WHEN LONG-ESTABLISHED, character-rich Hong Kong neighbourhoods are labelled “up and coming”, the implication is that they were “down and derelict” before some miraculous transformation, or that more worthwhile types – with better occupations, taste levels and pastimes – found certain urban spaces lacking by their own absence. Hip, savvy entrepreneurs then move in, rapidly “improving” an area out of all recognition and miraculously saving it from a fate worse than demolition. Or do they?
Historically, Hong Kong’s response to old neighbourhoods has been wholesale destruction and replacement. The reasons are basically sound; most buildings were not terribly well built to begin with, and entire areas were barely worth saving. Corner-cutting construction methods, officials turning a blind eye to codes and regulations in the corruption-addled 1950s and ’60s, and decades of – at best – minimal maintenance, all mean that most 60-year-old structures are about ready to fall down. A few well-built tong lau can be reconfigured into convenient walk-up apartments for those who – let’s face it – live their Hong Kong lives in a similar fashion as they do their parallel San Francisco, London or Melbourne lives, providing handsome windfall profits to investors who were astute enough to buy them long ago.
When car-repair shops give way to Italian-American themed restaurants, and popular cha chaan teng find themselves replaced by tapas bars and faux-French bakeries – as happened across Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town even before the MTR extension opened in 2014 – such transitions are seen as shorthand for urban improvement. Hey! These “run-down” areas are now “happening”, they say.
Gentrification in a Hong Kong context inevitably means forms of westernisation; sometimes genuine, but more usually an ersatz, indeterminate, overaspirational mélange filtered through prisms of Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
Likewise, “revitalisation” – another overused official buzzword – implies that until a specific initiative was hit upon, and the miraculously healing hands of the relevant government department were laid upon it, an area or building was either moribund or already dead as Lazarus.
In the minds of planners, having something artistic plopped down in an older area bestows a sense of hitherto absent cultural validity. PMQ – the “revitalisation initiative” that transformed the former police married quarters in Central into an “arts hub” (in reality, a slightly different shopping mall) is a case in point. Other hip abbreviations for old buildings salvaged within this “cultural triangle” – PMQ, CPS (Central Police Station) and CM (Central Market) – helped make this formerly far-from-dead precinct seem “revitalised” by their transformation.
But what happens to the long-term residents of these districts? Not all are property owners only too happy to cash out and move on. And many old-stagers simply don’t fit in with these oh-so-desirable social changes. After all, not everyone wants – or can afford – to chomp on artisanal, certified organic, French(ish) pastries and sip Nicaraguan double espresso while tapping away running their business from their laptop. Not everyone wins.
Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town have met their fate, and before long, Kowloon City and To Kwa Wan will follow suit, claiming their place in the contemporary world. Wine merchants and oyster bars have already started squeezing out noodle shops and dry-cleaners in anticipation of socioeconomic change.
Landlords – the ultimate beneficiaries of gentrification – shrewdly discern how much business a newly revitalised area can generate. Average customer numbers in bars and restaurants, menu items and staffing levels – which give a guide to fixed overheads – are relatively easy to calculate, simply by walking past several times a day. From these casual observations, a few simple calculations quickly suggest how much extra rent can be gouged from the next leasing cycle.