After 20 years since the announcement, the resumption process of the final phase of the Kwun Tong Town Centre project was completed earlier this year. Unlike the other cases of redevelopment in Hong Kong, the project was met with fewer controversies and less resistance. Reports were focused on the compensation displaced residents received and the relocation of hawkers and shop owners. Initial attention to the lack of public housing and disproportionately commercial planning died down, as the planning process dragged on for more than a decade.
Having grown up in Kwun Tong, a lot of my childhood memories were tied to Yue Man Square (which translates to ‘prosperous people’), the heart of the district, and so do many other people who spent the majority of their lives in the district. Kwun Tong, with the second largest population among Hong Kong’s 18 districts, has the largest impoverished and elder population, and is known for its relatively affordable prices and grounded environment. Known as an ‘old town’, many miss the familiarity that the old neighbourhood offers, as the town centre faces mass demolition to make way for private housing and commercial buildings, while existing communities are displaced.
Such phenomenon of gentrification was first defined by Glass and Smith in the 1960s and 1970s, explaining the displacement of working class people in residential areas and inner-cities in the Western world. The concept is also helpful in understanding East Asia, including the case of Hong Kong. Working with a broader definition that takes into account the crucial role of the government in economic development, we can understand the nuance of East Asian gentrification (Shin et al., 2016).
The urban renewal approach in Hong Kong has always been criticised as disproportionately biased towards the rich. As Rabushka puts it bluntly, ‘the purpose of Hong Kong is to make money’ (Ng, 2002). In fact, Hong Kong would not be able to gain its status as an International Financial Centre without its property-led mode of development. With the land-scarce economy and artificially low tax rates, the Hong Kong government relies on land auction for revenue, which in turn led to the rise of the real estate hegemony, the target of many protests and dissents. Paradoxically, while Hong Kong people are upset with the skyrocketing housing prices, it is still the wishes of the majority to own a flat of their own. The ‘myth of home ownership’, as Chan called it, is so deeply entrenched in Hong Kong culture that no one is questioning its origins (2000). For many people, owning a flat equals to the escalation to riches, as property speculation has been a road to prosperity for many.
How is this related to the gentrification and redevelopment in Kwun Tong then? With the new-coming properties breaking the housing price records in the district, the private developments in the Kwun Tong Town Centre, along with the shopping centre and the feature high-rise office-hotel building, are part of the URA’s plan to transform the district into a ‘mini Taikoo Shing’, a middle-upper class private property across the harbour. With the proximity with the MTR station, the Kwun Tong Town Centre project undoubtedly fuels what Chan called ‘the culture of speculation’ (2000). Gentrification, in this case is the symptom of expansion of capital to older towns, as the poorer hawkers and shop owners can no longer afford to live in the area.
The culture of speculation shows how deeply entrenched the capitalist ideology is in Hong Kong society, as the URA draws out an extra HK$100 million to compensate occupants of illegal structures in Yue Man Square, some of the owners planned to buy a flat in the redeveloped projects, even if it means that they will have to put in extra from their own pocket. Lefebvre explained the reinforcement of such dominant ideology with the abstraction of space, which essentially denotes that in changing the organisation of the environment to suit its socio-economic needs, the state destroys the culture and social relations of existing communities, and in doing so, it can further embed the dominant ideology in the everyday practice of people, such that there seems to be no alternative (Wilson, 2013).
The case of Kwun Tong is not unique in Hong Kong, as urban redevelopment tears down existing communities, cultures, and environment, it becomes harder for communities to rally around on shared experiences, let alone to resist the state.
With the most unaffordable housing in the world, rising inequality, and rising cost of living, it is not enough to just understand how the real estate hegemony spills over to other commercial sectors. We must also be aware of how space is produced in favour of the existing power structure. According to Goonerwardena, the ‘simple point’ Lefebvre was trying to make is that ‘there can be no revolution without an urban revolution, no urban revolution without a revolution, and neither without a revolution of everyday life’ (Charnock and Ribera-Fumaz, 2011).
Rethinking Hong Kong’s approach to redevelopment is not only important for conservation purposes, but also important in protecting existing communities from gentrification. While undoubtedly some neighbourhood requires urban renewal, there should be an extensive conversation that deviates from the top-down approach of the URA, that takes into account vulnerable communities. Through dissecting the process of how ideology is reinforced in the course of space production, one should stop taking redevelopment for granted, and start asking: why redevelopment?
Chan, K.W. (2000). Prosperity or Inequality: Deconstructing the Myth of Home Ownership in Hong Kong. Housing Studies 15(1): 28 – 43.
Charnock, G. and Ribera-Fumaz, R. (2011). A new space for knowledge and people? Henri Lefebvre, representations of space, and the production for 22@Barcelona. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29(4): 613 – 632.
Leung, S. (2019). Yue Man Square Before Demolition. [illustration] Available at: https://theinitium.com/article/20190302-photo-farewell-yue-man-square/
Ng, M.K. (2002). Property-led urban renewal in Hong Kong: Any place for the community? Sustainable Development, 10: 140 – 146.
Shin, H.B., Lees, L., López-Morales, E. (2016). Introduction: Locating gentrification in the Global East. Urban Studies 53(3): 455 – 470.
Wilson, J. (2013). “The Devastating Conquest of the Lived by the Conceived”: The Concept of Abstract Space in the Work of Henri Lefebvre. Space and Culture 16(3): 364 – 380.
- This article was originally written as coursework for GY438 Cities and Social Change at LSE in spring 2019.
About the author
Candice Chau is an International Political Economy graduate. Her research interests include critical IPE theories, Development, and Capitalist ideologies.