Friday, January 13, 2006

Making a Mess of Statue Square

Statue Square has been the centre of gravity of Hong Kong for almost 120 years. It was first unveiled to the public in 1887 (on land that had been reclaimed, at HSBC's expense, 7 years earlier) with a towering statue of Queen Victoria, on the Golden Jubilee of her reign. The prestige of what was once called Royal Square was greatly enhanced by its neighbors - "the Bank" to the South, Jardine's Prince's Building to the West, the Harbour and the Hong Kong Club to the North, and to the East the Supreme Court Building representing the honour of Her Majesty's Government. Until the war of course, when statues of Queen Victoria and her successor monarchs were hauled off to Japan to be melted down as scrap metal for ammunition. The postwar era saw a substantial part of it used as a parking lot, and it was not until HSBC paid for the renovation and transformation of it into a concrete park in 1965 did the area once again present a more orderly, formal facade.

This was not always so, however. Hong Kong has ever been a city under construction - and the year 1909 was no exception. I excerpt for you today a quote from a rather sarcastic non-official Legislative Councillor (the Honourable Mr. Murray Stewart), decrying the ramshackle appearance of Statue Square:
I rise to move that "in the opinion of this Council immediate steps should be taken to abate the nuisance created by the condition of the plot of Government land between the new Law Courts [Today's Legco building, finished 1908 - Ed.] and the Praya." Perhaps the best way to realise the muisance referred to is to put oneself in the position of a stranger. Any observant and interested stranger landing on the Praya, opposite Queen Victoria's statue, and looking first to his right front and then to his left would mark a striking contrast. On his right he would note with pleasure a well-kept grass plot bordered with flowers and enclosed by a handsome railing. On his left he would see an unsightly conglomeration of ramshackle and tattered matsheds, piles of rotting poles, odds and ends of old timbers, untidy heaps of granite chippings, weed-grown stacks of bricks; cook-houses- other outhouses - all the stagnant squalor which collects in a builder's yard. The fact that the tattered matsheds are in the occupation of a certain Chinese contractor is advertised in large letters over the entrance to them, and the observant stranger, noticing this, might imagine that here was a flagrant case of private ownership in land resulting in public wrong. "Here," he might say, "is a case where it would obviously be right for the State to step in and to force the owner of this prominently situated plot either to put it to some less unseemly use or submit to a forced sale." He might contend, without going all the way with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that no rights of private ownership should carry with them such an utter want of consideration for the proprieties of city government, and so imperfect a sense of the fitness of things, as to lease out for such a purpose land adjoining a public square. If the stranger, as well as being observant and interested, happened also to be distinguished, and had been met and taken charge of on landing by an emissary of the Government, say, by the Hon. the Director of Public Works, how could it be satisfactorily explained that these well-kept gardens were the outward and visible sign of public spirit, displayed by private citizens, and that the hideous spectacle of disorder lying to the left was created and maintained by the governing powers?
The sarcasm gets worse after this, and a direct attack on the Director of Public Works, who is sitting in the Council chambers with him:
The Government apologist, recalling certain answers to recent questions, would say that the nuisance was necessary to the work on the new Post Office, which building would be pointed out in the distance [a beautiful building demolished in 1980 or so to build Worldwide House - Ed.], possibly with pride, as one whose four storeys it had taken five years to raise. Passing along the Praya towards the Club [that building also destroyed at the same time to build the modern Hong Kong Club building with the Rolls Royce dealership - Ed.] the stranger would first note a squat bungalow. He would be told that it is a special drawing office for new Post Office plans, the building being now up. He would make a mental note that such an ugly structure ought never to have been erected in a prominent position on the sea front. Next his curiosity would be aroused by the sight of four lean and rusty iron chimneys sticking up at varying angles, one out of each of the four corners of a small enclosure immediately in the rear of the ugly bungalow. He would look in and see that each of these chimneys rose out of a brick oven. He would see snad lying about and small stones in heaps. He would smell coal tar. He might even taste it....Two simmering cauldrons stood out in the roadway smoking over the passer-by. Our stranger might have recognised the process of tarring macadam and wondered what this had to do with the work on the Post Office. It would have to be explained that this macadam factory is the Public Works Department's separate contribution to the chaos, for which it cannot be claimed that it is covered by any sort of necessity whatever. I do not see how any apologist of the Government can even excuse it. I suppose it will be said that, as the Post Office contractor had already made an unsightly mess, there was no particular harm in making it worse. But surely the officials of the Public Works Department should restrain, not lead, disorder. They owe this duty to the public. To their immediate superiors they recognise a duty well enough. They would realise the impropriety of making a tar macadam factory outside the entrance to Government House. Why, then, upon the threshold of the Colony?...The Praya opposite Royal Square is the city's front doorstep. It should be kept clean and swept clear. It is no more suitable for such purposes than is the front doorstep of a private house suitable for cooking the dinner.
The speaker now throws himself into a rousing crescendo for his finale:
Walking on round that part of the plot enclosed by a palisade the stranger would wonder why the lessee is allowed to leave about, outside on the sidewalk, old cart wheels and stone road-rollers, drain pipes and logs of wood. And from what he saw on turning to the right, he might reasonably suppose that not only was an industry in connection with road-making being carried on from the enclosure, but also the business of a laundry. He would have noticed dangling on bamboos above the weed-grown heaps of bricks, which top the palisade on the east, numbers of old coats and pants, and when he came round to the west, another assortment of similar rags flaunting behind the statue of His Majesty the King. If he had been with me one day recently he would have seen the crew of a junk, evidently mistaking the land on which the statue stands for waste land, using it as a place to spread and mend their sales. If he had been with me a day later, he would have seen the Monarch's effigy closely invested, up to the steps of the pedestal, by ramparts of large iron pipes.
The debate goes on, and in typical style, as unofficial members were outnumbered by official ones (i.e. ones that worked in the Government), any such resolutions were doomed to fail. Still, one of the other seconders of the resolution, a Mr. Hewitt, is noteworthy for his comments:
The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank - in which I hold a share or two, and I am slightly interested in their finance - set aside two very valuable blocks of land worth lanks of dollars, which might have been covered by valuable buildings, to the advantage of the financial position of the bank, adding thereby considerably to the revenue of the shareholders. That land was permanently set aside for the public use and for beautifying our city, which ought to be one of the most beautiful in the world, as wonderful effects can be obtained with very slight trouble with the semi-tropical vegetation which flourishes here.These two valuable blocks of land were set aside on the distinct understanding that at the earliest possible moment the Hongkong Government would make a garden on the other side of the square, so that Statue Square should become not only one of the sights of the Colony, but one of the sights of the Empire, for as your Excellency, in the speech which you made the other day, stated, there is probably no British colony which can show such magnificent works of art representing our Royal Family as we have in Hongkong to-day. If there had been a little delay in laying out this land, one could have said nothing, but here it goes on year after year. One excuse is made after another. I think the time has now arrived when the community at large should call upon the Government to redeem the promise it made and to lay out the square as a proper centre for the magnificent works placed there by the private enterprise of this Colony.
Interesting to note the last speaker mentioning that the statues of British Royalty, as well as the plot of land, were gifts from the enterprises of Hong Kong. What public feeling aroused by these statues, in its Central venue, were bequests of the firm's private traders and banks. However, in typical Hong Kong fashion, then as today, no consideration could trump the planners of the Public Works Department. Today, Hong Kong remains a city where the primary consideration in any venture are the efficiency gains from infrastructure improvements, such as new highways - concerns over public utility, filling in the harbour, or whether people really want a six-lane highway on the city's waterfront be damned...

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