Friday, May 19, 2006

The (Economic) Persistence of Memory

Many people, myself included, have long lamented and derided Hong Kong for not having a sense of history. People here, it is true, have little regard or awe for what has gone before. They are for the most part entirely unimpressed with either the British colonials, whom they regard simply acted in self-interest, or for most of the local Chinese population, for whom they have very similar disregard. All this despite the fact that Hong Kong is one of the world's truly great cities and one created from nothing in the span of less than two centuries.

But the constant cycle of construction and destruction leave no physical markers of memory with which one can associate a location with a sense of 'place' and of the past. It is as though, in recent Hollywood hits such as the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, all evidence of one's past, one's memory anchors, are erased. When the collective memory is thus purged on a regular basis, how can one have a shared perspective of history? History becomes a marginalized subject, without any common ground, disputed between academics.

Certainly, this is why we formed our service Walk the Talk (available at all Bookazine stores) - to re-associate public space with Hong Kong with a sense of 'place'.

But from other perspectives, it is clear that historic memory does persist. It does, for instance, in the food we eat in Hong Kong, with many restaurants catering to Chinese nostalgic ideals of food, or of eras. It occurs in the movies we watch, such as Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love. And, today, I would like to mention, also in property prices.

What accounts for the wide disparity in office prices for Wanchai versus Admiralty or Central? Or for the western reaches of Kennedy Town versus a few hundred meters west and south on Victoria Road? Part of it is the building stock, but many buildings in prime areas of Central are in the same condition as those in Wanchai. Why are the ones in Wanchai cheaper? Obviously part of it is that Hong Kong's center of economic gravity is in Central, which exerts a substantial pull on all tenants and owners. But a lot of it is simply perception - that Wanchai is 'cut off' from Central. If we examine this assertion closely, we find it does not really stand up, particularly with the encroachment of Pacific Place Three on the landward side of Queen's Road East.

But the origins of this go back a hundred and fifty years, to when the Naval and Army authorities of Britain laid claim to a wide section of land. What is called 'Admiralty' today, was owned by the Navy, hence the name, and the Naval dockyards and its munitions depot on Arsenal Street (unrelated, but this Gooner's heart still breaks over the Champions League Final) all the way to the old Murray House location (where the Bank of China stands today) were exclusively the property of the British armed forces. Where Pacific Place stands today was once a major barracks for the British garrison and the headquarters for the general officer commanding. This military land effectively partitioned off the land of Central from Wanchai (and with the soldiers and sailors heading off in one direction after hours, Wanchai is what it remains today). And even though a commercial base has replaced the military one on 88 Queensway, the effect of these centuries-old decisions can still be felt today.

As can the residual negative local perceptions of Kennedy Town, despite the fact that almost all of the reasons for its undervalued property prices (particularly for its seafront property) that existed in the past have been removed. Yes, in the 19th century it was called 'Lap Sap Wan' (Garbage Bay), mainly because it was the dumping ground, in the days before modern sewage, of all of Hong Kong's refuse (at least the non-nightsoil part of it). It also had an abattoir built there in the 20th century, with rather unsightly smokestacks built into it for its incinerator. Its mortuary is still there at the beginning of Victoria Road, but unobtrusive, and it will likely be moved away also. Yet it has spectacular north-facing seafront views, it has excellent transport arrangements thanks to the easily-accessible highway, and will quite soon have an MTR station.

Yet the vestigial perceptions of this neighborhood continue to weigh on local property prices. Soon, surely, they will go, but as is the case with people everywhere, received wisdom takes time to change!

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