ON A VISIT TO Ho To Tai noodle restaurant in Yuen Long, architect Gene Miao Shing-chi and his friends Aly Chow Shuk-tak and Natsuko Fukue are thrilled by its nostalgic decor, from the marble floor to the sturdy wooden chairs and benches. Best known for its shrimp-roe noodles, the 58-year-old family business makes a variety of traditional dried noodles sold at outlets in Sha Tin and Wan Chai. Homespun, idiosyncratic operations such as Ho To Tai are disappearing as big chains expand their reach around the world - prompting Miao and Chow to launch a website ( www.daytauchung.com ) last month to help preserve neighbourhood gems. It's among several online platforms set up recently in response to fast disappearing local culture. Called DayTauChung - colloquial Cantonese for an indigenous connoisseur or expert - the site declares its mission as supporting unique places, experiences, and cultures and ideas around the world as it becomes 'increasingly homogenised' due to the proliferation of global brands. It features informative nuggets about cities from Tokyo and Shanghai to New York and Bordeaux, under categories such as eats, drink/chill-out and getting around. Sharing similarities with a travel guide, its thrust is to inspire people to help halt destruction of neighbourhoods and businesses with character. Miao, 35, says his project was sparked last year by the closure of Yucca De Lac, a scenic restaurant near Tai Po due to be developed into high-end flats. The villa was popular with the rich and famous during the 1960s, and its outdoor setting was a favoured location for many a movie and drama. 'I was devastated at the time,' says Miao, who just returned from the US where he had been studying since his teens. He used to visit Yucca De Lac with his family as a child and, like many Hongkongers, still has photos they snapped at the restaurant. 'I always liked it there. The ambience of the outdoor seating area was unique. I once told myself that if I got married one day, I would want to hold the wedding there. It had so much character. Its closure was a spur to do something.' He plumped for setting up a website and began talking to Web designers. '[The internet] is important because it can reach many people. It was the cheapest way for me to go about it,' he says. Miao found a kindred spirit in Chow, a former arts administrator who learned about his idea from a mutual friend. Having spent the past few years travelling around Latin America, Chow says, '[the concept] clicked with me; I totally understood. I immediately told my friend I wanted to get involved.' Both are saddened by disappearing street life and how unusual neighbourhoods are being destroyed to make way for shopping malls and high-rises. 'It's something that I see everywhere - the US, Hong Kong and the mainland,' says Miao. 'It's happening on many levels, from the Star Ferry Pier and Tung Ying Building [a prime office block on Nathan Road demolished during the 60s] to a homegrown noodle place to a craftsman's shop.' As recent protests over the Star Ferry clock tower show, heritage conservation isn't just about protecting sites with historical or architectural merit. People's collective memories about a place are also important, Chow says. 'When you share with people, it turns out that everybody has a connection.' Operating on a concept similar to that of Wikipedia, the site allows anybody to register as a member and contribute information which helps homegrown establishments. 'I wanted an open platform so that people from other parts of the world can contribute too. It's not about me telling people where to go, but everybody telling everybody where to go,' says Miao. 'It's a global problem, so it doesn't make sense to limit things to Hong Kong.' Fukue, 25, a research student at the University of Hong Kong, is among the top contributors to DayTauChung. 'It's an interesting project. I have many photos of places I enjoyed visiting. That was how I started submitting my entries,' says Fukue, who has posted entries on Fukuoka and Bordeaux, where she spent a year as an exchange student. Lamenting a similar trend in her country, she says, 'so many old buildings have gone in Japan. There are only shopping malls.' Inspired by the recent movement to save the Star Ferry clock tower, video artist Anson Mak Hoi-san has set up a blog site (beyondthestars.wordpress.com) as a way to provide a database - documents, critiques and petitions - on local redevelopment plans. 'Things happened so quickly,' she says. 'Various groups and individuals were doing different things to fight for the Star Ferry Pier to be saved. A blog can be an easier way to gather information and news and circulate details of various actions to people from different sectors.' As its name suggests, the blog's concerns extend beyond the Star Ferry movement, touching other redevelopment issues around the city. Documents posted include a proposal by civil engineering professor Hung Wing-tat to preserve Queen's Pier, and a recent paper by Home Affairs Secretary Patrick Ho Chi-ping on converting the Yau Ma Tei Theatre into a Cantonese opera centre. Conflicts over urban renewal in Taiwan have inspired a similar blog ( www.hemidemi.com/group/demolish/home ), which serves as an information exchange and monitors government efforts to tear down old buildings and neighbourhoods around the island. Like DayTauChung, Mak plans to run her blog site on an open system to allow people to post information and opinions on the issue. She also views the blog as a way to build an archive about a spontaneous movement which has become part of the city's history. 'It's important to systematically collect and file data about the movement,' she says. 'People need such solid information to continue the discussion about how our city should develop.' Chan Kwok-bun, head of sociology at the Baptist University, views the recent surge of online platforms as a reaction from the public, especially the younger generation, challenging the validity of redevelopment of such sites as Wedding Card Street, Wan Chai Market and the Star Ferry Pier. 'People gradually realise there's a gap between their interest and aesthetic values and those of the government and the business sector,' he says. 'They're using different avenues to voice their feelings.' It's sad that the government has ignored the voice of younger people who have a strong sense of belonging and identity with Hong Kong, Chan says. 'Many people feel let down by the authorities. They want to hold on to the past, something very deep and personal, partly because the present and the future are not very exciting,' he says. 'The government should handle it carefully.' Meanwhile, the DayTauChung organisers hope to halt the trend towards homogenised urban life by publicising homegrown businesses such as Ho To Tai and celebrating local street culture. Miao and Chow organised a walking tour for the students from the Architectural Association in Britain to old neighbourhoods such as Sham Shui Po, Shek Kei Mei and Wan Chai last month. In Mong Kok, the difference between Langham Place and surrounding city blocks is stark. 'It shows how insensitive developers and the government can be to old neighbourhoods,' says Miao. 'The contrast of the old fabric of the community versus the new mall is like placing a spaceship in the middle of the district. 'The world is full of 7-Elevens, McDonald's, Disneylands and Starbucks. Look at the shopping malls. They all have the same designs and layouts,' says Miao. 'It makes everywhere the same. It makes travelling meaningless. If a place loses its unique qualities, that's the end.'