Change of mindset is key to preserving heritage

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 February, 2007, 12:00am

Hong Kong's rush to become part of the developed world has been impressive and the results are all around: a modern and efficient city. But as celebrations marking the beginning of the Year of the Pig also show, our society is deeply traditional, with its soul rooted in the ways of the past.

It sometimes seems, however, that our decision makers are not in touch with that reality. Tearing down the memory-filled Star Ferry pier in Central and older, more architecturally-pleasing buildings, is one matter; as revealing, though, are flawed decrees like that for the upcoming Cheung Chau bun festival, in which baked buns will be replaced by plastic replicas.

Islands District councillors, in consultation with the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, determined that the mess created by competitors during the scramble for the top bun on the main tower during the festival was unhygienic. In doing so, they trampled on more than a century of tradition.

This is precisely what the heritage debate of recent months has been about: preserving our past, whether it is a structure, part of culture or a memory. The introduction of plastic buns is, perhaps, not as significant as the removal of a longstanding landmark. But it is part of a wider concern.

It is the kind of thinking which has led to culture such as dai pai dong and street markets being considered by authorities as unclean or unruly and moved into nondescript government buildings. The risk is that we end up with sterile streets, denying Hong Kong much of the vibrancy for which it is internationally renowned. With concrete and glass replacing older buildings, our thoroughfares lose their character and become generic.

The bun festival is, after all, one of our best-known tourist draws. For the people of Cheung Chau, it has the significance of religion, tradition and history. The costumes, processions, feasting, the buns and the main event - the race up the bun tower - are not found elsewhere.

That is not to say that such traditions cannot adapt with the times. The collapse of one of the towers during the race in 1978 caused dozens of injuries and that particular facet of the festival was set aside until two years ago. With the bamboo tower now replaced with one made of metal, safety standards are as they should be.

But the decision to use plastic buns - that may or may not be reusable - in place of real ones is not a matter of safety, but of convenience. The once-a-year need to clean up the buns squashed by competitors is, it would seem, too much for organisers. Authenticity counts for little.

Such was the case - although in a very different context - with the new Star Ferry pier, an amalgam of designs that recreated the style of building our city once had, but tore down in the name of progress. Putting up a replica and passing it off as genuine shows how shallow our regard for our past can sometimes be.

Celebrations for the new year show none of that falseness. Hearts and minds are as clearly attuned to the past as the present. The clash, colour, sounds and smells are of the Hong Kong that jackhammers cannot tear up and property developers pull down.

The lion dances, throngs of shoppers, decorations and light displays, food stalls piled with delicacies, the flowers and fruit: the new year would be meaningless without them.

So it goes for Hong Kong unless the government makes good its pledge to take seriously the latest consultation process on heritage. Without a change of mindset and policy, Hong Kong's heritage is at risk of going the way of the Cheung Chau festival bun - a mere replica of what people expect it should be.