City Weekend

New social network tool aims to connect Hong Kong neighbours and boost community spirit

City’s fast-paced lifestyle and large proportion of high-rise buildings can be barriers to fostering sense of cohesiveness and identity

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 October, 2016, 11:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 October, 2016, 11:03am

Neighbourhood general stores were once the hearts of many communities. People visited them not only to buy drinks and snacks but also for social interaction and to exchange stories.

But through rapid urbanisation in the last few decades, these self-owned shops have been quietly replaced by chain convenience stores. With most corner shops gone along with other small community businesses, residents today have less of a collective identity and cohesion.

Sai Wan Concern Group, an online gentrification watchdog, has been paying close attention to the myriad of changes in Sai Wan ever since the MTR was extended to the west of the island.

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Cheung Kai-yin, a manager from the concern group, said the ever-increasing rents are pushing out small businesses. “In some cases, the rent went up three or four times,” she said, adding that this happened as redevelopment projects came to Sai Wan.

Coupled with a shortage of demand to occupy the spaces, the vacancy rate approached 10 per cent in some areas in Sai Ying Pun, according to Cheung.

“If you take a stroll around First Street, Pok Fu Lam Road and Western Street, you see a ghost town,” she said.

Cheung added the absence of small businesses also disrupted social networks of the elderly. “Old people had it so good. When they shopped at these small businesses, they chatted with the owners,” she said. “But with these stores gone, the network for them could quickly disintegrate.

“They didn’t need social workers before, but they do now. They have to rely on government resources, which might not be half as effective.”

Billy Kwan Yan-wai, the curator of Very Hong Kong Foundation, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to improving social interaction in communities, also agreed the elderly are the first victims from displacement of small businesses.

“They have nobody to [interact with] when they go into 7-11 or Wellcome,” he said. He also added that the acceptance of a trade-off between wealth and loss of community spirit could have perpetuated this.

“People from the 60s and 70s, because of their past struggles, are inclined to accept the loss of their cohesion for [redevelopment and wealth],” he said, adding that once the community spirit was gone, “it’s too late to bring it back”.

With this sobering trend in mind, a new social networking tool promises to connect Hongkongers with their neighbours, in a city where fast-paced lifestyles mean some residents never speak to those living closest to them.

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Localhood hopes to foster better relationships between people living a stone’s throw away from each other, often in high-rise apartments, in a bid to create stronger communities.

The free online platform was launched by banker Pooja Dhyani, who arrived in the city from Paris with her husband five years ago, and became depressed by the lack of community spirit.

She said when she took time off from her hectic job to have a baby, she decided to set up the site for her apartment building – Island Crest in Sai Ying Pun – with seven other professionals who work for her voluntarily.

“When I landed here, I had never felt as lonely as I did,” she recalled. “I was surrounded by people but I did not know anyone.

“I spoke to my colleagues and friends and I realised I was not alone in feeling that way. Everybody wanted to do something, but nothing was happening.”

Launched in September this year, Localhood, a non-profit service, invites people to sign up and be connected with other residents living in their building through group meetups.

It has so far amassed 300 members in the Western district, an area which Dhyani hopes will have a membership of 5,000.

Localhood participants can use the tool to socialise, find ways of doing small favours for each other, or simply to feel more connected to their immediate neighbourhood.

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