In the Neighbourhood

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Buying fruit on Electric Road in North Point

Moving to another city halfway around the world requires a few adjustments. You need to get used to a new language, new scenery, new ways of perceiving and doing things. Some level of homesickness is inevitable. While some overseas Canadians miss Twizzlers and Coffee Crisp, though, what I find myself missing is far less tangible: my neighbourhood. I miss being able to feel part of a community that is rooted in the streets and buildings around me. I miss knowing all of the shortcuts to get where I need to go, seeing familiar characters on the street, knowing the (both mundane and salacious) details about the shopowners on my block.

This kind of neighbourhood life certainly exists in Hong Kong — and in abundance. When I wander around some of the neighbourhoods near the University of Hong Kong, like Sheung Wan or Sai Ying Pun, I get a bit of that Mile End feeling, especially when I’m with someone who lives there and they run into people they know on the street. For the time being, though, I’m stuck in a state of semi-transience, floating between apartments and commuting for endless kilometres by bus, minibus and MTR. I look forward to the day when I can finally settle in a part of Hong Kong that I can get to know from the ground up.

Even then, though, a large part of the Hong Kong experience has to do with anonymity and mobility, two things that don’t lend themselves well to a real neighbourhood feeling. Much of what does exist is either high-priced (as in the expat enclave around the Central-Mid Levels escalator), based on ethnicity (as in the South Asian and African communities in Tsim Sha Tsui, or the Indonesian, Thai and Filipina maids that gather on Sundays) or decidedly old school, revolving around the fading lives of geriatrics. Most of the people you see hanging out in the street or in any given neighbourhood square are ancient, which seems to suggest that younger generations see such activities as being somehow beneath them.

Nobody wants a nosy neighbour, and the ability to pass unnoticed is one of the great pleasures of urban life, but a strong sense of community participation and neighbourhood identity is what lead people to invest themselves in the well-being of their city. Earlier this week, a feature in the South China Morning Post looked at new shops that have become anchors of neighbourhood life. If the SCMP is to be believed, they’re bucking the trend of a city quickly losing a sense of itself.

“The rapid pace of life, frequent home moves and reluctance to infringe on others’ privacy means many people don’t even have a nodding acquaintance with their neighbours, especially in private developments. The elderly still gather at parks and in their local tea shops, but many younger people seem to believe good fences make good neighbours,” writes the SCMP’s Charmaine Carvalho.

Personally, I take heart in the recent movement to protect and promote Hong Kong’s local culture and living heritage, much of which is spearheaded by young people like the artist Karden Chan, who turned heads with her work protesting the demolition of the old Star Ferry pier in Central. All of these people have an urge, it seems, to explore and cherish the things the essential Hongkongness of Hong Kong. It might be a bit self-conscious, but it’s the kind of attitude that lends itself well to a strong sense of place, community and neighbourhood identity.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday September 22 2008at 12:09 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Society and Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “In the Neighbourhood”

  • Karl Leung says:

    It’s so nice to read about your experiences Chris! The idea that “good fences make good neighbours” is such a sad thought. I hope our generation and others learn to eliminate these psychoemotional barriers that keep people from interacting with people. Anyone else heard that song by Bob? “One Love”?