Read: For Starters (Part 6)
My best friend in high school graduated with a huge chunk of money her dad gave her as a gift for making it out of university. I was surprised when she told me, because he had been laid off and was counting on the stock market. Maybe that explains her little getaway in Europe after graduating. It was months later when she decided it was time to look for a job back home, on the marketing team of a fancy hotel. Ching-yee whined, “No more floral dresses—suits, every day! It’s like being in university again.” And, sure enough, when we met for dinner after work, she looked exactly as she did when she was doing crazy overnight meetings in our second year of university. In high school, Ching-yee and I had grand plans to become roommates once we graduated from university and got jobs. That never happened. Not too long ago, I asked her if she was worried about saving enough down payment for a flat. That was when she let me in on her secret: the chunk of money her dad gave her, was enough to dispel the fears.
Ching-yee often travels. She spends most of her money overseas. “It’s not about meeting new people or experiencing new things, she would say, “It’s about getting out of this cubby hole.” I’m sure her room would be less of a cubicle if she cleaned up more often. The first time I witnessed the mini avalanches in her room was back in high school. Everywhere I looked, magazines, nail polish, creams, books, articles of clothing and stationery were arranged in heaps and stacks that all looked dangerously close to spilling over. The only remaining space was a precious third of her bed. Her latest escape was our high school classmate Felicia’s flat, which overlooked London. Ching-yee showed off with daily photos of English breakfast variations on social media. Nobody knew what else she did in London aside from the breakfast she ate every day. Ching-yee went home to her cubicle before she ran out of English breakfast variations to post.
In Hong Kong, traveling is part of every university graduate’s rite of passage. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the kid who lives off of your dad’s credit card, or the one who skips class just to make an extra dollar tutoring primary school overachievers. Wealthy, or just getting by, everyone wants out. In the final year of university, undergrads ask themselves, will Barclays be wowed by my leading role in the Business Association? Will I graduate with top honours? Will I be making $40,000 a month as an Administrative Officer in the government? But the final year is also about saving just enough to splurge every single cent on your grad trip, and have a nibble left for bus rides to get you to your belated job interviews back home. After you spend a disproportionately large chunk of money on backpackers’ cells, budget airlines and no room to breathe, you worry: if you don’t land that job, someone who didn’t spend all his wealth on a grad trip, will. The more time you spend waiting, the more time you’ll spend dependent on your parents. You can’t be going on grad trips forever. Tell that to Jules’ 21 year-old peers. “I had four hours of nothing to do until they returned to campus from their part-time jobs. Then we discussed our presentation for class.” Jules complained.
“Why can’t their jobs wait?”
“They’re saving up for their grad trips. The idea is to blow all your savings on one fucking grad trip ‘cause graduating is the end of the world, or something.”
My friends from university found it strange when I told them I had no plans to travel after graduation. They tried to talk me out of it. “You won’t have the time when you start working”, they said. But I’ll have the money. The closest thing I got to a grad trip was meeting up with Jules on his summer exchange programme in Taipei. He was in his first year, and I had already nailed the job at the TV station. It was our first little getaway. I booked a suite on the seventh floor at a place called “Hero House”, which is some sort of establishment with military affiliation. It was a large, grey, low-rise rectangular block with a wide, stone-cold lobby that looked a little like an airport’s arrival hall. The hallways were dark and bare, lit by white fluorescent light that looked blue. The suite was equally minimalist, with a large bed, a basic shower, two arm chairs, two bedside cupboards and a small coffee table. Jules’ school had booked rooms for him and his classmates on the second floor at the same hotel. I took a peek. Beds painted a muddy chocolate placed inches apart from one another. Pretty much like barracks.
“Lucky son of a bitch. You get the suite!” Jules’ classmate called out to him as we rolled his belongings into the lift. I waved to his classmate, who gave us a thumbs-up. “Keep the volume down, or I’ll let the prof know!” he shouted.
Jules only left the room to go to class at the National Chengchi University, or to work with his peers. The rest of the time, we played house. Our favourite haunt was the department store that was a five-minute walk from the hotel. The supermarket in the basement sold the best apples and carried Weet-Bix. We never bothered to look what was above the supermarket. When Jules didn’t have school, we wandered from mall to mall. They were spaced at least ten minutes away from each other, unlike the malls in Hong Kong, which are almost always interlinked. Maybe it’s true: Hong Kongers love their malls. “Because they can’t make a full turn in their flats without bumping into a wall”, says Mom, who tells me not to be one of those Hong Kongers who dart out of their homes into the welcoming arms of shopping districts come weekends. “I didn’t renovate this place for nothing”, she says. Sometimes, malls become homes. Literally. At the end of 2014, I saw two government subsidised housing show flats stand—with lots of room to spare—in the middle of a mall in Yau Tong. It had been more than a decade since the government released new subsidised housing units. The TV station sent me there for the big reveal—2,160 new units in the New Territories priced at 70 percent of the market value. For my standup in the stark white model flat, I took six steps from the corner of the imaginary kitchen to the living room. “I look like an oversized Alice in a dollhouse”, I told the cameraman as we watched the playback. “This is as wide as I can go. Welcome to the real world, young lady.”
Over the next couple of months, thousands queued up outside the designated government office to apply for one of those tiny flats. Many were anxious parents queuing on behalf of their twentysomething working children, or university students. They told reporters private flats were out of their children’s budget, and some even said they would be willing to pay the down payment for their kids if they were so lucky to get their hands on one of the new flats. I wanted to warn them that not all offspring would be grateful. Mom’s friend’s son told his parents off for paying for his down payment, because he would then have to pay off the mortgage. “This is mental”, my colleague, Amelie said, surveying the long queues our crew caught on tape. “Why can’t the kids just download the forms from the government’s website instead of getting their parents to stand out there like idiots?” I heaved onto her desk a stack of booklets and documents introducing the new flats. It was my freebie from the media preview. “They’re probably queuing for this. Feels more substantial and promising, doesn’t it?” At the end of it, some 135,000 hopefuls vied for the 2,160 flats. They’d better start saving up.