Heung Gaa

No, I didn’t get this at HSBC. This is not a counterfeit. It’s a “genuine” fake 1000 dollar banknote. These are the bills you buy by the stack in a Hong Kong funeral supplies shop. You can find these shops all around the city, usually close to a temple. At Chinese funeral ceremonies people burn paper replicas of things they think will make their dead relative’s afterlife more comfortable. In Hong Kong there are craftsmen who specialize in the art of making paper Mercedes Benz, Rolex watches, televisions and even (for those hipsters who pass away at an unfortunately early age) paper iPods. (In the words of a funeral supplies businessman: “Evolution is needed in this industry, or else it will die out.”)

There is an English language saying, “You can’t take it with you.” But I’ve learned that in Hong Kong, you can. You can, that is, if you don’t mind the fact that what you are taking along to the other side is not quite the real deal.

Or, as we say in Cantonese, gaa.

Gaa is a most useful word to know in Hong Kong, because Hong Kong is practically a City of Gaa. In fact, my first contact with the name “Hong Kong” came when, as a kid in the U.S., I noticed the “Made in Hong Kong” stickers on the plastic flowers my mother used to buy–gaa fa, fake flowers, were a big industry here in the 1960s. Someone told me that’s how Li Ka Shing made his first millions.

Anyway, Hong Kong is swimming in gaa, especially these days. Go up to Ladies Market in Mongkok, and you’ll find yourself in a sea of gaa fo–fake designer goods. As I’ve mentioned, Hong Kong is now awash in gaa Gong baai, fake currency. We’ve just torn down the real Star Ferry pier and replaced it with a gaa Star Ferry pier, and the government recently announced a plan that would demolish the Central Street Market–probably the most famous outdoor street food market in Asia–and replace it with two high rise condos, parking and a hotel. Fear not, preservationists! The government has designated the area below the hotel for a “heritage old street”–a Disney-like replica of the original market. A gaa gaai sih.

And of course, there is our gaa democracy, which climaxed Sunday morning at the gaa Chief Executive election, in which one candidate, overcome by the announcement of his victory (which has been certain for months) broke down and wept gaa chi bei, false tears.

(Okay, it’s possible Donald’s tears weren’t ga. Maybe he was just crying because he couldn’t stand the sight of Long Hair protesting in a gaa jyu mihn geui, a fake pig’s mask.)

What is it with Hong Kong and the gaa? I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the last couple of days–why are the people of this city so accepting of things, events and experiences that aren’t for real?

Why did my mother prefer plastic flowers from Hong Kong to the real ones from a garden?

At least I know the answer to that question. Mom grew up poor in the Depression. She felt that real flowers were an extravagance, because they would eventually die. And her heart, hardened by necessity, refused to embrace the idea that a burst of fragrance and delight, however momentary or costly, was something she deserved. Plastic flowers were more pragmatic. They lasted forever. Therefore money spent on them was not wasted. 

Hong Kong, like my mother, makes itself happy with scentless flowers, voteless elections, “heritage” markets and crocodile tears on television. Perhaps it is the legacy of hardship that makes people feel they must deny themselves the costly real thing in favor of the imitation of life. Or maybe it is that ever-present Cantonese pragmatism at work, lowering expectations, and figuring that a fake election is the most that the bureaucrats in Beijing will ever allow, so better be happy with it.

Or maybe it all comes back to the paper banknotes and Mercedes and ipods burning to smoke and ashes in Hong Kong’s funeral furnaces. In the final judgement, who is going to know or care that your Chloe handbag is really from Shenzhen, and your Basic Law has been, um, re-interpreted. All is illusion, as the Buddhists say. In heaven and hell there is no gaa.


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