Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
It bears the lucky number “28,” which in Cantonese sounds like the words “easy” and “to prosper.”
If money could buy you luck, then the luckiest person in Hong Kong right now should be the bidder who recently paid 18.1 million Hong Kong dollars, or $2.3 million in U.S. money, for an “auspicious” license plate bearing the number 28. That sounds like a wildly exorbitant amount of money (and it is), but the thinking is rather simple. In Cantonese, “28” sounds similar to the words for “easy” and “to prosper,” so the number is thought to bring good fortune to its owner.
Generally speaking, the Chinese get pretty superstitious when it comes to license plates. Number combinations that include 6, 8, or 9—which typically create homophones for phrases associated with getting, and staying, rich—are considered lucky. Sometimes the numbers can end up costing far more than the vehicles they identify. Since Hong Kong began license-plate auctioning in 1973, the numbers 18 and 9 sold for $2.1 million and $1.7 million, respectively.
The practice doesn’t end with plates. People are willing to fork over premiums to get their hands on apartment units on the eighth floor, or prosperous phone numbers. When the Chinese cell phone market was beginning to grow, in the early 2000s, a “lucky” number could be priced at $40,000. As The New York Times wrote in 2001: “prestige with a mobile phone is less about Nokia, Ericsson or Motorola than about 6, 8 and 9.”
Meanwhile, 4 and 7 are generally considered unlucky, as their pronunciation associates with death. That explains why Beijing has had trouble easing congestion via a vehicle plate restriction program: the distribution of lucky and unlucky plates is uneven.
The “28” plate went for almost six times the initial asking price of $413,000 (U.S. money), setting the record for the highest price ever paid for a license plate in the 40-some years the city has been auctioning them. It had 70 offers before a man in a mask outbid his competitors. The same man also bought 232 (“easy business”) for $174,000. Altogether the city auctioned off 40 license plates, including ones like 8999, GG868, and 380, pulling in a total of $3.9 million.
Whether or not these numbers will actually bring their superstitious owners good luck is unknown, but one thing’s for sure: the charities benefiting from the auction are certainly off to a good start for the new year.