Being “Wealthy-not-rich” in Hong Kong

This advertisement on the side of the road in Central Hong Kong Island reads “Don’t just be rich / be wealthy”. It has a wondrous amount of connotations about money and in particular, having lots of it.

At first glance one may be rather shocked or perplexed at this statement. Could they really be saying ‘don’t just have loads of money — have loads of money’? Does it allude to the fact Hong Kong has stark inequality, where the ones with vast amounts of money are able to keep it and grow it due to a system of low taxation and abundant financial management services? When you take a closer look, the answer is slightly more complicated.

The Cantonese writing in the advertisement says, “Life isn’t just about being rich”. It is quite different, likely due to the fact that in Cantonese there is no distinction between ‘rich’ and ‘wealth’: just one word. For the most part in English the two are used as synonyms, but they can have slightly differing connotations. Rich can mean having a lot of money or income, and being able to spend it in lavish ways. Wealthy, however, signifies having a lot of assets — things that will hold their value or go up, like real estate. Taken with the Cantonese translation, we see the billboard is giving a certain message.

This a gold investment firm advertising, so they are most likely trying to persuade their customers to diversify their assets (and use their services). However, such an ad can be telling of how they believe their current target audience is acting (rich) and how they want them to act (wealthy). It could be that “Supreme Gold” feels Hongkongers are flaunting their money, spending money on yachts, supercars and expensive watches in acts of conspicuous consumption. A trip through Pok Fu Lam to Aberdeen Harbour might persuade anyone of this. Or perhaps the company wants to preserve the precedent of being wealthy-not-rich set by the likes of Li Ka-shing, who (despite being the richest person in Hong Kong) is known for his cheap lifestyle and wearing a HKD$50 wristwatch. Supreme Gold declined to comment for this exhibit on which motivation is correct.

Despite the current relationship with abundance of money Hong Kong has, it can be a useful exercise to think about which society you would prefer. One where people with a lot of riches spend it regularly, contributing to the economy and supporting some low-skilled jobs (luxury brands can have long supply chains); or a world where people keep their wealth in assets like gold, effectively taking their money out of circulation, but saving normal people from being flexed on with arrogant displays of affluence? Perhaps the millionaires of Hong Kong who saw this advertisement ponder these questions too.

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