City of Open Secrets

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Mah-jong followed me wherever I went in Hong Kong. Walking down a quiet alley in the neighbourhood of Wan Chai, the distinct sound of tiles being shuffled tumbled down from a second-floor window. Passing by a row of shops in Shek Kip Mei, I spotted a group of middle-aged men and women sitting at the back of a variety store, surrounded by stacks of toilet paper and cleaning supplies. Again, the unmistakable clatter of mah-jong tiles. In mainland Chinese cities, mah-jong is played like a casual spectator sport in public parks and streets, but in Hong Kong, the bright, colourful tiles show up more often in stockrooms or an auntie’s salon. Perhaps this is the case because the island city is so crowded, and privacy is often illusory—or perhaps because of the pre-eminence of people’s working lives. But however hard Hong Kongers work, there is always time for another marathon session of mah-jong.

Hong Kong is a uniquely intense experience, a high-rise metropolis clinging to the edge of a continent, a city of open secrets trapped for a century between two empires. Until 1997, when the territory was handed back to the Chinese government, Hong Kong was a colonial oddity, a Chinese society ruled by the British. Some of the smallest and most unexpected aspects of the city’s quotidian life can suddenly reflect that legacy, such as the way street markets are arranged in nearly identical fashion to London markets, or how a Hong Kong breakfast of choice includes both macaroni noodle soup and a beverage called milk tea: black Ceylon tea, strained through silk stock-ings, blended with thick evaporated milk.

Every inch of Hong Kong is seething with life. For lack of space, restaurant kitchens spill out into back alleys and onto sidewalks. It’s not unusual to find someone washing pig’s intestines by the side of the road. Particular specialities tend to cluster near one another, so that singular musky odours come to define entire neighbourhoods. Sheung Wan is a lovely district that smells like dried shrimp. Other neighbourhoods, like To Kwa Wan, reek of motor oil and grease, thanks to the auto body shops that seem to occupy every other storefront. In every part of town, laundry hangs from apartment windows, revealing the colour preferences of the city’s undergarments (conservative white).

Despite its liveliness, the city is often accused—usually by transplanted Westerners—of being a “cultural wasteland.” When he left his post last March, the outgoing British consul-general warned Hong Kong that if the city did not recognize the importance of becoming a cultural, artistic and intellectual hub, it would never measure up to, say, New York or London. But even if its museums are somewhat provincial and its art scene is overlooked, Hong Kong is hardly devoid of culture.

Culture, like mah-jong, is everywhere here. Small things matter: the real story of a place’s identity can be found in everyday life and the stuff it leaves behind. In Montreal, for example, the city’s story is told through the language of street signs, old advertisements and outdoor staircases; in the florid tile mosaics of Christ or a Catholic saint that Portuguese families affix to the entrance of their apartments. (Do secular or Muslim families, moving in, remove the tiles?) Urban layering is what makes a city like Hong Kong (or Montreal) so fascinating. Individually, all of these pieces of cultural detritus can seem inconsequential, but considered as a whole they tell us who we are and how we live. They are our living heritage.

Hong Kong is relentlessly forward-thinking, but even there, “living heritage” and “collective memory” have become more than just concepts; they’re now catch-phrases repeated by bloggers, newspaper editorialists and ordinary people concerned about the loss of the city’s traditional urban fabric. The clatter of mah-jong tiles, the calls of the market vendor, the rusted metal of tin mailboxes—typical Hong Kong objects and experiences—are increasingly recognized as essential parts of the Hong Kong identity.

The concept of “living heritage” is far from new, but it is still not widely understood. “Heritage is anything that carries memories,” said Dinu Bumbaru, policy director of Heritage Montreal, on a sunny morning this spring, shortly after I returned from my trip to Hong Kong. “We tend to look at buildings and then very quickly turn technical. We forget there is the know-how of the artisans, the story of the families who lived there and so on.” Vital, often intangible, heritage exists in the present, not as part of some nostalgic past.

Pressure to develop—in other words, to make the urban landscape more profitable—throws Hong Kong into a constant state of flux. Massive housing estates and new office towers rise in dense, older neighbourhoods. The waterfront is constantly expanding through landfill, a process that began in the late nineteenth century and has not let up since. For the past century, as Hong Kongers have focused their energy on climbing the socio-economic ladder, entire neighbourhoods have been reshaped and rebuilt around them.

But things have changed here. Suddenly, and without much precedent, the destruction or attempted destruction of several well-known streets and landmarks has inspired cries of protest. The places threatened with demolition are unlikely poster buildings for such a public outcry: a street in Wan Chai known for its wedding card shops; a seedy red light district on Portland Street in Mongkok. And most recently, a plan to wipe out the oldest street market in Central.

However, it was the ultimately successful destruction last year of the Star Ferry terminal and the adjacent Queen’s Pier that really brought the issue of Hong Kong’s living heritage into the mainstream. Last summer, dozens of protesters occupied the Queen’s Pier; several of them staged a hunger strike. When they were finally evicted by court order, the pier had become a palimpsest of popular memory, festooned with banners, posters, drawings and photographs.

From the rubble of terminal and pier—bulldozed to make way for a new highway and reclaimed land—a lively protest movement was born. Built in 1957, the quietly elegant Star Ferry terminal—squat, whitewashed and capped by a boxy clock tower—was no architectural marvel. The Queen’s Pier was equally nondistinct. What outraged so many people about their fate, however, was not the demolition, but the erasure of the layers of memory and meaning the buildings had accumulated through years and generations on residents. Driving the protests to save the buildings was a newly coalesced collective memory: a sense of the value of the past.

Heritage seems inextricably—inevitably—linked with preservation, but how do you preserve the living things that give heritage its relevance? A building can be preserved, like a pig’s head in formaldehyde, but its transitory occupants cannot. Perhaps the best way to preserve cities is to document them. In typical Hong Kong fashion, local chain Goods of Desire (also known by its humble acronym, G.O.D.) has monetized inhabitants’ appreciation for their city by selling pieces of it: messenger bags decorated with photos of traditional apartments, notebooks covered in old newspaper classifieds, and more. (In Montreal, when the old Forum was gutted, seats from the hockey Mecca were sold off for hundreds of dollars apiece. Living heritage can take creative new forms like this, when the importance of a place is recognized and not ignored.)

Finding the source of cities’ distinctive natures is one reason I transplanted myself across the Pacific this summer to make Hong Kong my new home. I’ve spent years doing this in Montreal, and now I want to find out what makes Hong Kong Hong Kong. But you don’t have to be in Hong Kong to discover something ordinary yet overlooked. Living heritage is where you are. My advice to readers: just wander around wherever you live with an alert eye. It is the best way to experience the fleeting details of a place’s cultural life. If you listen carefully, you can hear—so to speak—the distinctive clatter of mah-jong.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2008 edition of Maisonneuve magazine.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Friday October 03 2008at 12:10 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “City of Open Secrets”

  • Matt Muma says:

    Curiously, the most vehement expounder on the ‘Hong Kong is a cultural desert’ theory I knew while in HK was a girl from Beijing; having lived in HK for I believe two years prior to my arrival, she was still refusing to speak even a word of Cantonese–it made having lunch with her on campus somewhat tense, since she habitually offended the waiters.

    An interesting novel that touched on some of these themes was, in French translation ‘les lumieres de Hong Kong”–by Wang Anyi. I found a copy (by complete accident, I bought it on a whim) at the french language bookstore in Central, which was an interesting place to wander into…have you checked it out?