Saturday, April 16, 2005

Hong Kong Attitudes to Preservation

What do these buildings - The Central Post Office, the Hong Kong Club, the old Murray Barracks - all have in common? All of them were destroyed and or dismantled just a quarter century ago, to make way for Worldwide House, the new Hong Kong Club building and the Bank of China tower. All of these handsome old buildings were not only attractive reminders of Hong Kong's colonial past, but were also institutional cornerstones of the Hong Kong colonial enterprise. As has been so often asked: why has Hong Kong had such a lackluster commitment to preservation? Why do people not care?

To be fair, all of these buildings were demolished under orders from the colonial government. But in truth, they undertook their actions in a climate, in a city where preservation has never been a key concern for most people. As we point out in our walk through Central, the district has experienced so many cycles of destruction and construction that many of the buildings - the Prince's Building, Alexandra House, HSBC - are the third incarnations of the same name.

There are a number of reasons for this. One we have already cited - Hong Kong's lack of any sense of history - that people have no sense of civic citizenship that is married to a historic narrative, or 'founding myth.' If you don't know much about your own city's history, it's natural you would not care as much about old buildings, because to you they are contextually empty and with much less significance.

But not without significance entirely - because they are obvious reminders of the colonial past. This brings up a question we ask in our Tsim Sha Tsui walk - why do Europeans choose to preserve Roman ruins? It's not only because they are a symbol of that old civilization's ancient glories - it is just as much if not more, because they see themselves as proud descendants of that civilization, very much part of their cultural inheritance.

Which then begs the question - why would Hong Kong Chinese want to remember their former colonial masters? The British colonials, certainly after the debacle of World War II, did not feel comfortable immortalizing themselves in statue, knowing that would never vest them with greater authority in the eyes of the local population. They deliberately chose, in their history curriculum decisions, to get the city to forget the city's past. And for their part, the Chinese, inured to a distant British authority, did not complain, particularly since most of the Chinese population has arrived here after WWII anyway and had no memory of what came before. In fact, by the 1970s, the word 'colony' was expunged from the governing jargon, replaced by the more neutral word 'territory'. While one might argue that the Chinese would want to remember their colonial masters because of the amazing transformation Hong Kong has undergone, that transformation was always a collaborative effort, and the British quite rightly did not feel sufficiently confident to take credit with monuments to themselves.

But there is now a new, simple answer to why the Chinese would want to remember their colonial past - it makes money! In the 1960s and 1970s, Hong Kong sold itself as an exotic destination where Westerners could come and see how the Chinese really lived, in their traditional villages in the New Territories. So for years, and even today in the tourism industry, 'heritage' tourism means 'traditional Chinese' tourism. But now, that rings false as most of those villages are now surrounded by high-rise estates. And the most important new development - that almost 70% of travelers to Hong Kong are from mainland China or Taiwan. Why would they want to see a crappy, overdeveloped village in the New Territories? The Westerners can just go to China to see what a real rice paddy looks like.

What they want to see is not how Chinese Hong Kong is, but rather how different it is - how it is different from other Chinese cities because of its British colonial experience. That's why we truly believe that there is a demand for our stories about Hong Kong's colonial past not only from English-speaking westerners, but from the Chinese travelers, who want to see something different. In 5 years, when the shopping in Beijing and Shanghai is as good or better as that in Hong Kong, why would mainlanders, especially from the north, want to come here? It's the colonial past, of course. HKTB reports indicate that northern Chinese in particular want more of it.

Vive la difference!

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