• Thu
  • Jul 31, 2014
  • Updated: 7:32am
PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 12:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 9:50pm

Hong Kong must give up the ghost of its faded past

Peter Kammerer says a disturbing attitude in Hong Kong to cling to its past, rejecting change, will only see the city fade into irrelevance


Peter Kammerer is a long-time columnist and commentator for the SCMP. He has received recognition for his writing at the Hong Kong news Awards, the annual Human Rights Press Awards and from the Society of Publishing in Asia. Before moving to Hong Kong in 1988, he worked on newspapers in his native Australia.  

The cocoon that is Hong Kong can sometimes be so cosy that we forget to take notice of what is happening elsewhere. While to the north, cities are being transformed, ours is wavering on the brink of being locked in a time warp. A fervent desire to hang on to what we have, physical and otherwise, means we are in danger of being left in the dust. Old-fashioned thinking is holding us back.

Think Macau before 2001, when the monopoly on the gaming industry held by Stanley Ho Hung- sun ended with the opening of the market to new licence-holders. A sleepy backwater that was pleasant to visit, but going nowhere, was instantly given a bright future. It has since been galloping forward.

There are social problems that need to be fixed and the economy has to be broadened beyond gambling. Overall, though, Macau has exploited its potential for all it's worth. Those oases of curiosity can still be found and many have been preserved. Residents have moved beyond the past, but have also lovingly retained it in some two dozen Chinese and Portuguese buildings and sites that comprise the Unesco World Heritage-listed historic centre.

Hong Kong is also clinging onto its colonial past, but to its detriment. Since the return to China in 1997, there has been a noticeable resistance to change. The mentality is that our differences from the mainland are our selling point; letting them be eroded is to lose our advantage. Judicial independence, free speech and press freedom are held up most, but our list of "must haves" has grown long and complex.

The Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club's refusal to change its name is among them. Colonial-era Hong Kong flags appearing at protests are another sign. But the rot was most evident when attempts to tear down the Star Ferry and Queen's piers in 2006 and 2007 were met with unruly protests. Since then, any old building or site, no matter how unremarkable, is fair game.

I'm not espousing obliterating the past - merely suggesting that we keep only what is significant. But that has to extend beyond the physical, to laws, government policies and attitudes. Civil servants and lawmakers should take particular note.

The small-house policy in the New Territories is one such dinosaur that has to go. So, too, does the belief that the property and business cartels have the right to keep their monopolies. Allowing the civil service to be a place of privilege, overstaffed and bloated with fiefdoms that do not co-operate, is wasting finances and resources. The government's view of land as a revenue earner rather than a resource for public good is also past its use-by date.

There are many, many more. But it is our attitude towards the mainland and its citizens that is perhaps most troubling. While the rest of the world is open to their tourism and business, we are intent on capping numbers and on protectionism. Remember, these are countrymen, people with pockets bulging to do business in our shops, restaurants, entertainment venues and auction houses. There are even those among us who would prefer they stay at home, just as before July 1, 1997.

We don't have to go far to see what will happen if this mentality continues. Just look to the Macau of old, so quiet and peaceful - and going nowhere, fast.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post


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This article is now closed to comments

To PK,
Look at this picture of the harbor scene. If you have experienced the harbor in the 70s or even just had seen it in a postcard, you know what you see here is so ugly. The harbor was once so beautiful because of the surrounding hills. These unremarkable tall buildings at the waterfront have obliterated the mountains. What made the past harbor also look so comfortably beautiful was the Star Ferry Pier pristinely, dignifiedly in right scale standing on guard of the harbor.
I hope someday these tall buildings ubiquitous worldwide would come down one by one. May be then we can convince the world our harbor is a world heritage.
To PK,
Please allow me to occupy your column with a reprint of my comment from elsewhere:
'With that 70 to 100 million rise in tourists in Hong Kong, we will have Occupy Central, Occupy Wanchai, Occupy Causeway Bay or even my old old neighborhood – Occupy Caine Road. In fact all Hong Kong minus the New Territories because it is a wasteland there.'
We welcome sensible change and development.
It is ridiculous for Peter to think that educated Hong Kong people would buy what he is selling, it reminds me of a saying I once heard, "don't eat that Charlie, it's not soup!"
We can begin with his comments about Macau. Allowing more competitors into the casino industry isn't diversifying the economy of Macau in a significant way. It just allowed others to compete for the gambling dollar.
Let's look at the fourth paragraph, Hong Kong's "return to China" in 1997??? The PRC was established in 1949 over a hundred years after Hong Kong was colonized/established. How can Hong Kong be returned to something that didn't exist when it was formed? Even the Basic Law, agreed to by Beijing, uses the words the Handover.
It only makes sense that people would treasure an independent judiciary amongst the other things you mentioned. Thousands of Chinese came here to deliver their babies to give their child a chance to enjoy these benefits proving that they also prefer our system.
Finally about the attitude of Hong Kong people toward the Chinese, if you are one of the people who lives in North District and has to endure the extra crowds and suitcases running over your feet on the train you might look at them differently too. And for the rest of Hong Kong people, especially those who are working for minimum wage, what benefit have they gotten from the inflation this influx of cash has caused?

The pathetic Mr. Kammerer writes without the appropriate knowledge, education and experience. When soundly denounced he couldn’t take the heat and begged the once proud South China Morning Post to quickly remove my comment of yesterday … which it did. C'est la vie; farewell.
Thank you Peter Kammerer for your 50 cents worth opinions...I remember Macau when Taipa was an island and so was Coloane....well that's progress - the world's largest casino complex made two islands into one....You completely neglect Hong Kong's respect for civil liberties and cultured society compared to the barbaric northern herds. Your "opinion" is so jaded that one would think you're a cringing foreign journalist begging to get his visa renewed for another year.
it is a real sad story for Hong Kong to ignore changes taking place at our door step at a pace and scale almost unprecedented in the history of mankind given its traditional social and political system and the sheer size of its population,
What local politicians claim representing the people on an uncompromising single issue for the best interest in Hong Kong is actually doing its disservice, slowing down if not stopping its political and economic progress in a one of the most dynamic era.
The saddest thing is that only an expat who understand the current situation in Hong Kong and not locals, Lee from N.T.
Hong Kong could only continue to flourish if we are open; not afraid to complete, bold enough to explore new opportunities in the Mainland and elsewhere, fluid & mobile relocable ....
If we hide ourselves in our fantansy of nativism, then we'd be doomed for demise.
Hong Kong economy is a cartel monopoly runner by a few hundred people.
Hong kong will be eaten alive, conservatism is alive and well in Hong Kong.
The fact is that Hong Kong has let millions and millions of mainland visitors here in the past 10 years. I would also be so bold to say that it is another "fact" that the lives of the majority of Hongkongers has not improved, and if anything, deteriorated. To borrow some of your words, sometimes "going nowhere" isn't as bad as it seems. Especially when that "somewhere" is a place where only the minority benefit at the expense of the majority....
I agree with your comment that during the past ten years the flood of money coming from mainland tourists has in fact deteriorated the standard of living for most Hong Kong people. The rise in the cost of living has far outpaced the rise in income for most people and in reality has only benefited the richest in Hong Kong.




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