Tuesday, 28 December 2010

A Hong Kong history of anywhere

We take a heritage walk.

Now, old colonnaded buildings hang around inside my head.

I see them, in my mind's eye, in tones of grey and black. Arches in regular shapes lead into corridors of shadows and cool air. Legacies of distant administration, they stand determined by the waterfront. If I listen hard, I can hear the waters lapping. Walk by them today, and they would be a magnificent insight into history.

But they don't exist. They haven't existed for a long time. Only in photographs, like this, in places like Wikipedia.

The remnants of these buildings are usually cleaned away, or converted for retail and administration.

It's not news. The colonial government itself, in collusion with developer conglomerates, knocked those harbour side buildings down. I read that the striped brick GPO above, built in 1911, was demolished in 1976 to make way for the Mass Transit Railway. I guess the site now looks indistinguishable from every other MTR connection point.

Living round here, I can see that government has long had more important things to do than nostalgically cherish old buildings and look after the house of the GPO. Money drives all. The imperative is to extend the harbour front. And look what was in the way! In the face of government and commerce, what value are those nineteenth century monoliths, stretching out like cadavers, blocking the waters?

Those crumbling colonnades had to go. It's not even that they were reminders of how Britain came here in the first place - stealing Hong Kong silver and exchanging strong Chinese people for opium souls - realistically, simply, those buildings squatted on prime development land. The bricks didn't return investment for anyone. I guess the property developers and the government together said, 'We can tell history in other ways. School text books, information panels, designated heritage walk. We can write, This once was the site...'

Today, as a result, not many Victorian and Edwardian buildings stand in Hong Kong. The government occupies a building dating from 1912. I don't assume many people think it precious. I'm told it nearly fell down in the 1970s thanks to the underground construction company driving a tunnel carelessly beneath it.

Of course there are remnants not yet planned away. Sometimes, as we walk, I turn a corner and am suddenly surprised by lines of red brick, curious arches, wrought iron gates, or those beautiful colonnades. Some colonial and historic nineteenth century buildings I see are preserved, scattered around hillsides, taken over as university accommodation, administration centres, a theatre booking office. Others are prominent; held as cathedrals and museums. But slowly, those ordinary old buildings from different ages, they're disappearing.

The usual happens. It's expected. Leave old buildings to decay beyond repair; knock them down; put the land to good use. Good use follows a similar pattern: skyscrapers with a metro, three lower floors for brand outlets, upper floors to office or residential, and a top floor reserved for owner's use. MTR-shops-office. That's good use, Hong Kong style.

It's teaching me. Not lessons about colonial architecture particularly, nor whether British presence was ever defensible. It's teaching me about how history works, and how it fares in the face of power and the exigencies of government.

The first lesson is personal. It's one I knew already. I like to touch and feel history in my hands. I'm just reminded. Mud splattered with children, I travelled staccato in England with toilet stops, playgrounds, hungry bellies, bribes and promises. I was hunting down any buildings, images or landscapes that came within licking distance of Richard II. (See? I use merely home education as a cover for selfish desires.) We stumbled across North Elmham Chapel. Look at it. It's nothing more than a few stones propped up against each other. You don't need to be a member of English Heritage to wander between the rocks. As we did that, and the kids crawled and climbed and played hide-and-seek, then history became ours. It filled our fingernails, stained our trousered knees. It wove itself into our shared memories, our handling of the soil and our grasping of the rocks, and it was ours. It is ours. History stays with us. We tell it back to others.

Here, in Hong Kong, I can't experience this. Any leftover buildings are mostly cold edifices run for an economic benefit. They don't invite exploring touch.

The second lesson I'm reminded of too. It's how history fares in the face of governments and developers. Once, pre-children, we arrived at Cixi's Summer Palace in Beijing. The woman appointed to us as tour guide could add nothing to the history of the site that I couldn't gather for myself, even from a badly translated block of 1980s Chinglish. To every question I asked, she answered simply, innocently, 'I do not know'. How was that? She was raised against Mao's focused rules and Four Olds. Old habits, old culture, old custom, old knowledge. History? It's an old that can be simply smashed away.

I can see that around me now, happening in Hong Kong. History is worth little against the pressures from government and conglomerates. They focus on money, power, land. They need to connect the economies of utilities, transport infrastructures, retail, residential and administration. They need to bring together the whole in a package that makes sense for a shareholder board room. Commerce, ultimately, dictates all: the urban landscape, a mountainside, social policy. If an old building stands in the way, if it can't be turned into a profit, wait a while, knock it down. Tell history on new terms.

I take it as a warning for anyone, anywhere.

Because to do this, reshape the landscape, build it anew, create a money-led culture, those powerful conglomerates need people - ordinary people - to put up no resistance, to have no empathy with buildings, no connection with land, no determination to see ancient views. They need people to enjoy no intimate texture of an environment they'd fight to protect. They need people who are given an environment and told it's for the best. That the utilities are cheaper, the offices are new, the escalators are a benefit, the transport essential, the shopping mall a luxury everyone can afford. Those mega corporations, property developers, financiers, they need people who have no history.

I can't offer any conclusion. Except communicate how sad I feel that money drives all, and that I value more than ever how every person holds history in themselves.