No lack of cultural heritage in Hong Kong, if we bother to look for it

Fanny W. Y. Fung says to counter those who claim the city lacks cultural history, we must do more to raise awareness of what's out there

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 June, 2015, 10:48am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 June, 2015, 4:23pm

For a city obsessed with its competitiveness, Hong Kong suffered a body blow when it was awarded two zeroes in a recent global travel survey - for its lack of world heritage cultural sites, and oral and intangible cultural expressions.

So, is the city really a heritage desert? The World Economic Forum's latest Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report, published last month, revived the debate. Hong Kong climbed up two places, to 13th on a list of 141 economies, compared to two years ago. The report lauded the city's ground and port infrastructure, and its business environment and information and communications technology. But its score on "cultural resources" was abysmal.

Yet, it would be wrong to conclude from this that Hong Kong has nothing from its past worth preserving - at least according to local registers. They show 108 declared monuments, 1,001 graded historic buildings and more than 200 sites of archaeological interest. Last year, a research team commissioned by the government compiled the city's first intangible cultural heritage inventory and identified 480 items, ranging from food-making techniques to traditional performing arts.

The city has a long and vivid list of legacies: century-old colonial buildings, Hakka walled villages, and pre- and post-war tong lau shophouses. Collectively, they showcase the evolution of urban Hong Kong settlements, and make up our tangible cultural resources. Meanwhile, tours organised for those interested in Hong Kong heritage reveal many places to explore.

It is true that our city's built heritage is relatively young compared with many other parts of the world. Outsiders may be forgiven for thinking Hong Kong is just the shiny sum of modern skyscrapers and malls, especially if all they see is tourism propaganda typically featuring a part of the city seen from The Peak. On a trip to the Serbian capital Belgrade two years ago, a Montenegrin businessman told me that my city had no historic buildings, as he proudly spoke of the centuries-old monuments in his country.

Relative age may explain why some people, even locals, dismiss our urban heritage all too readily. Yet, it should be remembered that Australia's famous Sydney Opera House, for example, was only completed in 1973 and is now on Unesco's world heritage list, in recognition of its architectural achievements. Yes, Unesco's selection criteria is open to debate and the vetting process subject to lobbying and political wrangling. But, it does offer us a wider perspective to define heritage sites not just by age but also by the cultural values they represent.

More than two years ago, the Development Bureau sparked a furore by endorsing the inclusion of Chi Lin Nunnery and its adjacent Nan Lian Garden in a shortlist of Chinese sites seeking Unesco world heritage status. The Buddhist nunnery was rebuilt in 1998, and the garden built in 2006, both in a Tang dynasty architectural style. Members of the government-appointed Antiquities Advisory Board criticised the site as "fake antiques", and the government failed to convince either experts or the public that these were Hong Kong's most representative heritage buildings.

As expected, and quite rightly, the nunnery and garden did not receive world heritage listing. But, with more publicity, the nunnery is now among the top 10 Hong Kong attractions on popular travel website TripAdvisor.

Controversies aside, heritage does not exist for the sake of tourism. However, how we portray our city to the world does reflect how we see our cultural identity. Much more needs to be done to raise awareness about our cultural assets, which will help both locals and visitors understand why Hong Kong is neither just another former British colony nor just another mainland city.

The good news is that a growing sense of nostalgia for the old Hong Kong appears to have emerged in recent years, notably among a segment of the younger generation in search of their local identity. This alone may not be sufficient but it can serve as a push for more of us to treasure the past.

Fanny W. Y. Fung is a Post reporter