Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill. A pile of rubbish has accumulated over the overheard comments of three Cathay Pacific flight attendants, which included some satirical remarks about mainland Chinese and their problems with English and Cantonese.

China Daily, who else, thought this reflected a company culture which worshipped foreigners and looked down on those from mainland China. Chief Executive John Lee said “The words and deeds of the flight attendants hurt the feelings of compatriots in Hong Kong and the mainland and destroyed Hong Kong’s traditional culture and values of respect and courtesy,”

Cathay Pacific recruitment day flight attendant
Cabin crew at Cathay Pacific’s flight attendant recruitment day on October 7, 2022. File Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The Standard devoted a whole editorial to the micro-scandal, raising the possibility of a boycott by aggrieved mainlanders. Had Cathay Pacific grovelled with sufficient ardour and humility to “resolve the crisis”, the newspaper wondered.

Can we all try to grow up? I realise that Chinese feelings are incredibly delicate but there is really nothing to see here. People in service industries seldom gather, as Adam Smith might have put it, even for merriment or diversion, but the conversation turns to complaints about their customers and employers.

After all, adopting a servile attitude to complete strangers is an effort. One does it as part of the job but a certain subconscious resentment inevitably builds up. And some customers are, to put it gently, nicer than others.

When I worked in bars, the eccentricities of customers were a routine subject for comment and discussion after work, some of it quite critical. I once had the onerous task of writing a feature about the Crazy Paris Show, a theatrical offering in Macau carefully described as “not a strip tease, but an artistic nude show”.

Cast members of Macau's Crazy Paris Show in 2022. Photo: Crazy Paris Show/Facebook.
Cast members of Macau’s Crazy Paris Show in 2022. Photo: Crazy Paris Show/Facebook.

In the hotel where the artistically nude women stayed, I interviewed the only Brit, and was then offered a ride to the theatre with the cast on a coach. All the other cast members were French and assumed erroneously that I did not speak their language. So during the trip I overheard and enjoyed a distinctly scathing discussion in French of the customers and management. I did not report this.

This sort of thing has undoubtably been going on for a long time. Bertolt Brecht wrote a song about it for the Threepenny Opera which has survived as a single — Pirate Jenny in English – with versions by Nina SimoneJudy CollinsSteeleye Span and others. Original in German by the incomparable Lotte Lenya here.

Things airline passengers do which annoy flight attendants have also inspired YouTube offerings like thisthis and this.

Griping about the customers is inevitable and probably universal. It is, though, an essential part of this popular hobby that it should be done out of earshot of those being discussed. This seems to be where our flight attendants went wrong: the complaining passenger, according to The Standard, “sat near the crew’s resting area [and] heard them complaining about customers”.

Cathay Pacific
A Cathay Pacific aircraft parked in the Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

There is no reason to suppose that such complaints are particularly directed at mainland Chinese. As this was a flight from Chengdu, most of the linguistically challenged passengers would presumably have been those from mainland China. No doubt a flight from Japan would have produced different, but similar, confusions over such things as the difference between “blanket” and “carpet”.

I dare say on flights from Europe, notes and tips are exchanged on the important topic of which customers are getting totally wasted on the free plonk. So it goes.

The important lesson here is that airline passengers get bored with nothing to do, and they’ve all got phones. So if you are a flight attendant who wants to cut loose with some well-chosen words about the daft bat in seat 55C, save them for later, when you are safely out of earshot of the nosy parker in 77D.

It says in the Bible that God is always listening. These days He is rarely the only one.

Support HKFP  |  Policies & Ethics  |  Error/typo?  |  Contact Us  |  Newsletter  | Transparency & Annual Report | Apps

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

Help safeguard press freedom & keep HKFP free for all readers by supporting our team

contribute to hkfp methods
YouTube video

Support press freedom & help us surpass 1,000 monthly Patrons: 100% independent, governed by an ethics code & not-for-profit.

Success! You're on the list.
support hong kong free press generic

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.