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Then & now: land of make believe

The heritage debate over Pok Fu Lam village is grounded in broader discontent towards an arrogant government, writes Jason Wordie

 

Hong Kong society is undeniably contentious. Public arguments erupt like fireworks: they shoot into the sky to a chorus of shouts and gasps and then – BANG – either explode into a series of colourful and predictable (predetermined) patterns or, depending on the atmospheric conditions, splutter back down to earth in a dispiriting gurgle of damp, dying squibs. Only a few trailing sparks indicate what might have been.

The metaphor is deliberate; as any objective, long-term observer can discern, most of what passes for public debate in Hong Kong is not, ultimately, about the subject being loudly – and frequently childishly – squabbled over.

Public concerns about Pok Fu Lam village, the “endangered cultural heritage site” recently listed on the New York-based World Monuments Fund’s Watch List (which also includes Venice), helps to epitomise this proxyargument relationship.

Well-meaning local heritage activists seldom help their own causes. The tendency to parrot out skeins of irrelevant statistics (courtesy of Hong Kong’s timedishonoured rote-learning education system) convinces them that the longer the list that can be recited, the more impressive its contents must be. But bracketing what is mostly a hillside squatter settlement with the multi-layered magnificence of Venice is so inherently ridiculous that finding a sensible starting point by way of rebuttal is difficult. Even brief critical analysis summarily dismisses most of their arguments.

Yes, yes – we know, we know.

Pok Fu Lam contains objects of localised interest, such as the century-old Li Ling Divine Pagoda, and is special to those who make their homes there. But does that make the place worthy of an international heritage listing?

No. Of course it doesn’t. So what is the Pok Fu Lam “heritage” debate really about?

Ultimately, it’s a proxy reaction against an out-of-touch, unrepresentative, arrogant government structure so comprehensively owned by vested interest groups that it would rather tamper with the edges of country parks and obliterate existing communities than address crucial issues such as land supply and taxation, and their negative effects on urbanplanning decisions. The debate offers some protest against senior government officials so pallidly and transparently mediocre that, even with highly skilled PR teams at their disposal, they cannot manage to lie with conviction.

It registers a protest against rubber-stamp statutory bodies – the Town Planning Board is a prime example; the Antiquities Advisory Board is another.

For personal and professional reasons, membership of such cliques is highly prized. In consequence, even when the chips are down, and the public has decisively spoken, these straw men and women still roll over rather than stand firm on a point of principle and resign.

Whatever the justifications of the People’s Liberation Army access corridor along the Central waterfront (and a reasonable view maintains that military use is justified, both for practical harbour access from the now-landlocked PLA headquarters and to demonstrate national sovereignty), when the Town Planning Board received more than 18,000 objections, and a handful in favour, they still waved it through. This decision speaks volumes about that body’s ultimate pointlessness.

For if the board does not exist to at least seriously address, reflect and manage public concerns about the use of public space, and properly explain decisions that are obviously contrary to broad public wishes, then what is it there for?

Is it any wonder that so many ordinary Hong Kong people are so dangerously fed up?

 

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Then & now: land of make believe

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