Another fine mess, Stanley

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2006, 12:00am

I have a soft spot for Stanley - that is, for the nice village I knew as a youngster, with good beaches and a quaint market. I could get there by bus and enjoy the spectacular scenery round the south side of Hong Kong Island.

Stanley is still there, but Hong Kong's planners have not made the best of what nature gave them to work with.

Visiting the small Spanish town of Sitges, south of Barcelona, last week, I felt a pang of pity for Stanley because the contrast was so stark.

Sitges and Stanley both have sand and sea, but the former is much cleaner. It has mainly residences at one end, and a church turned into a museum at the other.

The view from both ends of the long and narrow beach at Sitges was not dramatic; just very pleasant. The town restricts development along the beachfront, so that the view remains unspoiled.

As Sitges is a relatively small town with an old centre, its charm comes from small structures that fit the scale of the place. Spaniards go out of their way to pay visits, and foreign tourists make side trips from Barcelona. They all come to weave in and out of narrow, cobbled streets where old buildings are preserved and there is no shortage of interesting cafes, restaurants and shops. There is even an annual costume festival where the whole town dresses up for fun.

One does not visit Sitges for the shopping. You might buy something there, but shops are not the real attraction.

The main reason to visit is that Sitges is a small, beautiful place where you can spend a day swimming, walking, enjoying a meal and savouring the smell of the sea and the winds blowing from the Mediterranean.

It provides a simple kind of enjoyment away from the big city, where people can relax amid a bit of history and natural beauty.

Stanley, too, has wonderful natural attributes - hills, bays and water - but unfortunately, these are not the features that are stressed. In fact, they have been downplayed while the emphasis is placed on shopping for cheap gadgets and clothing, and directing ever-more tourists there.

Its history is often not mentioned: how many people know that Stanley was the first administrative centre when Hong Kong was colonised in 1842?

The even older story of the famous pirate, Cheung Po Tsai, who supposedly operated from Stanley, is seldom mentioned. The Tin Hau temple has been reduced to an insignificant embarrassment.

The historic Murray House was dismantled in Central in 1982 and reconstructed in Stanley in 1999. The physical aspect of the relocation work was well done, and the building has a small museum. But the emphasis is on dining in the variety of restaurants it houses.

A city that values culture more would have paid serious attention to using the place to reflect the history not only of the structure, which was once a government building, but also that of Stanley.

The developments immediately outside Murray House seem to have been built as afterthoughts, or maybe after no thought at all, judging by their abrupt contrast in appearance. The 'feel' of this historic building should have been extended to the adjacent area: it is surprising that this was not done as a matter of course.

You get a sinking feeling when you stand in front of Murray House and look at the other end of the small bay. It could be so beautiful, and yet the view is of ugly architecture and a glut of cheap shops.

Nobody seems to look at the magnificent natural surroundings, because that is not what is emphasised. We are trained not to see such things clearly.

In Hong Kong, tourism is about buying things. It is about bringing in ever-more busloads of eager shoppers, rather than introducing people to who we are, how we live and what stories we have to share with them.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange