Stephen J. Dubner follows reader suggestions on his first trip to Hong Kong and finds cheap healthcare and data-driven laughs.
I recently took a short trip to Hong Kong and, beforehand, asked you all for suggestions. Thanks. It was an interesting trip, and I thought I’d share a few impressions. We also produced a short podcast, a bit of a Hong Kong sampler. You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed here, or listen live via the box at right.
In the waiting room at the E.R. (known there as “A&E,” for Accidents and Emergencies), there’s a separate area for respiratory patients, which seemed a bit counterproductive as the two areas were barely separated. I had lunch in the hospital’s canteen, where the slogans on a big mirrored wall proclaimed “Time of Your Life” and “Great Taste, Great Place.” I have never seen such encouraging messages in a hospital. All the food workers wore face masks, which seemed like a good idea — but they didn’t wear gloves to handle the food or the clean plates. Made me wonder if the face masks were more for their protection than ours.
One doctor I interviewed at length, Karl Young, gave me a tour of the I.C.U., and made a pretty convincing argument that Hong Kong’s universal health care system, while far from perfect, is right to be admired. (Note that Hong Kong is a world leader in life expectancy; although that metric shouldn’t be leaned on as heavily as it is.) And it’s hard to argue with the price: residents pay about $12 U.S., all-in, for an A&E visit, treatment, and follow-up medication.
In fact, nearly every routine at TakeOut Comedy was about some kind of language/culture/race clash. There was one joke about the state of green power in mainland China — that it consists of windmills that serve only as fans to blow the mainland pollution over to Hong Kong. (The newspapers print a pollution index every day; it was blessedly low when I visited but had recently been the highest in memory, and a lot of people were still coughing from it.) A comic named Smita Venkat, an Indian who grew up in Singapore (none of the comics on this night were Chinese except for Gong), made fun of Singapore’s official matchmaking agency, called (seriously) the Social Development Unit. She also made fun of India’s effort to get yoga into the Olympics — again, seriously.
The biggest name performing that night was Vivek Mahbubani, the son of Indian immigrants, who has won contests as Hong Kong’s funniest person — in both English and Cantonese. (Here’s me with Gong, left, and Mahbubani. We were obviously looking at more than one camera at a time.)
Mahbubani’s Cantonese is flawless because he grew up in Hong Kong; his English is unaccented because he watched a lot of American TV as a kid. (He’s also a successful web designer and a drummer in a thrash band.) One of Mahbubani’s best bits was about how Hong Kong Chinese don’t believe he can really speak Cantonese, and when he stops, they try to shut him up.
But the most surprising comedian that night, at least from a Freakonomics perspective, was an American named Michael Dorsher. By day, he works for Bloomberg. At graduate school, he studied economics, and his thesis was called … “Humornomics.” From the introduction:
Humor as a field is no stranger to scientific scrutiny: sociology, psychology, philosophy, physiology, anthropology, neurology, immunology, and language studies all have held humor under the microscope. Despite the wide swath of academic interest in the topic, there has not been a single published study, to this author’s knowledge, which has sought to quantify the elusive nature of humor. It is in this respect that the field of economics becomes appropriate for humor research. This paper will show that it is possible to quantify humor by measuring output laughter, and through the use of econometric tools quantification enables a clearer picture of the determinants of humor.
You’ll hear from Dorsher, including some of his Humornomics conclusions, in the podcast as well.
Thanks again to everyone for all the tips.