This story is horrible on so many different levels.
This year is the Bank of China’s 100th anniversary. To commemorate this milestone, they printed up 1,100,000 special HK$100 bills. The bills are only available at Bank of China Branches and cost HK$150 each. They are also selling uncut sheets with varying amounts of bills. The bills went on sale on Monday and insanity followed. Reports were that collectors and speculators would buy these $100 bills for up to HK$1,000. Reportedly these would fetch even higher prices across the border. You can probably guess what happened. Lines formed around every branch of Bank of China in Hong Kong.
Tuesday morning when I got to Sheung Wan, the line for the local branch was at least 3 or 4 blocks long. The police were at a total loss as to how to deal with this and kept trying to re-route the lines down different streets. Here’s what the scene looked like around lunch time.
The Standard reported that some guy went down the line in Central and paid people for their “right to buy” tickets, spending HK$70,000, only to be told that the tickets would only be honored by the people they were originally handed out to and not to him. I have trouble believing this.
By the afternoon, they had people lined up from Des Voeux Road down Hillier Street, then all the way down Wing Lok Street, and finally snaking around in loops in Grand Millennium Plaza.
Well, let’s do the math. $100 bill that you pay $150 for. You can buy two. $300, turn around and sell them for somewhere between $1200 and $2000. So that’s somewhere between US$117 and US$221 in profit for standing online for at least 4 hours if not all day. Obviously several thousand people found that a worthwhile thing to do with their time. Is it greed? Poverty? Lack of anything better to do? Probably a little bit of each.
And what about the venal bastards at Bank of China running this promotion? Are they going to claim that they had no idea that this would be the result? Impassible streets, residents and shops inconvenienced, rampant speculation and who knows what else? Hello? iPhone 4s? Snoopy? The whole thing vaguely reminds me of the obscure film, The Magic Christian, in which Peter Sellers and his son Ringo Starr go to improbable lengths to prove what greedy bastards the British are. I recall the climax was when they put a thousand gallon vat into the center of London, filled it to the brim with animal shit and urine, and then dumped buckets of money in, watching as the bankers, in their three-piece suits, jumped and dived in to get at the money.
(By the way, if you’ve never seen Magic Christian, it’s not a great film but well worth seeing. Aside from Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, the cast included: Wilfred Hyde-White, Richard Attenborough, Laurence Harvey, Christopher Lee, Spike Milligan, Raquel Welch, Roman Polanski, John Cleese & Graham Chapman (pre-Python), Yul Brynner. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss five bucks goodbye.)
Finally on Tuesday afternoon a voice of reason appeared. The Standard reported, “The Hong Kong Monetary Authority yesterday demanded the Bank of China restore public order as the frenzy over the bank’s commemorative banknotes reached a new high on the second day.”
At the very minimum, the government should force the Bank of China to pay the bill for the police and for the subsequent clean-up. As if.