Two Hong Kong streets have made headlines recently. One is Russell Street in Causeway Bay, the world's most expensive shopping strip. The rent has rocketed to such a high level that smaller shops that used to line the street have long gone. The latest news is that even global giant McDonald's is being forced out. A few blocks away in Wan Chai, a colourful lane that was once a landmark in the heart of the colonial district has vanished. Known as Wedding Card Street because of an array of shops supplying wedding cards and related goods, Lee Tung Street is being redeveloped into a street with a new name that bears little of its history and culture.
That both are happening at the same time may be coincidental, but the underlying message is the same - the pursuit of growth and profit are driving development at the expense of the city's character and soul. Increasingly, we are losing, bit by bit, what makes us special.
Sadly, nostalgia and conservation are not in a landlord's nature. The seven-fold rent increase for Russell Street tenants over the past decade shows property owners are only keen to make money. Fuelled by an influx of cash-rich mainland tourists since 2003, the street is now dominated by luxury brands and shops catering to their tastes. A one-stop shopping street with all the big names maybe ideal for shoppers on a tight schedule, but it risks becoming a homogenous neighbourhood with little appeal to those looking for the special and curious. The same rationale applies to the Wan Chai redevelopment. Despite pledges to restore some old wedding and printing businesses, conservationists have rightly questioned what is left in a recreated street devoid of soul and originality.
A free market means shops come and go like nature's ebb and flow. Champions of a free economy believe nothing much can be done. But frequent facelifts and redevelopment have made people increasingly insensitive to disappearing heritage and landmarks that once defined our city. Hong Kong will suffer if it is cloned into a place with little character of its own.