Heritage Preservation as / and Community Movements in Wanchai, Hong Kong

By Desmond Sham

Wanchai is an urban area in Hong Kong, to the east of Central, which has been the political-economic centre of the city-state since the British colonial era. It was the primary settlement for ethnic Chinese in the early colonial period, although other ethnic groups also lived there. The vernacular, tenement buildings (tong lau) – the Hong Kong equivalent of the shophouse – began to emerge from the late 19th century. Since the 1930s, different kinds of industries, such as printing, construction, and rattan furniture-making, began to cluster in Wanchai. This area, on the south of Hennessey Road, was later colloquially known as “Old Wanchai”. In the 1950s and 1960s, the area had already developed into a very vibrant, mixed-use area ( Huang 2015) After the Central Barracks were demolished, office towers and commercial developments were constructed on the original barracks site, simultaneously expanding the commercial area of Hong Kong and removing the “buffer zone” between the central business district and the vibrant mixed area. Due to its proximity to the CBD, the Old Wanchai has been a targeted area of urban renewal by both the state and private sectors since 1980s.
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Within the first five years of the establishment of the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) in 2001, several urban renewal projects were launched in Wanchai. Unlike its predecessor, the URA was empowered to seek government orders for the requisition or forced purchase of land through the Land Resumption Ordinance, in the guise of “public interests”. Yet, in practice, after resuming the land, the URA usually bulldozes almost everything and collaborates with developers, while the profit made is not transferred into public revenue. Moreover, the affected residents and businesses were not given the option to “stay” in the URA’s plans. In Wanchai, community movements broke out at two affected neighbourhoods. Both community movements mobilized the discourses of heritage preservation.  The Lee Tung Street community movement started in 2004 was the pioneer. Their demand was that the owner-occupiers to use their “property ownership” to “participate” in the urban renewal process and to exchange for a flat or a shop respectively in the original site, or at least a nearby site (H16), after the urban renewal  (Huang 2015). They also called for the preservation of the built heritage, the “local characteristics”, namely the famous wedding-card printing shops and related industries that clustered in the street, and the “social network”. They proposed an alternative “Dumbbell Proposal”, which involved both the elements of heritage preservation and the protection of existing social networks (Huang 2015). The community movement of the Blue House cluster nearby was also a targeted urban renewal project of the URA. In original plan, the tong laus would be partially preserved and the converted to tourist spot, but the residents and businesses would be evicted. It was accused as a “fake” conservation. The community movement, on the other hand, came up with a counter-proposal of “living heritage preservation” that could “keep both the houses and the people”. In their counter-proposal, those residents who wanted to move out were to be resettled in public housings that they wanted, while those who wanted to stay were given the right to move back after the renovation. The remaining units were to be designed for community and cultural uses (Huang 2015; Chen and Szeto 2015). The result of the two community movements were different. Lee Tung Street was demolished in 2007, and luxury resident tower is now built at the site. After the huge protests and outcries of the society resulted in the demolition of the city’s important landmarks and neighbourhoods, the government later withdrew the Blue House Cluster as a URA project. The community movement also secured the role as the partner in the government’s “Revitalizing Historic Buildings through Partnership Scheme” to implement their alternative plan.

The mobilization of heritage discourses in these community movements were criticized for their failure to address the problem for “spectacularizing” the neighbourhood, failing to address and criticize the capitalist logic of urban renewal, and producing a gentrified, middle-class “cultural Wanchai”. However, I believe that the affected communities’ tactics needed to be contextualized. In the highly-commercialized society of Hong Kong, land has long been treated as commodity, and old buildings, like in many parts of Asia, are regarded as “devalued”. In the mainstream media’s narrative, the URA was often depicted as a “considerate” and “reasonable” organization willing to negotiate, which carried out redevelopment projects beneficial to the society. On the other hand, those affected residents and businesses refuse to leave were depicted as being merely selfish, greedy and wanting more “compensation”. The complexity in the conflict was reduced into an issue of money, and the reason behind why the amount was insufficient was often omitted. In such a context, regardless how reasonable the claim to be, pursuing any arguments involving the issue of “compensation” or rate of acquisition would be ignored or counter-productive. In contrast, the mobilization of “non-materialistic” discourses usher in a paradigm shift that the demands of the affected communities cannot be reduced to the question of “compensation”, just as their story cannot be reduced to the “greedy-ones-want-more” narrative (Huang 2015). The discourses of heritage preservation was chosen as a tactic partly because the URA opened this room in their guiding Urban Renewal Strategy. Accordingly, the “main objectives” of the urban renewal include the preservation of “buildings, sites and structures of historical, cultural or architectural interest”, “as far as practical local characteristics”, and “the social networks of the local community” (Planning and Lands Bureau 2001). This gave the room for affected communities to put in their definition of these key terms and urged for their demands.

The significance on community movements’ mobilization of heritage preservation discourses also goes beyond the geographical boundaries of the neighbourhoods. In the neoliberalizing city, capital accumulation by “recycling” urban spaces operate best in the absence of place-based identities because attachment to place can provide the basis for a strong resistance to the uprooting and demolition of urban landmarks.  As a shared and “common” notion, cultural heritage provides an alternative through which one’s relationship with a place can be addressed beyond, if not irreducible to, the terms of “property” and exchange value. A major criticism of the mobilization of the discourses of heritage preservation in the community movement is that such tactic is a compromise and does not address the capitalist logic in urban renewal. Yet, paradoxically, it is through bypassing the more direct political-economic side, and bypassing the language of distribution, that makes the critique of, and offering the alternative beyond, the property regime possible, which is rooted in the colonial practices. Cultural heritage can be used to address the right to city, including the right to planning, because they are also not defined purely in terms of “private property” and exchange value. The mobilization of heritage preservation in community movements, in this sense, actually decolonizes the concept of land, and provides space for imagining a new urban common. Similar to many other urban social movements, such tactics may not be always successful. They may face many challenges not necessarily from within. Yet, it is through these spaces for desiring a better future, and “spaces of hope” (Harvey 2000) are created, no matter how small it may be.

* The article is a summary of the author’s presentation “Decolonizing the Land, Imagining a New Urban Common: Heritage Preservation as/and Community Movement in Hong Kong” at ARI’s cluster seminar on 24 Nov 2016.

Bibliography

Chen, Yun-chung, and Mirana May Szeto. 2015. “The Forgotten Road of Progressive Localism: New Preservation Movement in Hong Kong.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 16 (3): 436–53. doi:10.1080/14649373.2015.1071694.

Harvey, David. 2000. Spaces of Hope. University of California Press.

Huang, Shu-Mei. 2015. Urbanizing Carescapes of Hong Kong : Two Systems, One City. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

Planning and Lands Bureau. 2001. Urban Renewal Strategy, Hong Kong.

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