Where have all the flowers gone?

An experience in a food hall the other night reminded me of a hard truth in a vivid way. The food hall is situated in a shopping mall 400 metres away from a railway terminus. Though geographically placed at the centre of the city and adjacent to the harbour, this neighbourhood is nowhere for dating, partying or shopping. At late dinner hours I walked into this enormous food hall, after seeing a movie in a cinema which was patronised by a foreign couple and me. The movie was Standing In The Shadow Of Motown. Joan Osborne's powerful What Become Of The Broken-Hearted was whirling in my head. My eyes, as usual, surveyed the hall for girls, old and young alike. There were quite a number of them, not too few in fact, considering that the hall was in fact 80 per cent empty. Quite some of them were accompanied by a boyfriend. Soon I realised that the girls in this hall had one thing in common: they are not beautiful, nor pretty, nor charming. It was disappointing, and intriguing, because my experience in shopping malls of comparable grade of decoration in urban areas is associated with pleasant sights of decent girls and occasional surprises. This supposedly four-star shopping mall was peopled by over-worked employees, college students, derelicts like me, and lovers on budget. I would not call it the triumph of egalitarianism. I looked at it in the mean way: Charming women have better deals.

At least two class systems operate in our society. The first is Marx's, defined by the quantity of productive resources wielded. The second indexes women by their appearance and derivatively indexes their lovers. The hard truth is that, for a woman, no matter how unrelated the two class positions are by her birth, they begin to converge when she reaches 20 and continue until she reaches 30 or in the exceptional cases a little bit further. For a man, his economic class status determines the grade of his mates. I wonder what the girls in the food hall felt. I could see some of them had entered the hall in high spirit. The hall is undeniably bright, new and spacious, in this way 'grand', I suppose. They capered, winked, fingered their hair, leered, swerved their heads, wiggled their hips, making every movement which is commonly identified with feminine charm. They were eager to know if they out-shone the other women in the vicinity. I could see many of them were soon satisfied. Self-confidence instantly gave their manner deportment a lift. Yes, nobody has got more charm than they have. But, hold on. The penny dropped. What is wrong with this place? Why is here not a single rival I can feel jealous of? Perhaps the aspirant ones were pondering. Yet I didn't see their men sweat.

I swear I will try not to bring girls to this food hall, if I have any. Where shall I bring my girls to? Good question indeed. Gorgeous babes are invited to exclusive clubs. Their reserve teammates' orbit is handily marked by the few talk-of-the-town restaurants and designer shops which advertise in foreign language magazines only. The respectable second league, in which I put well-off commercial class gentlewomen, grace the executive grade hotels and high street malls. There they are. But breaking through the glass ceiling and playing up one's league may be even more bitter than your girls' grudging brows. Either sit among your own comrades and lament and despise them and be despised by your girl, or act like a clown in the upper class and feel out of place and feel deserted by your girl. Is it the economy's fault? Do we have the recession to blame for this disturbing corner? In the good old days when money grew on trees and fell into our pockets like leaves, remember, the boundaries between rich and poor were so blurred. The only bounderies then were that between very rich and fairly rich, between the very rich and the potentially very rich or between the old rich and the new rich. Just like stones emerge from drying water, this economic drought has brought us back to old hard truth that we are not equal after all. Like the surviving fish is crowded in the remaining hole-fuls of water, our beauties gravitate towards the rich. Shrimps and tadpoles died scorched and envious.

Sam Mok