Fighting the destruction of memory

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 December, 2006, 12:00am

From the government's perspective, the protest against the demolition of the old Star Ferry pier last week emerged from nowhere. But, looked at closely, the incident reflects the rise of a new civil activism - a revolt against Hong Kong's uncharted and relentless modernisation.

This new movement aims to halt the city's rapid decline into a place without history, and underlies a deep-rooted, collective anxiety among Hongkongers over the loss of identity. It is new in the sense that its support base extends far beyond that of typical political activism. Also, its spontaneity and strength seriously challenge the conventional consultative and decision-making processes. The government seems ill-prepared for such movements.

The unfolding of the new civil activism began a few years ago. The protests against urban renewal in Wan Chai, rallies to oppose the government's Central reclamation project, and the call to preserve the old police station in Central are all examples of it. These efforts have drawn support from students, teachers, artists, lawyers, environmentalists, architects, urban planners and housewives - among others. There are no institutional channels in place to understand and accommodate their collective concern over the downside of modernity.

The landscape of a city is associated with residents' hardships, happiness, romances and other experiences. It breeds a sense of intimacy - and consequently a sense of security and identity. The buildings, streets and signposts provide a mental map that lets Hongkongers trace where they came from and who they are. The demolition of old buildings and streets is like erasing a spiritual path, sparking anxiety over the loss of identity and future direction.

Think about it: skyscrapers like Two IFC and steel constructions like Cyberport can only provide a sense of imprisonment, not intimacy. Shops inside Pacific Place and Festival Walk impart only the awareness of relative poverty rather than satisfaction. These modern constructions create a feeling of alienation because they make people feel like mere instruments of business and commerce.

Evidently, neither the Legislative Council, district councils nor the Antiquities Advisory Board is capable of sensing Hongkongers' collective anxiety. Architectural authenticity is not at the core of the concern, and many legislators themselves might also be insensitive to the issues caused by modernity. The government's consultation through the conventional channels, hence, is bound to result in wrong decisions regardless of the length of the process.

The rise of a new civil activism has to be understood in the context of the rapid socio-political transformation that has unfolded in the past few decades. Hong Kong's loss of competitive edge in the region has had an irreversible effect on Hongkongers' pattern of living. The handover introduced unsettling political disputes which, in turn, is reshaping the experience of human relations.

The continuing makeover of the city's landscape furthers the irritation and frustration. It accentuates the discontinuity and uncertainty in everyday life in Hong Kong, while undermining the sense of belonging.

In view of this, the government has to prepare itself for the rise of a new type of social activism, and to pay close attention to the preservation of social continuity in the community.

Kitty Poon, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, is a part-time member of the government's Central Policy Unit