History in the making

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 February, 2005, 12:00am

Deep within the hillside, compressed by the office towers of Central, is a catacombs of underground glaciers, lakes and a mortuary where victims of wartime air raids lie in chill silence. Ghosts walk these corridors, some in chains, others perhaps licking ice-cream cones.

These are some of the myths and imaginings that are evoked by the modest Edwardian building on Ice House Street that once housed Dairy Farm, one of the first establishments to sell refrigerated milk and ice-cream in Hong Kong, and the site of an earlier trade in ice. It is now home to some of Hong Kong's more subversive establishments, the Fringe Club and Foreign Correspondents' Club, and the luxuriously decadent M at the Fringe restaurant.

Last weekend, Fringe Club director Benny Chia launched a project called the Excavation to create an oral history of the site, part of it made up. Inviting schoolchildren to participate in a mock archaeological dig for buried ice, imagining what they might find, Mr Chia later shared his own 'creative memories'. The children contributed the lakes and ghost stories, but they were not the first to do so, said Mr Chia, who was warned of ghosts haunting the building in 1983, when he first opened the space for contemporary visual and performing arts. He pieced the warnings together with a bombing raid in 1943, killing hundreds whose bodies may have been stored in the refrigerated basement. 'It becomes part of the Fringe Club building folklore,' he said. 'Did it really happen or not?' Mr Chia would argue that it does not matter.

At a time when Hong Kong is embroiled in debates over governance, democracy and identity, the Fringe Club's imaginary excavation offers a nuanced alternative. By drawing the public into creating a collective history of the site, the process becomes transparent and inclusive - a plus for governance. As a civic activity, it helps imprint patterns of collaboration, essential to building a democratic culture. And by encouraging creativity, even ghost stories, it makes Hong Kong more interesting and counterbalances a global trend towards urban boredom - what Dutch writer and architect Rem Koolhaus calls the 'generic city'.

Leo Lee Ou-fan, a renowned literary historian, who joined a Fringe Club panel discussion on Saturday after the children's 'excavation', said Hong Kong might take a cue from the Chinese tradition of marking significant places with rhyming couplets. 'Hong Kong should be recorded by a lot of small details here and there,' he said. 'What is Chinese history if you have no memory?'

One participant pointed out that the history of the Dairy Farm building was largely Eurocentric, since Hong Kong's Chinese population only acquired a taste for and the means to purchase dairy products in the post-war period.

Others said that Chinese and others living or working in the neighbourhood in the building's post-dairy days had embraced it by making up stories.

There is more than one way to make a city iconic, and the more, the merrier. The Fringe Club event was inspired, in part, by indignation over the Hong Kong government's management of the tender for the West Kowloon cultural hub, a grandiose project that has become one focus of Hong Kong's democracy activists. Imagine the latter as a churn that creates movement in place of stasis, by setting off polarities.

One such pair of opposites is the massive physical emblem planned for West Kowloon and the virtual iconography proposed by the Fringe Club. The fact that Hong Kong is doing so much talking, whether about ghosts or a new home for the arts, is a good thing, although the noisy room that is democracy only works if people listen to each other as well as argue.

Edith Terry is a writer based in Hong Kong

[email protected]