Smile more? First, give Hongkongers something to be happy about

Hong Kong’s government has, it seems, jumped the gun on World Smile Day – which is usually on the first Friday of October – by starting its own smile campaign. That’s right – it’s yet another campaign from the government.
This time, it’s part of efforts to woo tourists by having Hongkongers, starting with those in the service sector, showcase hospitality and courtesy with a smile. Secretary for Culture, Sports and Tourism Kevin Yeung Yun-hung said authorities are coordinating efforts to promote the campaign across service industries and government departments.

So smile more everyone, and the tourists will come. Granted, it’s about extending a warm welcome to visitors. And it’s true that it begins with something as simple as a smile. When you’re genuinely smiling out of happiness, and someone asks you for directions, for example, you’re unlikely to walk away.

However, smiling, by itself, can be a superficial act. As World Smile Day suggests, making it a point to smile on one particular day serves as a reminder of the importance of spreading happiness, kindness and positivity through simple acts. But therein lies the point: smiling is an expression of true positivity.

If Yeung dug below the surface, he might understand the reasons behind people’s grumpiness in the city. Actually, all he needs to do is refresh his memory. Just last year, the government launched the “Happy Hong Kong” campaign, a series of activities to get people out and about, and to spend more after the Covid-19 pandemic slump.
It’s clear that the “normality” the government probably envisioned has yet to appear, and it’s still struggling with the new normal of the weekend exodus of local residents for better deals and service across the border, a night economy that remains sluggish and the closing down of shops and restaurants, just to name a few. It’s not hard to see why it’s difficult to muster a smile under these circumstances.
A pedestrian stands near a closed store in Hong Kong on February 25. Photo: Bloomberg

And just last week, I for one found it hard to smile after reading a survey by Schroeder’s that found the average Hongkonger faces a HK$2.4 million (US$307,298) gap between their expected post-retirement expenses and the money available in their pension funds.

Almost three-quarters of the 1,000 Mandatory Provident Fund members surveyed believe they will need to continue working beyond the expected retirement age to make ends meet. Needless to say, my stress levels went through the roof looking at that shortfall. The rat race, it seems, has just been extended, indefinitely.
It’s one thing to choose to work after retirement age for fulfilment and satisfaction; it’s quite another to have to work past one’s prime to simply survive. And as we see the cost of living rising when it comes to public transport and utilities like water and gas, it’s hard to be optimistic.
Many Hongkongers are in survival mode and the stress that comes with that has gravely affected our mental health – no matter what age group we are in. The mental health epidemic the city faces isn’t going to go away just by smiling more.
A passenger stands in front of the fares scale at Kowloon Tong MTR station on April 12. Photo: Jelly Tse
Happiness comes from within and is also affected by the environment we live in. In the World Happiness Report, released in March, Hong Kong slipped down the ranks for the third year in a row, coming in 86th out of a total of 143 economies studied. Finland was first while Singapore leads the Asia-Pacific region, in 30th. Mainland China was 26 places ahead of Hong Kong.
We can’t just lay this on Yeung, as he only focuses on tourism, sports and culture. But it’s important for the government as a whole to understand that telling people to smile more, or its campaign for taxi drivers to be more courteous, isn’t going to cut it. And it can’t continue with superficial campaigns without attaching more importance to tackling the underlying problems facing Hongkongers.
It’s the same when it comes to trying to raise the birth rate. The government must go further to deliver on making childcare more accessible, to reverse the birth rate decline. We may have one of the world’s highest life expectancies but we are far from being happy enough to enjoy the days ahead of us.

So again, when it comes to raising Hongkongers’ level of happiness, we have a long way to go.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA


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