Hong Kong, Macau struggle with their identity as cross-border cities

Research into frontier cities finds they and their twins over the border have complementary strengths but fight for their 'authenticity'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 4:47am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 4:47am

Researchers from Harvard University have put Macau's physical and cultural landscape under the spotlight, delving into the key characteristics that make a cross-border city.

The three-year, multimillion-dollar project started in 2012 and is split into three chapters, with the one about Macau and its relationship to Zhuhai being the second one. It is funded by global architecture and engineering consultancy AECOM and is its first collaboration with Harvard's graduate school of design.

The Macau findings can, in part, be applied to Hong Kong as both are distinct frontier cities and former colonies, have a mix of Eastern and Western cultures and are now special administrative regions.

A key finding was that frontier cities are more likely to struggle with their identity and fight for their "authenticity".

"Cross-border cities create exacerbated difference because of their proximity to each other, divided by a political and economic border," said Professor Christopher Lee, associate professor in practice of urban design, who is leading the project.

Last September, Lee travelled to Macau with a group of students and met local urban planners, architects and professors to discuss the city's development.

"They work in competition but also in co-operation, so Macau develops something that Zhuhai doesn't have and vice versa," he said, with Macau providing jobs and Zhuhai offering cheaper housing.

"But this flow of goods and people brings the tension of identity. So when the Macanese are placed next to Zhuhai, they are very proud of being Macanese."

The same idea applied to Hong Kong and Shenzhen, with factories based across the border, where more land is available, while Hong Kong strengthens its financial services and knowledge-based economy. Guangzhou and Foshan were another example, Lee said.

Tomorrow, an exhibition based on the research opens at Chinese University's school of architecture. The key researchers are coming to Hong Kong for a roundtable discussion.

Sean Chiao, 55, chief executive of AECOM's buildings and places division in the AsiaPacific, said the project was "purely an academic and intellectual exercise".

"We want to provoke dialogue and build connections, but not be too critical," he said. Chiao hopes the research will influence the central government's urban planning policies.

"When you develop a city, a lot of it is related to geopolitical and cultural issues; that's the spirit of good design. We want to remind developers and government that an important direction of thinking is to find your own identity or authenticity."

The future of cross-border cities was also an area that called for more research, Chiao said.

"Immigration control points will not exist in 20 or 30 years. So eventually, the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border will no longer exist," he said.

He likened the cross-border areas to Ellis Island in New York, which now houses a museum of immigration in homage to its role as the entry point for more than 12 million newcomers to the United States from 1892 until 1954.