Shopper=S Paradise-Hong Kong: Poststructuralism and Acculturation

ABSTRACT - This paper explores the intertextuality of the consumption practices of a small group of Chinese youngsters in Hong Kong, whose prior lived experiences on the Chinese mainland have implicitly and explicitly overshadowed their consumption activities as they undertake the symbolic project of the self. The process of acculturation, the emotion of insecurity and the complex role of language are discussed in relation to the construction of identity, the symbolic meaning of goods and social practices. In this Shopper’s Paradise B Hong Kong, goods and consumption-related activities have been used to produce a new identity and to avow an existence of themselves in the wake of postmodernity.


Wing-sun Liu and Richard Elliott (2002) ,"Shopper=S Paradise-Hong Kong: Poststructuralism and Acculturation", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Ramizwick and Tu Ping, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 94-98.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2002      Pages 94-98


Wing-sun Liu, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong

Richard Elliott, University of Oxford, UK


This paper explores the intertextuality of the consumption practices of a small group of Chinese youngsters in Hong Kong, whose prior lived experiences on the Chinese mainland have implicitly and explicitly overshadowed their consumption activities as they undertake the symbolic project of the self. The process of acculturation, the emotion of insecurity and the complex role of language are discussed in relation to the construction of identity, the symbolic meaning of goods and social practices. In this Shopper’s Paradise B Hong Kong, goods and consumption-related activities have been used to produce a new identity and to avow an existence of themselves in the wake of postmodernity.


The paper is part a much larger project studying the consumption experiences of young Chinese. While part of the study was being conducted in Hong Kong, during phenomenological interviews it transpired that some of the respondents shared a prior experience of living in China. This lived experience was found to influence their own consumption behaviour today both implicitly and explicitly, which is a testimony to the importnce of serendipity in academic research. (Zaltman 2000)

Shopper’s Paradise

For a long time Hong Kong has been renowned as the Shopper’s Paradise for the rich collection of goods in the market together with tempting bargain price tags. It was well illustrated by Reimer et al. (1989 p.4), "Faced with an incredible number of choices, many uninitiated visitors become completely overwhelmed by this city. Some have difficulty making decisions among so many competing alternatives. OthersBperhaps feeling they have died and gone to shoppers’ heavenBlose all control of their shopping senses and to on a shopping binge!" Though it is arguable if this description is still appropriate, as Hong Kong is now ranked as one of the most expensive cities to live in the world. Notwithstanding the sluggish economy which is now facing Hong Kong (Holland, 2001a), every day hundreds of immigrants are crossing the border from the mainland in search of a better, or at least a new life. From 1990- 2000 the number of legal immigrants from mainland China was 479,897 (Hong Kong Council of Social Service 2001), and this number keeps increasing. This influx has lead to an outcry from the community, in addition to competition with locals for jobs, the burden on education, social services, and other resources; in 1997 they were even allegedly linked with an outbreak of tuberculosis among kindergarten pupils (Cheng 1997). Most of these charges may be deemed unacceptable and unfair, but this daunting situation has however accentuated the importance for the immigrants to assimilate into the society and it may intensify the social/self dialectic process (Gadamer 1976) in the new identity creation process. In this era of postmodernity (Baudrillard 1998) there is no escape from the ubiquitous consumption culture around us (Firat 1998), and consumption is in a parallel position with "education, heritage, denomination and profession"(Borgmann, 2000, p. 419). Thus consumption can be a resource for them to "construct, maintain and communicate identity and social meanings" (Elliott, 1997, p.285) in their acculturation process.

But to describe Hong Kong as a Shopper’s Paradise, for them is inadequate, the transcendental values in the signifiers, "Shopper’s Paradise" are way beyond what they could contain. In this paper, Shopper’s Paradise is put "under erasure", the device which Derrida derived from Heidegger "who often crossed out the word Being and let both deletion and word stand because the word was inadequate yet necessary." (Sarup 1993, p.33) The "dilemmas of self"(Giddens 1991, p.201) in a postmodern society are characterized by "fragmentation, powerlessness, uncertainty" (Elliott 2000, p.61), which are more pronounced among the new immigrants in the process of acculturation. In this Shopper’s Paradise where they have to engage in a new "symbolic project of self" (Thompson 1995) through material goods and consumption, there are contradictory and unstable meanings for them in Shopper’s Paradise- Hong Kong.

Acculturation within one ethnic culture

Papers on consumer acculturation have been dominated by he study of movement from one culture into another completely different culture, for example from Mexican to American, (e.g. Jun et al., 1994; Penaloza, 1994), from Chinese to Canadian (e.g. Lee and Tse 1994; Chung 2000). Little attention has been paid to the acculturation process within one single culture, in this case the Chinese from the mainland to the Chinese in Hong Kong. More importantly it is from a mainstream culture to an ethnic minority group in which consumption plays a role as both ends and means in the process.

A Poststructuralist Touch

In the wake of the postmodern turn in the market place, which is marked by fragmentation, ambiguity, ephemerality, when goods become signifiers and consumption takes on an active and constructive role in both creation and destruction of the symbolic meanings (Baudrillard 1998; Brown 1993; Elliott 1999; Firat, 1995) some consumer researchers have adopted a poststructuralist approach (e.g. Holt 1997; Mick 1986; Ritson & Elliott 1999). In poststructuralism, meaning is assumed to be "an emergent property of systematic relations of difference"(Holt 1997, p.328) where there is no final meaning as meanings come from the relations of the subject to other items in a system (Slater 1998) and where "all reality is historically, socially and culturally specific and does not deny the importance of the material as well as symbolic" (Elliott & Ritson 1997, p.190). In this study, informants’ lived experiences in two places contain the relational differences which add to the subtleties and complexities of the material and the symbolic.

Language and discourse play a central role in the poststructuralist approach, since "language is a site of the construction of a social world replete with contradiction, paradox and contest" (Elliott 1996). This accentuates the significance of interviewing in research to expose how people interpret cultural objects (including goods) and activities (including consumption), since consumption is a "symbolic construction of a sense of self through the accumulation of cultural and symbolic capital".(Elliott & Ritson 1997, p.192). Language’s inevitable "overflow, leak, skids, shifts, slips" as described by Barthes (1977, p.69) together with Lacan’s talk of glissement (slippage, slide) (Sarup 1993) help us to understand the complexity of this most symbolically rich (cultural) practice: consumption.


As this is part of a preliminary study of a greater cross-cultural project on the consumption experience of young Chinese covering Hong Kong and Shanghai, volunteers were recruited from Universities in both places respectively. In Hong Kong, 20 volunteers in their early twenties were recruited, and it was during the in-depth interviews that 3 respondents revealed the history of their early childhood in mainland China, this prior lived experience was found to have pivotal influence to their consumption activities today.


Observation and in-depth interviews followed by phenomenological interpretation were the major tools for this study. Observations were done in natural settings for more than 6 months, about 4 hours a week (e.g. lunch, social gatherings). Individual interviews of around 2-3 hours were conducted at home or in one of the researchers’ offices in the University. Loose structured, nondirective long interviews were employed (McCracken 1988), interviews however were usually started with some grand tour topics as McCracken (1988) advised, followed by their own life history (Atkinson 1988). Further to understanding the respondent, it is also an effective means to get them into conversation, a primary objective of these interviews was to explore intertextuality. As Holt (1997 p.329) contended, "intertextuality is a cultural process in which the meaning of a particular cultural object (including goods) or action (including consumption) are always constructed by metaphoric, imagistic, and narrative association with other cultural objects and practices that are part of the historically accumulated cultural resources of a collectivity." All the interviews were audio-taped and the informants were asked to review the transcripts. Wherever possible, pictures of their belongings were requested for further exploration and inspiration during the interviews. Participants were assured of anonymity. The table has a brief description of their backgrounds, all names are pseudonyms.


Feeling of Insecurity

When asked what they wanted to buy the most now, all of them mentioned an apartment of their own and it was particularly acute with Tom and Tony. By the time of the interviews, the real estate market in Hong Kong was still very strong, and a modest apartment (700 sq. feet) of their choice would cost about 250,000 pounds sterling. They were living with their family in a self-owned apartment, except Jack. His family was living in a government supported housing project. The erratic experience of their childhood seems to offer the explanation.


I came to Hong Kong illegally when I was 6 years old, together with my younger brother, my parents handed us to some stranger in Shenzhen [city in China just across the border from Hong Kong] and then after long hours of traumatic experience we were in Hong Kong. Though we, I and my brother, don’t talk much about it today, however, this feeling of insecurity is still very strong, probably that’s why I care so much about money, I can still remember the shabby small room in Hong Kong back then, versus the big house in China which I used to jump and run around the whole day. Probably because of that feeling of insecurity, an apartment is very important for me, further it is kind of tradition for a Chinese.

When talking about the worst experience in their life:


It was in China. When I was still sleeping, the roof of the house just collapsed and everyone in the house ran for their lives.... Yes I was so small, probably 4, it’s so vivid, the scenario just horrible.... When we arrived here in Hong Kong, we lived with my aunt in a small apartment. The two families had fights all day, and I just avoided going home. After school I always went to my mother’s factory.... Privacy is very important, an apartment of my own is something I have to buy.

Money Matters

All of them had a saving habit, which is unusual among youngsters in Hong KongBas is being revealed in the earlier mentioned larger study. Tony even had an investment in the stock market. This was brought out when the conversation moved to the topic of money. All the informants were working part-time.


I always have this sense of insecurity that’s why I have a very strong sense of money. I feel more comfortable if there’s a some money in the saving account. Last summer I started to invest in the stock market, I see it as an opportunity to learn something new.

Belongings from the Mainland

All the informants described a precarious position when they came to Hong Kong. Things they brought from China were perceived to be minimal. No one could remember or was not sure if they brought any extra clothing items from China. Jack eitomizes the situation.


I can’t remember exactly what we brought with us from China, seems to me that the bed linens were the old ones but our clothes were new...thinking back my parents just didn’t want us to look different from my peers... You know it’s difficult I didn’t speak much of the language here, and I got demoted in school because of my English, in China we didn’t start to learn English that early. I didn’t want to look better just no difference as my fellows in the school.

Cultural Capital -Language

During a visit to Jack’s house it was interesting to find out that he had a whole box of the English Learning Package from Reader’s Digest. It was sent as a gift from his uncle when Michael came to Hong Kong. The uncle himself was living at subsistence level so the package would cost a fortune for him. The attitude of Tom was very revealing. When asked to participate in this study, his was worrying whether the interview would be conducted in English. Obviously the language is a pain for him.


I don’t think I can improve my English even though with more exercises or classes, just can’t do it, allergic....I like to write, but in Chinese, I have a website of my prose and my own short stories which I enjoy a lot...I know I still carry the accent, I still have some right??... But I can reduce it if I speak slower.....

It is interesting to note that Tom is the most brand conscious one among the three of them, when pictures of his wardrobe were observed, they were many famous brands: Burberry, Levis, DKNY, Gap.still he speaks with an accent which for people in Hong Kong label him as being from the mainland.

The First and Most Memorable Purchases

In this session, when Tony said it is a pair of Nike, the interviewer was somewhat surprised since Tom is living frugally, his major expenditures were transportation and meals. A pair of trainers for hundreds of dollars which just did not match his expressed beliefs.


I think brands are bogus, trends come and go so fast, I really can’t see the difference except the price, I’ll only buy them when they are on sale.... honestly I don’t think they are of better quality or more comfy...the most memorable purchase was in Form 3, it was Lunar New Year, my father gave me 1,500 dollars, with my brother we went to buy two pairs of trainers. Mine was a pair of Nike because everyone in the school had one.

Tony showed pictures of his wardrobe, his trainers and shoes were all branded: Nike, Timberland. When probed further, Tony explained that they were more durable, an additional remark was that the most expensive pair of Nike trainers were not for sports.


I have two pairs of Nike trainers and one pair of Timberland, the Air Jordan is not for sports because you can twist your ankle easily on them and they are expensive so they are not for sports.

While there’s another story from Tom. Like the "SWOOSH" on the Nike trainers, it is something also visually obvious and sports related.


When I was in fifth grade, still I didn’t talk much because I am not a gregarious type, I didn’t have many friends but I liked football a lot, because of that, I met a lot of friends and we teamed up to play football in a field nearby. We had even a uniform I can still remember the style and it was black and white stripes and my number was 7.

Shopping and Church going

Tom was going out with a girl and they liked to hang around in the shopping mall, and for Jack going to the shopping mall was part of his usual social activities, while Tony would rather go to Church on both Saturday afternoons and Sundays.


When we have no idea where to go, it’s the shopping mall for sure. When she shops she always ask for my company because she needs my advice.


It’s the clichT "to see and to be seen" you need to know what’s going on out there, with all these people around in the mall you feel so hyped up.


It’s meaningless to go shopping without really anything I want to buy, On Saturday afternoons and Sunday, I like to go to Church. I have my friends there and I enjoy the serenity. I admit that I am not a devoted Christian, and I don’t study the Bible as often as I should.... The day I was baptized, I bought a gift for myself...


Building mainly on the work of Sigmund Freud, Bocock (1993) suggests that the early development of emotions and feelings in childhood persist in adult consumers at the unconscious level. That the feelings of insecurity seem to stem from the erratic childhood of the informants is evidenced in their strong desire to own an apartment for which they do not have immediate need. It is interesting to note that Jack, who is the one most assimilated into the new society, and whose family is the only one without an owned apartment and lives in government supported housing project, has the most modest ambition in this regard. Further, all the respondents save and usually carefully adhere to a budget, Tony explicitly relating this to the influence of his erratic childhood.

Language is always mentioned as a major factor in acculturation studies (e.g. Penaloza 1994). Ethnically, Hong Kong is part of Canton province and Cantonese is the dialect used in Guangzhou, the capital city of the province and in Hong Kong. Legitmately, Guangzhou should have the authentic accent of the dialect, when Tom reluctantly trying to reassure again his Cantonese during the interview, it’s not this "real" authenticity in his consideration but is replaced by the "hyperreal" authentic accent from Hong Kong. However, in Hong Kong argot is now fashionable and this popularity has spread not only to Canton but even to other cites on the Chinese mainland. One of the researchers is now in Shanghai, where Hong Kong argot is frequently mixed in the conversations among the fashionable locals. Hong Kong argot thus becomes cultural capital (Bourdieu 1989). English is another device for distinction, while Tom is still frustrated after years of classes in English and a fortune for the tuition fees he perseveres. Jack, though he kept complaining about the big box of English tapes from Reader’s Digest, after he just put it back in his already full closet, there are no signs that he is going to dispose of them. Considering that he is the only one who lives in a government-supported housing project, it definitely is one of the 'things that matter’ to him (Miller 1998b).

The symbolic meaning of goods and social practices

Thompson (1995) describes the self as a symbolic project, which the individual must actively construct out of the available symbolic materials which "the individual weaves into a coherent account of who he or she is, a narrative of self identity." For all the informants, notwithstanding their meager conditions on arrival in Hong Kong, when they had no extra clothing items with them, the symbolic act of starting over anew is well pronounced. Unlike other acculturation studies (e.g.Metha and Belk 1991), possessions which symbolically tie to their previous culture were almost absent in this study. In this new symbolic project, Tony’s "SWOOSH" on his pair of Nike trainers helped him become more accepted by his peers, and is in parallel with his going to Church on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. In a new socio-cultural context where the codes of the peers could have been recontextualised and repositioned, for Tony the very visually obvious "SWOOSH" became a "user friendly" acculturation tool, and is analogous to the Number 7 T shirt for Tom. Joining the football team was a turning point in Tom’s life as it was the first time he felt legitimately accepted in Hong Kong. The T shirt is not only a symbol of acceptance but a recognition of his skill, which is appreciated by his peers. Daniel Miller (1998a) argues that shopping is a ritual process, McCracken (1988) posited the importance of ritual in the meaning transfer process from goods to persons. Referring to Durkheim’s (1912/1961) elaboration on religious rituals, Elliott (2000) exemplified the ritual emotional experience embedded in social practices (including shopping and consumption). It might be arbitrary to parallel the ritual process (shopping activities) of Jack and Tom to Tony’s religious rituals in the church, yet it is undeniable that they felt more accepted, socialized or even entertained in their own respective rituals. In modernity, churches and shops were where most quotidian social activities took place. (Bocock, 1993), in describing the appearance of department store in the turn of the century Corrigan (1997 56) contended that " it is not an exaggeration to see department stores as similar to cathedrals: they attracted people to worship at the temple of consumerism." Tom however, seems to gain esteem when his masculine role is accented by his girlfriend’s company when shopping. It is interesting to note that beyond the important role of consumer (Bocock, 1993) a man gains respect in doing it. Wereas, during the 70s and much of the 80s, consumption was always seen as an activity of particular concern to women. (Mitchell, 1971) and men only played a mitigated role in the process of consumption (Corrigan, 1997).


In postmodernity, consumption has a central role in the way in which the social world is constructed. (Featherstone, 1991) Consumers are consuming the symbolic meanings they themselves produce through the interaction with the goods, shopping experience and fragmented images of self with validation in our social interactions (Elliott 2000). Through the dialectical process of lived and mediated experience, three young men have consciously/subconsciously, voluntarily/involuntarily used goods and consumption related activity to produce a new identity, to avow an existence of themselves in this shopper’s paradise. In the process they are trying to "achieve (limited) freedom of action and sustain a (fragile and imaginary) integrated self"(Elliott and Ritson 1997).


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Wing-sun Liu, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong
Richard Elliott, University of Oxford, UK


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5 | 2002

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