Riot at the Hyatt

Last Sunday, police were summoned when people rioted because they were refused entry to a furnishings close-out sale at the Tsim Sha Tsui Hyatt Regency which is being torn down. This is not the first shoppers’ riot in Hong Kong. Such events occur regularly. I’m not entirely sure what the underlying cause is, nor am I sure it is a purely Hong Kong or Chinese or even Cantonese phenomenon. While people in the West make jokes about people fighting over sale items in a store, here it is taken much more seriously and can even result in serious injury.

Because the organizers did not price the articles, potential buyers had to queue with the item, lest they risk losing it, to find out what the price was. As the queue grew and as people discarded items they didn’t want, a back-up of eager buyers and discarded merchandise created an intolerable bottleneck. The organizers then closed the sale down four hours early to prevent further confusion. This angered those who were waiting to get in so they attempted to force the doors open and the police were called to calm things down.

The police are very experienced at this type of work and not just because of their WTO training. Six or seven years ago, McDonald’s ran an “International Snoopy” promotion and people were so eager to buy the items that lines formed hours before the stores opened. Riots broke out when people tried to jump the queue and when the stores ran out of merchandise.

A couple years ago, a rumor got out that a local bakery, with many branches, was going to close down. Within minutes people were showing up to cash in the gift certificates, which are universally distributed by a bride and groom as part of their wedding celebration. People horde these certificates for reasons, I am unclear about and the thought that the certificates might be unclaimable created another series of pushing and shoving incidents and eventual rioting which necessitated police intervention. People were even trying to claim loaves of bread when the sweets ran out. Turns out the rumor was untrue.

These things happen in Macau, too. In November, the U.S. accused a bank with operations in Macau of money laundering. Within minutes hundreds of people were racing to withdraw their funds. When the lines didn’t move fast enough, people started pushing and shoving which eventually created the need for police to calm things down. The bank was not in any kind of trouble and just needed time to get the necessary cash.

I asked an “Old China Hand” friend of mine, who’s lived in China since the early 1980s, what causes this. He said that there may be a clue in a Chinese saying that if you get something that I want badly or feel entitled to that you have “taken rice from my mouth.”

Given the history of famines in China, it’s easy to imagine that people are conditioned to fight for anything in short supply even if it’s not food. If you queued up politely during a famine you would most likely starve to death. What boggles my mind, though, is that in the light of history, organizers of events do not plan contingencies for this type of behavior.