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

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 12:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 9:50pm

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