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Translocal cities: On the hidden contributions of Bremen to the making of Singapore

This is a guest post by Julia Lossau,  Professor of Human Geography at the University of Bremen in Germany. In March 2018, Julia spent four weeks as a visiting academic at ARI’s Asian Urbanism Cluster. If you are interested in learning more about Bremen and how the city relates to Singapore, you are welcome to contact Julia by  email .

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Bremen is a port city located in the North of Germany, with a population of around 566,000. Compared to Berlin, Munich, or Stuttgart, Bremen is relatively unknown outside of Germany. Few Singaporeans will have heard of Bremen – perhaps with the exceptions of football lovers familiar with Bundesliga’s Werder Bremen, and of fairy tale lovers familiar with the Grimm Brothers’ Town Musicians. This void is more than understandable given the Bremen’s distance from, and seeming insignificance for, everyday life in contemporary Singapore. But in reality, Bremen has a tradition of global exchange connecting it to this Southeast Asian city in many ways. Bremen’s port played a significant role in the globalisation process during the nineteenth century, with the city’s merchants and trading houses operating profitable ventures within the expanding network of intercontinental relations at the time.

Against such a background, this post aims at uncovering some of the imprints that Bremish engagement has left, and continues to leave, on the making of Singapore as a cultural and economic hub in Southeast Asia. In so doing, both Bremen and Singapore are conceptualized as translocal cities, i.e. as places whose history, present and future are defined by and through relations to other places, cities, and regions. In order to understand how Singapore’s development from a former colony to a global city is influenced by relations rather unlikely at first sight, it sheds exemplary light on the economic activities of two firms headquartered in Bremen: shipping company Norddeutscher Lloyd (NDL) and trading company C. Melchers GmbH & Co. KG (Melchers).

Founded by Hermann Heinrich Meier and Eduard Crüsemann in Bremen in 1857, the NDL developed into the world’s second largest steam ship company in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. While the NDL’s initial focus was on transatlantic routes, not least in the context of German mass emigration to the US, the company secured the commission to operate the Imperial Mail Steamer Services in 1885 between the German Empire, East Asia, and Australia. The presence of the NDL threatened the British shipping companies who ‘found it difficult to compete with German shipping’ in the Far East (Khoo 2006, 66).

In an essay on ‘How Germany made Malaya British’, Kennedy Gordon Tregonning (1964, 185) vividly depicts the dominance of German over British shipping in the light of what he reads as ‘a general German penetration of the Far East and South-East Asian and Pacific areas’. By 1900, according to Tregonning, the ‘German shipping firm of German Llyod [sic] had eliminated the British Holts Shipping Co. from the Bangkok-Singapore trade. It had eliminated the old established Butterfield and Swire from the Hong Kong and Swatow-Bangkok trade, and had taken complete control of the Singapore-Borneo trade’ (Tregonning 1964, 185).

While it would be interesting to further elaborate on the geopolitical dimensions of Imperial Germany’s trade and shipping endeavors prior to WWI, I would like to highlight a different aspect of Tregonning’s account. In his depiction of the NDL as the ‘German shipping firm of German Llyod’ [emphasis JL], Bremen is rendered invisible and subsumed under the discursive umbrella of Germany on a national level. It can be argued that such a subsumption is quite symptomatic. In addition, it prevents insight into how the expansion – and the later decline – of the NDL was made possible and experienced ‘on the ground’ in Bremen. What is further made invisible is how Bremen contributed to the making of Singapore in economic terms by adding to the significance of Singapore ‘as one of the most important emporia of the world trade’ (Lindemann 1892, 411; transl. JL).

For Singapore, however, being related to – and being affected by – Bremen is not a thing of the past. In order to shed light on more recent entanglements, the remainder of this post focuses on C. Melchers GmbH & Co KG (Melchers). Melchers was founded in 1806 in Bremen, where it is headquartered up until today, as a trading house and shipping company. In 1954, Melchers established a branch office in Singapore. On the company’s website, Melchers Singapore is described as ‘a service-oriented company that exists to identify, source and supply quality products and services to selected market segments’ . In the early 1970s, the branch was instrumental in bringing Rollei, the (then) Braunschweig based manufacturer of optical instruments, to Singapore. According to Singapore’s Economic Development Board, ‘Rollei did more than just bring German production excellence to Singapore. Through its factories and the Rollei-Government Training Centre, Rollei had also helped to train about 5,000 Singaporeans in precision engineering skills, many of whom went on to join new SMEs or started their own companies‘ (Economic Development Board 2015, Annex A).

More recently, Melchers was instrumental in conceiving and developing the Singapore Flyer, which represents, according to Singapore’s Tourism Board (2018), one of Singapore’s ‘most iconic landmarks’:

‘Launched in 2008, the wheel is a favourite tourist attraction due to its vantage point offering stunning panoramic views of Marina Bay and the city. Over the years, the Singapore Flyer has also become a significant feature in the backdrop of the FORMULA ONE Singapore Grand Prix Marina Bay Street Circuit’ (Singapore Tourism Board 2018, n.d.).

Despite their limited success in financial terms, both Rollei and the Flyer mark important moments in Singapore’s development. While it can be argued that Rollei has been crucial in the making of Singapore as an industrial city with high-skilled employment, the Flyer is prominent in the making of Singapore as a spectacular global destination. What remains hidden, in both cases, is their relation to Bremen, a small Hanseatic city in the North of Germany.

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References:

Economic Development Board (2015): Transforming Landscapes, Improving Lives. EDB presents exhibition to chart 50 years of economic development in Singapore. www.edb.gov.sg/content/dam/edb/en/news%20and%20events/News/2011/Downloads/edb-exhibition-press-release.pdf (accessed May 1, 2018).

Khoo, Salma Nasution (2006): More than merchants. A History of the Germany-Speaking Community in Penang, 1800s-1940s. Penang: Areca Books.

Lindeman, Moritz (1892): Der Norddeutsche Lloyd – Geschichte und Handbuch. Bremen: Schünemann.

Singapore Tourism Board (2018): Singapore’s most iconic landmarks. www.visitsingapore.com/en_my/editorials/singapore-most-iconic-landmarks/ (accessed May 1, 2018).

Tregonning, Kennedy Gordon (1964): How Germany made Malaya British. In: Asian Studies 2, 2, 180-187.

Conference Presentation: 2017 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting

Earlier this month, AUC member Sonia Lam-Knott presented a paper titled ‘Nostalgic Spectacles: Material Representations of the Past for Popular Consumption in Hong Kong’ at the 2017 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting at Washington DC, USA. The paper, referencing existing scholarship that explores the centrality of images in processes of knowledge-production across societies, examines how historical narratives can be conveyed through spectacles produced from the built urban environment.

Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Hong Kong, the paper outlines the two different portrayals of the city’s past that are currently being advocated by the  government and by grassroots actors; with the former focussing on establishing a nationalistic discourse to situate Hong Kong as being a ‘Chinese city’, and the latter emphasising ‘local’ history to assert the city’s distinctiveness from the rest of the Chinese nation.  How such divergent approaches of Hong Kong’s past are expressed in material means are reviewed through an in-depth examination of two structures in the city, these being the Hong Kong Heritage Museum in Shatin managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department branch of the government, and the Hong Kong House of Stories in Wan Chai (please see a previous post by Dr. Desmond Sham for a detailed introduction to the heritage contestations surrounding this neighbourhood) that is managed by a non-governmental social enterprise known as St. John’s Settlement in collaboration with volunteers.

The Heritage Museum and the House of Stories are each rendered in a physical form that projects a specific image of the past to the public gaze. Whereas the museum building borrows from traditional Chinese architectural styles derived from the ancient imperial/dynastic eras of China, the House of Stories retains its tong lau (shophouses that are often a product of syncretic cultural exchange during the colonial era) facade and assumes a 19th/20th century domestic aesthetic. But asides from analysing the exterior appearences and internal layouts of both spaces, the paper is also interested in how these spaces are being experienced by those exposed to them, and thus reviews the degree of affective attachments being espoused by the vernacular domain towards each of these sites. Based on fieldwork data, it was found that informants deem the appearence of the House of Stories to be more ‘familiar’, and consider the historical narrative being celebrated at this space as being ‘temporally closer’ and more relevent, to their personal memories (or ‘postmemories’) of the past. What the paper hopes to show is that emergent national-versus-local identitarian debates (exacerbated with the recent rise of localist sentiments in politics), in combination with the way in which different historical narratives are being presented through material-visual means, influences how everyday citizens in contemporary Hong Kong feel and relate to narratives of the past.

EDIT: this paper can now be found under the ARI working paper series.

Hillslope Development in Penang: Sustainability or Unviability?

In this post, I write about my ongoing research on urban redevelopment in Penang, Malaysia, and in particular, about recent severe flooding and landslide events that are increasing in frequency and intensity.

November 4th 2017 flood in Penang

Historic cities within Asia’s rapidly developing and urbanising regions tend to sit at an ‘uneasy crossroads’ between heritage conservation and newer (re)development projects. In these places, understandings of landscape and how it should be used become increasingly tangible and contested. The mid-sized city of Penang, Malaysia is one key site where this is playing out at the moment, given recent flooding and landslide events that have been increasing in both severity and intensity. In October 2016 there were severe floods (the largest since the 1990s) during the Deepavali holiday season which caused significant damage and disruption. There have already been two major floods this year, one on September 15th and another on November 4th, the latter of which claimed the lives of seven, primarily elderly and other at-risk people. Moreover, there was a landslide at a hillside construction site in the Tanjung Bungah area on October 21 this year which killed 11 workers. This has been attributed to high density residential developments on hill land in Penang, which has intensified due to the lack of developable land around the city center and housing shortages. Local civil society groups have thus become increasingly vocal in protesting this ongoing development, and stressing the dangers of building high-density residential units on the islands forested hillsides.

Hillside development in Tanjung Bungah, Penang.

In his (2016) book The Sustainability Shift Malaysian scholar Adnan Hezri has noted that civil society movements in Malaysia often emerge over controversial land use decisions, or, in other words, because the environmental imaginaries of their members are at odds with official conceptions of what sort of development is best for a particular place. Indeed, there seems to be an impasse between the government and civil society in Penang at the moment, which continue to have differing views on the causes of and recommended solutions to these events. For example, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has recently reiterated that Penang’s floods are “natural disasters” and not caused by development. On the other hand, civil society groups, backed by local academics, argue that the floods are a result of both climate change and unscrupulous development projects on Penang island. Though, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak recently commented that the Penang State Government should: “avoid developments that could negatively impact the environment”, indicating tensions within the Malaysian Government.

There are also differences between the level of environmental protection within both Federal and State Government policies. For example, Penang island has clearly demarcated forest reserves (6% of the island’s total land area), and the Penang Structure Plan (PSP) disallows development on slopes steeper than a 25% gradient and/or on land higher than 75 meters (an additional 1.5% of total land area). This is stricter than national guidelines for hill land development, demonstrating that Penang does actually have strong environmental protection measures in place. However, this restriction excludes ‘special projects’ which may be permitted by the State Government if they are low density developments and have strong mitigation measures in place to protect the integrity of the slopes. This exemption has been frequently invoked, resulting in an increase in both the extensive and intensive nature of hillside development in Penang. Penang civil society members have thus argued that this exemption should be revoked, apart from necessary public works, given that it has been over-used.

Many observers have thus stressed the fragility (and ecological importance) of Penang’s natural ecosystems, and the increasing encroachment of human activity. For example, between 2008 and 2015, the municipal council (MBPP) granted 56 approvals on land above 250 ft, many of which are high-rise, high-density projects. There was also a geometric rise in illegal hill clearing cases from 2012-2015. This is despite a declaration from the State Government in 2009, reported in the New Straits Times (February 17) that they would not approve any more hill-land development projects in the Tanjung Bungah area of Penang.

However, much of this land is not gazetted and hence no local plan to regulate its use. This creates considerable ambiguity over what type of development is permissible on Penang’s hillsides and allows for developers to exploit loopholes in existing policies. Land is also privately owned, which is problematic because it is more difficult for the government to monitor and protect hill land on a continuous basis, and there is strong incentive for land owners to develop land in their possession. As Gwynn Jenkins (2008:23) has observed, there seems to be “little comprehension of the possible implications of mismanagement or the consequences of ‘redefining’ the planning laws” amongst officials in Penang. There also seems to be little understanding of the amplifying effect of deforestation and urban development on the impact of flooding events.

Residents living near the hillsides – and environmentally conscious citizens of Penang – thus feel that development is getting ‘uncomfortably close’ (Kam, 2016). Indeed, a recent study by Masum et al (2017) found that the current rate of deforestation Penang is 1.4% per annum, which is the highest in Southeast Asia. The paper also identifies the direction of development on the island based on recent trends, which is extending further into Penang’s protected forest reserve area from all sides (see below image). Masum et al thus call for an immediate ban on hill land development in Penang to ensure overall environmental safety, which has been echoed by local civil society members. Given that Penang was originally entirely forested in early 19th century, NGOs such as the Consumer’s Association of Penang (CAP) have thus expressed concern over the rate that trees are being sacrificed for development.

As Hezri has also argued, the focus on socio-economic development in Malaysia’s Vision 2020 initiative (to reach status of a ‘fully developed’ nation by 2020) has resulted in many Malaysian’s becoming detached from the natural environment. This tension between conservation and development plays out in all rapidly developing cities, with the financial incentive to develop usually winning over conservation needs, given that they are perceived to have less tangible value. Moreover, tangible cultural heritage in George Town has taken priority over other forms of heritage elsewhere on the island, which is partly to do with the city’s designation as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site and the conservation of its associated heritage buildings. Indeed, Penang’s natural heritage is now rapidly disappearing, while its historic town center has been (at least on the surface) preserved.

The increasing recognition amongst Penangites of their dependencies upon the wider biophysical environment has thus been central to the process of cultivating a collective response to the harms of Penang’s intensifying development. However, this recognition is one that will need to spread throughout the Penang society more broadly in order for change to occur, and may even need to take the form of ousting the current state government, as has resulted following previous environmental movements in the state. Without such resistance, Penang will continue to be impacted in compounding ways by the unregulated interventions into nature that are currently increasing in both frequency and severity.

Creighton Connolly, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore

 

Territorial Transformation and Land Reclamation in Singapore

Land reclamation is a hot topic in Singapore and Malaysia these days.  As a recent New York Times article observed, “land is Singapore’s most cherished resource” and land reclamation has been a chief component of the island archipelago’s development since the 19th century. Even just since its founding independent nation 52 years ago, Singapore has grown in size by almost a quarter: from 224 square miles to 277. By 2030, the government wants Singapore to measure nearly 300 square miles. This is partially related to Singapore’s ambitious targets for population growth and economic development (iconic landmarks such as the Esplanade, Marina Bay Sands, and even the Merlion are all built on reclaimed land). It is also premised in founding Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew’s vision for Singapore, which was in part based on a struggle against its small size.

This is a topic that was covered by Canadian geographer Rodolphe De Koninck in his recent book Singapore’s Permanent Territorial Revolution: Fifty Years in Fifty Maps, published by NUS Press. 

Rodolphe De Koninck’s book launch at ARI for ‘Singapore’s Permanent Territorial Revolution: 50 years in 50 maps’

De Koninck shared the decades of research that went into his book at a recent book launch at the Asia Research Institute on May 29th. The launch attracted an overwhelming audience – which left standing room only in our Seminar Room – consisting of local artists, students, heritage advocates, and established local academics from NUS and beyond. During his talk, Professor De Koninck debunked several myths underpinning the logic of land reclamation —such as that of land scarcity—and raised keen observations surrounding changes in the territoriality and topography of Singapore, such as the intentional softening of urban development through the provision of greenspace, in the form of parks and green dividers between roads. Given the controversial nature of some of De Konick’s arguments, there was a somewhat heated Q&A session where he and members of the audience exchanged views on topics including the alienation of Singaporean heritage and identity through landscape transformation.

But land reclamation is increasingly attracting concern from residents, activists and scientists. This is in part due to the increased scale of land reclamation, enabled through technological advances, and the vulnerabilities that this creates. This is combined with increasing awareness of the dangers associated with global climate change and anticipated sea level rise over the next century.  There are also the grave socio-environmental consequences associated with sand mining, which is taking place in rural areas across the tropical world to feed the urban development appetite of mega cities like Singapore. This is a phenomena that a recent article in The Guardian atly described as the “global environmental crisis you’ve probably never heard of, and is the topic of our Senior Research Fellow Michelle Miller‘s current research on Indonesia. In the past, Singapore’s modest land reclamation projects (like Boat Quay) were completed using dirt and rock from extinct hills, like Ann Siang Hill which used to mark the western urban boundary of Singapore. Singapore still continues this practice through the reuse of material that is excavated during the construction of MRT (subway) tunnels, which is stored in a heavily protected and fortified reserve near the Eastern neighborhood of Bedok. But this still isn’t sufficient for Singapore’s land reclamation projects, so sand is imported from increasingly distant places, as neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia have stopped exporting sand to the island-city (for political and environmental reasons).

Singapore’s strategic sand reserve for land reclamation near Bedok. Photo from Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times

But environmental concerns are not the only consequences of Singapore’s extensive land reclamation and territorial metamorphosis. The constant ‘freeing up of land’ in Singapore for development purposes, has, as De Koninck noted in his talk, resulted in the destruction, of culturally sacred spaces, which is premised upon a cultural foundation whereby “nothing is sacred, nothing is permanent, nothing is culturally untouchable”. This was also touched upon in the aforementioned New York Times article, which noted that Singapore’s approach to development can make it seem as though the relocation of its people — “the living as well as the dead — can seem like pieces on a checkerboard”. Indeed, this is a controversy that has been ongoing over the past several years with the planned highway that will bisect one of the last remaining Chinese cemeteries – Bukit Brown – in the central part of the island, which will result in the exhuming of graves. This is a topic that our own Huang Jianli and Kenneth Dean have worked on, in the wake of significant civil society activism to preserve the site. Unfortunately, given the nature of a recent grant that was awarded to Prof Dean, it seems that Singapore’s strategy will be of documenting – rather than preserving – the graves.

In closing, it should be noted that land reclamation is not only a problem specific to Singapore. Indeed, each time I cross the causeway from Singapore to Malaysia, Johor Bahru and the new Iskandar Malaysia project seems to get closer. My current research in Penang, Malaysia partially concerns the ambitious land reclamation projects that are currently being launched by the State government in order to finance the extremely capital intensive Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). As in Singapore, there has also been talk in Hong Kong of creating floating islands in the sea to support their urban and territorial expansion. This is a topic which Andrew Toland has discussed in his book chapter ‘Hong Kong’s Artificial Anti-Archipelago and the Unnaturing of the Natural’, featured in the recent edited volume ‘Places of Nature in Ecologies of Urbanism’, published by Hong Kong University Press. While cities have always had a hate-love relationship with nature, such works bring urgent attention to the increasing artificiality and alienation of our cities from the natural environment. This is thus a critical issue that  deserves the attention of critical urban scholars, not only in Asia-Pacific, but around the world.

CALL FOR PAPERS | Climate Disaster Governance

CALL FOR PAPERS DEADLINE: 15 MAY 2017

This conference is organized by Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore; with support from Singapore Ministry of Education Tier 2 Grant – Governing Compound Disasters in Urbanizing Asia.

In Anthropocene Asia-Pacific, climate change is driving changes to the nature and scale of environmental disasters (especially floods, droughts and heatwaves) that combine and interact with processes of planetary urbanization. Taken together, these converging forces pose fundamental questions about human settlement and the health of our planet. The effects of climate change are already well known. The year 2016 saw the highest temperatures for a third consecutive year since 1880. Global sea ice is at its lowest level since satellite monitoring began in the 1970s, and recent research suggests that predicted sea-level rises will be higher than previously estimated. The Himalayan glaciers that provide water for most of the great rivers of continental Asia are drastically retreating. Crop zones are shifting, destabilising food production and livelihoods; and areas of prolonged droughts and water shortages are expanding.  Current predictions strongly suggest that the situation is worsening rapidly. The continued melting of polar glaciers and rising sea levels will result in the complete inundation of many islands and large lowland coastal regions, for example. This will affect hundreds of millions in population. The projected loss will also produce compound disasters across continental Asia with devastating impacts on livelihoods and health.

As the basic facets of human life, including livelihoods, food security, urban infrastructure, and health are more frequently and deeply impacted by climate change, disaster risk governance will face increasingly tough, interconnected, multi-dimensional challenges. One is the merging of conflict disasters with environmental disasters over, for example, water and food.  Populations facing disasters of these kinds will increasingly migrate across national borders as home regions become unliveable through combinations of loss of basic life supporting resources and conflict over them. With refugee flows across borders expected to exponentially increase with the intensifying impacts of climate change, national governments will also increasingly default to migrant receiving cities to cope with climate change refugees. This puts pressure on existing resources, worsens urban tensions and puts stress on infrastructure. The increasingly joined-up nature of climate change related disasters demand joined up responses as a matter of urgency. Solutions need to run across the board and take account of connectivities in cause, impact, and experience.

The rapidly changing contexts for research and action suggested by the trends noted above provide the basis for building a research agenda specific to climate change-induced disaster governance in the Anthropocene and the necessity of learning from the past as well as from the present in thinking about cultural adaption and strategies for coping with climate change in the coming years.

We invite papers on the following themes, as they connect with hydrometeorological/climatological disaster:

  • Climate-related population mobilities
  • Urban ecosystems
  • Water and food
  • Governing climate and social conflict
  • Health
  • Cultures of adaption: past and present

SUBMISSION OF PROPOSALS

Paper proposals should include a title, an abstract (250 words maximum) and a brief personal biography of 150 words for submission by 15 May 2017. Please submit your proposal, using the provided proposal template to Ms Tay Minghua at minghua.tay@nus.edu.sg. Successful applicants will be notified by 15 June 2017 and will be required to send in a draft paper by 1 September 2017.
CONTACT DETAILS

Conference Convenors

Dr Fiona Williamson
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
E | ariwfc@nus.edu.sg

Dr Michelle Miller
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
E | arimam@nus.edu.sg

Prof Michael Douglass
Asia Research Institute, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore
E | arimike@nus.edu.sg

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.