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What Bruce Lee can teach us about innovation for Hong Kong?

January 24, 2016

 

Possibly the most famous international Chinese icon that the Western world can identify with is Bruce Lee, a legend in the movie industry as well as in martial arts inventing Jeet Kune Do 截拳道

- Bruce's unique philosophy in fighting and in life.

 

What does Bruce Lee have to do with Innovation in Hong Kong?

 

1) Be a True Hybrid Mastering both East and West

First, Bruce Lee is from Hong Kong. Cantonese, born and raised in Hong Kong, studied philosophy in the U.S., opened martial arts school in San Francisco, taught famed Hollywood celebrities martial  arts such as Steve McQueen, Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris etc., his movies are No. 1 in box office in both Hollywood and Asia in the 1960's and 70's.

 

He talks about the philosophy of Lao Tze in his most famous line 'Be Water My Friend’ 上善若水; he trains guzzling down raw eggs like Rocky does before a boxing match, learnt Kung Fu from his master Ip Man, as in the lately revered popular movie series.

 

Bruce is the ultimate example for what people in Hong Kong should become for he mastered BOTH Eastern and Western cultures, integrating the best of both worlds in fighting style and invented his own.

 

As long as you can be a true hybrid (whether you are local Chinese, Gweilo* or other mixed nationalities, this is not about ethnicity), but being able to truly understand and integrate both the East (especially China) and Western cultural values and navigate the business world in two of the largest economic powers China and the U.S., will be the ultimate competitive edge for people in Hong Kong. One can only be valuable to the world stage if one has mastered both.

 

Don't forget the last part: it is to be able to integrate both cultures AND reinvent the new. It will not be enough to be copycats of the West, where many Startups in Hong Kong or China are trying to do. Bruce Lee will never get as famous as he did if he became a Boxer emulating only the Western style of fighting. Chinese musicians who mastered Western instruments even famed internationally now will never achieve what Bruce Lee achieved, as Bruce exported something uniquely Chinese that the West did not have. Just like the Qing Dynasty was able to suck up all the silver from Great Britain exporting tea, silk and Chinaware. One can only be unique and have market differentiation by having something that no one else has. Bruce Lee reinvented traditional Chinese martial arts and exported Chinese “soft power” internationally in his movies, changing the face of Chinese men internationally as 'Sick Man of East Asia' 東亞病夫, after China being repeatedly defeated in wars in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

 

So instead of thinking about importing whatever works in the West and create another Taxi App like that of Uber and Airbnb, think about what is uniquely Chinese and solve local problems innovatively? Start your ideas from home. Uber and Airbnb are San Francisco innovations because it is so hard there to get a taxi and inexpensive hotels. Not the same situation in HK or in Mainland China. U.S. is all about technology because labor is expensive, China has the opposite problem with 4 times the population than the U.S. and that much more mouths to feed.

 

The wise question we should be asking is: What is Hong Kong’s unique problem and advantages?

 

2) Focus on Your Unique Strengths

 

High kicks are Bruce's unique style of fighting as seen in his famous movies such as Way of the Dragon, The Big Boss, Fist of Fury etc.. In fact, Bruce's philosophy is to have no fighting style but to use what is the most suitable and strategically advantageous to you.

 

Being a 5 foot 7 guy that Bruce Lee is, he is able to win much taller and heavier weighted Westerners. Using his fists is a sure losing strategy. Hong Kong is the 5 foot 7 David, how do you win the Goliaths, two of the largest economies of the world: China and the U.S.?

 

The answer is *NOT* to copy them, coz you can't.

 

Being a Panda (China), you can't fly like an Eagle (U.S.), the current strategy for China companies. Works well in the short term, but will sure not be respected being labeled as the ‘Kingdom of Copycats’. It is not enough to be on the cover of Forbes magazine when its derogatory news. And Hong Kong is an ant compared to these two large animals. How can an ant compete with species a hundred thousand times its size?

 

Small, however is not at all a disadvantage, a common myth. Think of termites and you would know how even the biggest animal cannot eat up your house like they do. Singapore is small, smaller in population and size than Hong Kong. According to the IMD 2015 World Competitive Scoreboard,

3 of the top 5 world's top most competitive places includes Hong Kong, Switzerland and Singapore.

If size as in population is the only factor having a competitive advantage, India and China will be on the top of the list. Plus wasn’t the once global dominator mobile phone company Nokia from Finland? A country even smaller in population than Hong Kong with only 5.4 million people compared to Hong Kong with 7.2 million.

 

It will take razor sharp focus for Hong Kong to compete by recognising our strengths and investing heavily in industries that will give Hong Kong a competitive edge over others. Not by dabbling and trying to be politically correct, pleasing all things to all people, giving out HK$3000 each, dissipating resources and energies.

 

Have you ever thought why a knife can pierce and not a spoon? Because it concentrates its energy only on one single point. Let’s learn from physics!

 

In fact, Bruce Lee said “Instead of trying to do everything well, do those things perfectly of which you are capable.”

 

3) Reinventing the Old into the New

 

So what is Hong Kong's unique advantages?

 

I would say integrating the OLD and the NEW.

Just like Bruce Lee reinvented Chinese martial arts mastering the Chinese classics and Western fighting styles to invent the new - Jeet Chun Do.

 

Hong Kong is right in between two major distinctive worldviews and cultures: the Western world and China. Hong Kong is also in the middle of transforming industries between manufacturing, service and the information and experiential age.

 

How many of your friends in Hong Kong are in families in manufacturing of garment, eyewear, jewelry, watches, toys with sons and daughters who studied or worked abroad in industries of finance, law, technology and design etc.? Why would anyone want their kids graduating from degrees of computer science/bio tech/big data/design (Information/Digital Age) to go back to work in sunset industries of the manufacturing (Industrial Age) other than some old concepts of 'family name succession' knowing that it is neither your kid's passion nor the industry's future.

 

Perhaps a better way is to let the new integrate with and reinvent the old, disrupting traditional industries bringing a new way forward?

 

Instead of good old gold jewelry and watches, which younger generations eeks to wear, why not Smart Wearables combined with the old craft of jewelry and watchmaking? Instead of traditional tailoring and garment businesses, why not combine big data mass customization while sustaining age old craft of tailoring? Instead of low cost gifts and premium and toys, why not ioT-ing these products to add massive value carving out new market niches like the wildly successful products of DJI's camera drones - toys for grown ups. These new industries will add 100x value and margins to old industries while not ignoring them, but reinventing them.

 

Rather than emulating more of technologies in the West, Hong Kong's competitive advantage is in digging deep into our Chinese cultural roots and reinventing them. Don't forget Hong Kong never went through the Cultural Revolution, our traditional Chinese cultural treasures and values and even ethics are in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Hong Kong being the more internationally adapted cities.

 

Why? Because the next largest market in the world is in China, our motherland. The next phase moving from manufacturing and copying will be Innovation for the China market, stemming from lifestyles and cultures suitable for the Chinese people. The dominant force is no longer exporting to the West, when both U.S. and some European countries are... ahem… in debt? Hong Kong brought the modern culture and Western values into and taught Mainland China in the 80's, whether it be movies, music, celebrities, fashion, cosmetics, food etc. Hong Kong just needs to not be complacent but reinvent itself for the 3rd time.

 

Think about it: Uber took 5 years to get to 5 billion rides which Kuai Di took only one year. Even Uber and Airbnb are enjoying massive growth from the China market. Western companies are eager to figure out what works for Chinese taste, lifestyle and cultural habits. Hong Kong if it is willing to recognize its own culture roots and unique historical position (being a British colony for 100 years and a melting pot of truly Eastern and Western cultures) has a unique advantage that nowhere else in the world has. This will require cultural confidence understanding both China and the West and the ability to integrate the Old and the New.

 

Lastly, Hong Kong is not a place defined by territory or location if you can understand what soft power means. You don't have to work on your business strictly in Hong Kong proper. What stops someone from orchestrating a global team operating out of a laptop in Starbucks in Beijing, Hong Kong and San Francisco and Airbnb-ing your lodging while abroad? Even tiny European companies of three work through Hong Kong to get their designs and products manufactured in China.

 

Location is no longer relevant in the age of social media and instant world communication. I invite you to consider Hong Kong is not a place, but identifying with Hong Kong as a 'culture of hybrid values integrating the best of China and the West', whether you are Hong Kongnese who has lived half your life in Asia and half in the West; or a Gweilo* who has lived in Hong Kong for 15 years and able to order Chinese Milk Tea and hail a mini-bus in Cantonese; or Indian by blood growing up in Hong Kong but is the best Cantonese Comedian or Cantonese news anchor in town etc.

 

This unique juxtaposition is what Hong Kong truly represents as it is about Bruce Lee. This soft power culture is what can lead the way forward for innovations for Hong Kong as well as for Mainland China.


*Note: the use of the word Gweilo is by no means derogatory in this context other than to sound local.

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