tarred as the publication that has foreigners defending gentrification that they can’t even see even though it’s right in front of their noses.
This other one is kind of funny because she includes a plug for her friend’s book but the main thing she says is “I agree that the design might have elements similar to cage homes but equally you could argue that it looks industrial chic.”
Holy Jesus, dudes. This is pure Derelicte. Let’s build a fake slave house with manacles and whips on the walls and call it “plantation chic”. Or what about a shoe that could easily pass for slavery or prison chic? Oppression is so hot.
Also, again, the owner and designer admitted that it’s inspired by cage homes, not “industrial chic”. I almost feel bad for these people because the owner of Wontonmeen just undercuts every argument they make in her defence. That screencapped dude says “But my real concern is why you seem to think the space is advertising itself as some kind of place where people can ‘slum it’ with a cage home experience in Sham Shui Po.”
But dude, that’s exactly what the owner says she’s doing: “Speaking on Wednesday, Choi said the hostel offers non-locals an insight into a uniquely Hong Kong living situation that they wouldn’t gain from staying in a hotel in a more popular tourist area.”
This “uniquely Hong Kong living situation” being cage homes. Illuminati, these people ain’t.
They also fall back on the argument that as long as something contributes to “creativity” or “culture” in whatever way, then it’s perfectly fine, saying that it has a positive presence because it’s not “gentrifying” and it’s “sympathetic of local communities and culture”.
They’re referring to the fact that the hostel lets artists and writers live in the building and encourages them to interact with guests. I mean, I get it. It’s like going to Disneyland and interacting with Snow White and Mickey Mouse or like the peasants that Marie Antoinette had wandering around.
But here’s the thing: Wontonmeen isn’t an organically grown artist space like the Fotan Industrial artist spaces. Artists who couldn’t afford rent moved to Fotan because it was cheap; they weren’t collected to be part of “local culture”. I don’t blame the people who live in the hostel by the way; cheap rent is cheap rent, especially in Hong Kong. But it’s bullshit to say that putting artists in a local community doesn’t create gentrification. In fact, it is the beginning of gentrification.
And guess what, Richard Florida, the man who is responsible for the idea that cities and towns should encourage “creative hubs” like Wontonmeen has admitted that he was wrong, and that these creative hubs actually destroy the city (which is something that people with eyes and use them can already see). Originally, Florida believed that “If decaying cities wanted to survive, they had to open cool bars, shabby-chic coffee shops, and art venues that attract young, educated, and tolerant residents. Eventually, the mysterious alchemy of the creative economy would build a new and prosperous urban core.”
But unfortunately, that’s not what happened. “The rise of the creative class in places like New York, London, and San Francisco created economic growth only for the already rich, displacing the poor and working classes.”
Hasn’t anyone else noticed that the more third wave coffee shops and art galleries appear in Hong Kong, the less shops run by lower middle class and working class locals we’re seeing? “[Florida] argues that the creative classes have grabbed hold of many of the world’s great cities and choked them to death.”
It’s kind of weird that people deny this. I used to live in Sheung Wan back when it was just dirty teashops, old people selling stuff they found in the garbage on the streets, and random vegetable wholesalers, and printing factories. Now they’re all gone because some hipsters opened up Scandinavian design shops and galleries, and even those same people are being squeezed out by the rents. They’re protesting by saying that we should save the community, but it’s ironic because their presence is the reason that community is in danger anyway. These are the same people who hate mainlanders for raising property prices but…
It takes some real lack of empathy and compassion for people to look at a lower-income neighbourhood and think “I’m going to open a shop there that the people in that neighbourhood would never patronize because they can’t afford it.” And they tout this “local culture” authenticity that they are piggybacking on like Marie Antoinette without considering that they’re not sharing in the actual lives and problems of the local working class folk because if they did, they wouldn’t be opening these shops.
So one of the arguments in favour of Wontonmeen is that it raises awareness of cage homes by letting people have a taste of what it’s like to live in one. First of all, are they trying to say that Wontonmeen has a wider reach than the Guardian, CNN, National Geographic, the South China Morning Post–even the DAILY MAIL has an article on cage homes–and many other publications?
Next, it’s kind of like arguing that Marie Antoinette understood peasant life because she had a little farm. In fact, places like Wontonmeen, which provide a comfortable and enjoyable version of a shitty place, can actually lower people’s empathy for the poor. Your good experience makes you downplay the actual suffering of people because you think you’ve lived through it yourself (which you haven’t) and you end up dismissing their concerns.
Besides, how many people who’ve stayed at Wontonmeen have ended up donating money or volunteering to help the homeless during their stay in Hong Kong? If you read their reviews, I hardly see any reference to homeless people, so clearly, the awareness is not working.
The other argument is that “Wontonmeen partners with local charities, such as the Christian Concern for the Homeless Association, to run crafting and English language workshops for local children, as well as Chinese-language tours of the local area.”
So…homelessness will be solved by teaching kids crafts? Really?
The truth is, if you want to preserve the local flavour of a community, you have to stay the fuck away and not open a damn coffee shop that sells a basic cup of coffee for HKD30 when the minimum wage is HKD28. Create an organization that actually gives them real solutions, like Light Be. Support businesses that actually provide people who live in the community a sustainable living. You can’t help people and make money off them at the same time–it’s just despicable. It’s like Doctors Without Borders providing free medical care but charging for the medicine.
I love Hong Kong but I’ve long realized that Hong Kong people don’t have a lot of empathy for others, especially for those who are less fortunate. I have a lot to say about that but since this is getting really long, I’ll do that some other time.
For all the wannabe Marie Antoinettes, I’m just going to paraphrase something from Paul Mooney: “Everyone wants to be poor until it’s time to be poor.”
And remember: everybody hates a tourist.