My Three Favorite Purchases from Hong Kong

Published 2007-01-15


  1. A Parker ballpoint pen
  2. A new Seiko dive watch
  3. A plain black merino sweater

These are the kinds of things that are impossible to find in Xiamen. Pens, for example, are easily available here, but their price/value distribution is bimodal. You can buy a big package of sub-Bic disposables for a couple of yuan, or spend 1000 yuan on a gold-plated fountain pen. The sub-Bic disposables are always overdesigned, with lots of fussy grippy bits or two separate tips, or somesuch, and the essential pen parts won’t work well. The clicky part breaks so the ball won’t retract, the ink is uneven and smears, or it gums up and ceases to work after a few days. There is no local equivalent to a Parker ballpoint: a $10 pen that just works. In China, if you want something effective, you have to buy the gold-plated fountain-pen version of it. (And then, you’ll come to realize, it doesn’t work much better than the sub-Bic disposable, but at least it’s plated with gold. Until the gold rubs off.)

What I’m really missing is stuff that’s simple and well made. Simple is just plain hard to find, because the Chinese really go in for fussy, fancy stuff. Some of this is just a matter of taste, and on a certain level I can get behind that. If you like your pens with lots of foofrah, well, good for you.

But you’d think that, given the economic situation of most Xiamenese (who are upper middle class by Chinese standards, which means “wealthy enough to not have to worry about food but poor enough to not be able to waste money”), physical objects would be better constructed. If you can’t afford to spend a lot of money on pens, wouldn’t it be more economical to buy one pretty good pen you can always rely on, rather than dozens of really crappy pens for the same price?

Somehow this seems to be related to a particularly Chinese aversion to maintenance: having one pretty good pen means taking pretty good care of it; easier just to buy a bunch of crappy pens that are all fancied up to look expensive. This, in turn, may be related to another particular Chinese trait, namely an obsession with glittery surface appearance at the expense underlying engineering.

I buy clicky metal Parker pens, they have the perfect combination of a) the minimum necessary features of a pen and b) durable overengineering. (This is also why we bought a Subaru.) I realize that, even by American standards, I’m a little Amish in this regard. But still: in America (or Singapore, or Hong Kong), you can purchase this Platonic ideal of a pen somewhere. Such things are literally not available for purchase in Xiamen.