Going, going … Hong Kong's collective memory is just a passing phase

Danny Chan looks at the ebb and flow of nostalgia in the city, where our fascination for the new and novel means we easily discard what was once so important

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 April, 2015, 12:06pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 April, 2015, 12:06pm

Forgetting is a luxury best avoided if, sooner or later, one has to pay dearly for the loss. Hong Kong is going through this painful, seemingly never-ending, process. If one had to find an attribute that sums up this politically split, economically nostalgic yet culturally confused community, perhaps it is the ephemeral Hong Kong memory. In fact, when we talk about our so-called "collective memory", we think of something that unifies us. But, really, it is nothing more than shattered pieces of facts, with no basis in the bigger picture of Hong Kong life. It is something that is only rationalised, often temporarily, on TV screens or in social media - and then only until another topic comes along.

Political correctness aside, I still, for instance, have no idea what Queen's Pier has to do with our collective conscience; only when it became an emblem of political resistance did we start to remember anecdotes, facts and history, to fill in the gaps. This went on until another worthy cause appeared, whether it was an old pawn shop turned into a restaurant or a derelict building randomly transformed for modern use. In this respect, what makes Hong Kong memory different from, say, a pair of trainers or a new smartphone? Their novelty value keeps being exhausted.

Exhaustion with a certain "product" is in essence seen in the ebb and flow of Hong Kong memory. The new will be embraced at the expense of the old, and neither can exist at the same time.

Street delicacies are a good example. If you were here 15 or 20 years ago, for example, you will recall the city's fascination with Portuguese egg tarts. After a while, these were replaced with alluring HK$10 petite Japanese cheesecakes, which were then ousted by Taiwanese beverages and snacks. Today, Korean cuisine is flavour of the month. All these reveal an urban tempo of incessant change and transition, peculiarly Hong Kong. Portuguese egg tarts became a "replaceable" monument in our memory. What we call memory in Hong Kong is just a synonym for perpetual replacement.

It is also exhaustion that, strangely, nurtures the dissident spirit and resistant temperament of the city. Often, as an identity or belief begins to wane, we have two immediate reactions: first, we turn it into a relic, to be worshipped, and endow it with a sense of order and time, sharing "the faith" with people around us. This usually occurs with popular culture. The TV series we watch serialise our days, our calendar and finally our memory; the rhythm of pop songs is also the pulse of everyday life. But the good days of Hong Kong popular culture are long gone.

The second reaction is to seek out something different and exotic, and turn it into a monster of xenophobia, cursing it and instilling a sense of fear in the people around us. Inventing a common enemy is a common political ploy. When many look at all the jewellers and pharmacies that have sprouted up, they see them as symbols of Hong Kong's lost affluence and tarnished superiority.

Whichever side we take, we feel a vague sense of unity. The only question is, just like our smartphone, what will come next to recharge our fascination with novelty? This is perhaps the definitive pattern of memory in Hong Kong.

Danny W. K. Chan teaches communication and language at Hong Kong Community College, PolyU