In a city where the value of real estate is as high as anywhere else in the world, there grows a 60 year old mango tree, far older than most of the buildings that surround it. The story of how this tree has survived can teach us a great deal about the present moment in Hong Kong. On 29 May 2018, the Tai Kwun Centre opened in the Central District of Hong Kong. This new cultural centre is the city’s most ambitious heritage project ever undertaken. The site has been constructed out of the former Central Police Station Compound, comprised of 16 historic buildings, a colonial architecture symbolising the complex and idiosyncratic history of Hong Kong and its relation to the outside world.

Once an imposing landmark of colonial oppression, it was the same people who would have once been autocratically ruled from this police station who have advocated so strongly for its preservation. The surrounding high-rises offer an illustration of what was meant to be the future of the Central Police Station Compound, as it was initially rezoned for commercial redevelopment once the station was decommissioned in 2004. Against the tide of demolition, a rich coalition of groups within civil society came together, including architects, preservationists, and historians. With the help of a wealthy Hong Kong family, and their formation of the Hotung Group, the government’s plans for a private tender of the compound was successfully challenged. Essential to the demands of this civil society coalition was that a different set of goals direct the redevelopment of the this heritage site. Rather than profit and exchange, anti-commercial values of community and cultural use should guide the architects and policymakers in their redesign of the compound. These sentiments have been largely fulfilled in the construction of the Tai Kwun Centre as an arts and culture space open to the public and highlighting the heritage of the site. The land was leased by the government to the non-profit Hong Kong Jockey Club, who, along with architectural firm Herzog and de Meuron, overcame a number of obstacles to realise their vision for the project. Those obstacles included the major costs of renovation, and the governments initial opposition to the social use of the space. The parcel of land which the Tai Kwun Centre occupies is one of the most valuable in the world. To complete this project advocates had to grapple with the vast asymmetries of power that define the development of Hong Kong’s built environment.

The story of how the Tai Kwun Centre came into being raises a number of questions about the meaning of heritage. Who should define heritage and what goals should it serve? What is worthy of preservation and what is worth sacrificing to achieve conservation? What is clear is that heritage plays an important role in the construction of identity, that of an individual, a multitude, or a city. In fact, cultural heritage is often described as forming the material basis of ones identity. In this way we can see how colonial heritage, rather than fostering nostalgia or romanticism about the past, is about broadly differentiating the city of Hong Kong from mainland China and the rest of the world. The colonial regime valued heritage in a far different way than what we see advocated for by Hong Kong’s civil society. It was only in 1976 that the Antiquities and Monuments Office was established by the British to survey and record archeological sites dating as far back as Neolithic period. The aim of holding / possessing heritage in this curatorial manner differs dramatically from the type of public history on display at the Tai Kwun Centre. The social atmosphere surrounding the 1997 handover amplified the importance of heritage in civil discourse as it became and important way to mark the independence of the city. In order to grapple with this transitional politics of integration with the Chinese system, there was a transformation in the meaning of colonial architectures.

Figure 1. Hong Kong Harbour from the Peak. Photo by Chester Ho on Unsplash

Questions of identity are not the only context within which to understand the importance of built-heritage to the city. The wealth disparity within Hong Kong has grown to the greatest in 45 years, leading many to question the trajectory of urban development from the point of view of equity and social justice. Non-institutionalised social movements have responded to this growing social and economic inequality, threatening the already unstable governance structure of Hong Kong. We must understand the advocacy at play in debates over heritage as fundamentally related to the elite driven development of the city’s built environment. The transformation of Hong Kong Harbour (see Figure 1) demonstrates how rapid economic growth disrupts and erases the material inscription of the past onto place. As Karl Marx famously remarked about the destabilising and revolutionary consequences of capitalist development: “all that is solid melts into air.” This statement finds a corollary in the work of Ackbar Abbas on the state of Hong Kong, when he describes the endemic “culture of disappearance” that defines the city’s urbanity.

No case exemplified this relentless current of disappearance, that the demolition of Hong Kong’s Queen’s Pier and Star Ferry. 13 years ago demonstrations to save this historic landmark thrust into centre stage a debate around heritage and preservation that remains active to this day. Protest propelled the twin narratives of protecting public space and collective memory into public consciousness. While it was a colonial architecture that they were hoping to conserve, the act of preservation was, in practice, diametrically opposed to the colonial regime’s attitude towards urban transformation. Scholars, such as Him Chung, have noted that after the 1997 hangover, policy regarding built-heritage remained mired in the colonial regimes negligence of public history. Queen’s Pier is still remembered as a piece of Hong Kong history which was erased through the violence of demolition, unsettling the public and place based identity it afforded to residents of Hong Kong. 

Between Queen’s Pier and the Tai Kwun Centre there is the unique and potentially troubling case of the PMQ redevelopment project. This site was formerly the colonial Police Married Headquarters, located in the Central District, within walking distance of the Tai Kwun Centre. The restoration of PMQ demonstrates the potential of heritage to be commodified and aestheticised in the construction of further commercial retail spaces. Despite successful civic advocacy, which preserved the PMQ’s architecture, the government did not rezone the site for cultural use and instead offered assurances that conservation efforts would be made in its redevelopment. The contradictions of PMQ have been summarised effectively in recent articles, among them is the identity crisis of the commercial management of the project. Marketed as an artistic and cultural space, vendors report that they are judged solely on market-based criteria, crowding out space for other forms of expression within the site’s subdivisions. The promotion of social enterprise in the proliferation of new heritage constructions can function as hollow signifiers when we examine them more closely. The independent tenants of PMQ have expressed concerns over the exclusively upper / upper middle class residents and tourists who are able to access the space, adding to the impression that commercialism rather than accessibility or inclusion is at the heart of the project. 

Reflecting on these three examples, we can see there is a great deal at stake when it comes to debates over built-heritage in Hong Kong. Each heritage site becomes a reflection of the direction of urban development, how much history and identity is valued, and whether commercial interests will continue to dominate the trajectory of the built environment. The Tai Kwun Centre offers an experience of public history in concert with community use, which diverges from Hong Kong’s recent and distant past. Building on this success should be paramount in future conservation projects. Recent articles archiving the lost buildings of Hong Kong as well as an active Facebook group, which distributes popular images of the city’s history, demonstrate the strong desire amongst residents to engage with Hong Kong’s complex and idiosyncratic past. In pursuit of this future, the city requires clear policy which emphasises public ownership of heritage and challenges the hegemony of the small number of property developers with outsized influence in the polity. Doing so has the potential to bring civic debates to a more grounded level and motivate a more inclusive discussion about the direction of Hong Kong’s future development. I hope in considering these recommendations that readers may consider for themselves: how built-heritage should be understood in Hong Kong, and what can we learn from examining the history of preservationist movements and policies?

About the author

Dylan Tingley is a Boston based writer and researcher. He recently completed his MSc in Human Geography and Urban Studies (Research) at the LSE, receiving the highest dissertation grade within the program. His current research interest concern reviving debates around economic planning and industrial policy within the US.