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I begin this article with a tribute to Mrs Tall's remarkable creativity. We'd been talking about the fact that a lot of people running local companies still provided jobs to deadbeat relatives out of a sense of family obligation. I mentioned that this was called 'nepotism' in English. In reference to the burden this creates, she then quipped, 'It's a lot like liposuction, but instead it's neposuction'.

She was exactly right!

Neposuction is in fact the inverse of nepotism. It can be defined as the process by which one's money and/or influence is siphoned off by family members: no matter how big the globs of it you accumulate may be, it's never enough to resist that endless sucking. Neposuction is particularly prevalent in many 'traditional' societies much admired by starry-eyed anthropologists in western universities. In fact, at best it's an economically counterproductive way to give members of your extended family some unearned funds to squander; at worst, it's a debilitating form of near-slavery for those caught on the wrong end, i.e. the neposuckees.

There are two main forms of neposuction in Hong Kong.

First there's the Chinese version. Most Hong Kong people are either immigrants from China, or are recently descended from such, and therefore have relatives back in the mainland, mostly in Guangdong province. Some may have severed their ties back to the motherland, but most are still in close contact with their Big Country relatives. And many, many of these relatives ask their Hong Kong connections for stuff. That is, they turn on the old neposuction pumps, because it's common knowledge that everybody in Hong Kong is rich as sin, and should be sharing the wealth with their families, no matter which side of the border they're on. It used to be that Hong Kong people were forever dragging refrigerators and color TVs and designer toilets across the border to hand over to their mainland relatives. This has lessened, of course, with the great increase in the availability of consumer goods in the mainland. But don't think the flow of cash from Hong Kong northward has been stanched as well! Lots of Hong Kong people are still under intense pressure to keep on handing it over.

The neposuckistic pull may be even stronger, however, in the direction of the Philippines (and Indonesia and Thailand, too). Many domestic helpers in Hong Kong single-handedly support alarming numbers of relatives, friends, and other hangers-on. Since the disparity between incomes is so great between Hong Kong and these countries, a domestic helper's salary can easily become a great white financial whale -- one that's been thoroughly harpooned by neposuckers' desires and ambitions. This puts terrible pressure on many of the women working here, leading to gut-wrenching anxiety when contract-renewal time comes around. Not all domestic helpers are under this kind of pressure, of course, but for the ones that are, neposuction can become the organizing, dominant principle of their daily lives.

I don't have any problem with people helping out relatives who are truly in need. It would be wrong if they didn't. The problem with neposuction is that it's aimed at fulfilling dreams, and is hence insatiable. There's always another layabout nephew looking to attend chef's college, or a sister-in-law whose social status would skyrocket if she could throw a really classy wedding party for her son.

I know I sound heartless, but neposuction feeds on a lack of realistic boundaries between individual lives, and the negligence of personal responsibility. It's that romantic notion of 'all for one, and one for all' translated into reality: all from one, and little for all.