Thursday, August 04, 2005

Place and Memory in Hong Kong

Let us move away from the traditional history format of our posts today to discuss the importance of urban memory. There has been much made of the terms 'place' and 'space' by postmodern architectural theorists, but our feeling on the subject is this: there may be urban 'spaces' everywhere in the city, but without memory, they cannot become 'places', a geographic anchor in the collective imagination.

Which is why I was so intrigued to hear a similar philosophy from an Taiwanese theater designer that had grown up in Hong Kong called Ingrid Hu. The excellent journalist Douglas Crets interviewed her in yesterday's Standard regarding her new project in the Southorn Playground, please do read this article! A quote:
For Ingrid Hu, cities are a theater of sorts. And creating urban spaces, she says, is all about capturing the elements of theater in public areas - character, drama, movement, space and time.
To me, all these elements are important, but particularly the last element, time. Places exist both physically and in the mind, and it is the conjunction of those physical and mental landmarks that gives life to the idea of a city. The persistence of those conjunctions over time is what gives a place character, and also gives the individual a sense of how they belong to their environment. Unfortunately, in Hong Kong, the rapid cycles of construction and destruction often leave behind no trace of what has gone before, with entire districts transformed beyond all recognition every thirty years. That actually takes a grave toll on the residents of Hong Kong and their sense of belonging to the city. We at Walk the Talk try to do our small part to invest spaces with historic memory through our stories of what happened on those spots in the past, and turn them into 'places'. Ingrid Hu elaborates eloquently on this point:
``A city needs memory, people need memory, and people make cities,'' Hu said in an interview with The Standard. ``But if there's no memory, in a way, there's nothing to hold on to.''

Years of rapid development have succeeded in uprooting and dismantling the city's beautiful spaces. Hu says that, without these spaces, the lack of historic memory leads to displacement. People need a space in which to share their memories and use them for something productive and life-rewarding. Space, like theater, ``conveys something that is not material,'' she says. ``It's more about meaning.''

I would use the word 'place' instead of 'space' in her quote, but I think her point is very important. Without historic memory, and the consequent displacement that causes, you have a city without a deep sense of belonging. From a positive perspective, it may explain Hong Kong's deep-rooted cosmopolitan identity and the yearning of its people to go to other places (find me a HK movie that doesn't have a subplot about leaving!). But from a negative perspective, it also means that people have less of a bond with the city, when so much of what they know and love of it changes and becomes alienated from them so quickly.

Hu even suggests that London, her long-time home, felt during the bombings a deep sense of paralyzing powerlessness.

Terrorism does that. But so, too, can a daily life that relentlessly pushes its citizens to pragmatism, says Hu.
Her project to create something unusual and creative in the Southorn Playground in Wanchai, a suspended basketball court of semi-transparent glass and resin, is a worthy project that may give the residents of Wanchai, something real, different and tangible to hold on to. Wanchai of course has already had the heart of its older buildings like on Lee Tung Street ripped away from it. If everything you know can be taken away, particularly in a city where land comes so dear, how can you expect to have a loyal, well-adjusted citizenry?


Anonymous said...

I will acknowledge the compliment you give me, but aside from that, as objectively as I can, I would like to say that you are very right in your estimation of what makes a city and also a populace.

It is hard to say everything one wants to say in a newspaper article. It is, after all, reality and not a novel. But, it was fascinating talking with Ingrid Hu because as she was speaking, and as we sat in the Hong Kong Botanical Gardens, we could both literally point to buildings and people and explain exactly what was going on.

The theme of our talk, I would sum up in a non-journalistic way: This is all leaving us, so leave something else for the next guy.

Sew your soul into the heart of the city and then you will save it.

doug crets

Dave and Stefan said...

Dear Doug, thanks for visiting our blog! We really enjoyed meeting you the other day, and I (as objectively as possible) will say I really liked the article. Urban memory in many places is in some sense a fantasy, because it is a distilled evocation of the best, most captivating stories about a place over time. But at least they are remembered, and that sort of mental terrain they occupy in the local popular imagination makes it real.

Hong Kong's places, by contrast, always seems to be less about what came before, and more about what you eat, what you buy, what you can consume, and importantly, what you want (and by way of all that, what you can afford). Hong Kong's consumerist culture is the death of memory, because marketing is about creating artificial fantasies and resonances for the here and now. In a positive sense, a society like that cannot have strict socio-economic barriers because you are only what you own and what others can see, but it really does detract from having some broad unifying themes that create a sense of urban identity and a sense of community.

I liked your final line, "sew your soul into the heart of the city and then you will save it." I think in Hong Kong, because of the rapid, autocratic pace of change, it is too easy to feel powerless, and to feel that the course of history and of a neighborhood is out of your hands. But it is the act of contributing to one's community, with things like a basketball court, that not only give it a sense of personal identity and meaning, but also increase the community's overall sense of self-esteem and of feeling a sense of ownership over their own neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

I loved her but she is no longer a place or space to know; just a cloud with no physical remains