September 13th, 2009

Liberating Hong Kong’s Times Square

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Daydream Nation, Letter to Paul

Times are a-changin’ and so are the squares. This summer in New York, cars were banned from Broadway between 47th Street and 42nd Street, making Times Square a true gathering place rather than a glorified intersection. Here in Hong Kong, the plaza in front of the Times Square shopping mall has found a new vocation as the city’s go-to spot for anyone wanting to make a public statement.

Today, the South China Morning Post reported that, over the past year, Times Square has played host to 155 public activities “without prior application to the police or mall management,” including arts interventions, protests and street performance. Normally, any activity staged without permission in the Times Square plaza would be shut down by the mall’s management, but last year it was revealed that the plaza is actually public space, a legal detail that had somehow been overlooked since 1992, when the mall was built. Now a kind of power vacuum has been created: Times Square is legally obligated to maintain the plaza, but it can’t restrict public activities in it, so it has simply stepped back and let people do what they want.

The result is that Times Square, one of the most intensely commercial parts of Hong Kong, is now one of its most dynamic and democratic spaces. 75 singing, dancing, magic and drama shows have been held in the square; in June alone, 22 assemblies marked the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Yesterday, a group called Slow Development Hong Kong staged a protest in support of villagers from Choi Yuen Tsuen, which faces destruction from a high-speed rail link that will be built between Kowloon and Guangzhou; passers-by were encouraged to lend their hand to a mock vegetable farm built on the square.

In July, I attended the launch party for “Letter to Paul,” the new fall/winter line by Kay and Jing Wong, the brother-and-sister duo behind the theatre-inspired fashion label Daydream Nation. They dedicated the collection to their late father and the party was held on the anniversary of his death; as they do every year, Jing and Kay planned to burn a letter to him. This year, though, they opted for a public approach, so Jing — who is also a musician, recently signed to the independent People Mountain People Sea label — led a procession through the streets of Causeway Bay to the area’s most obvious gathering spot, Times Square.

Along the way, the procession picked up a few curious onlookers, so that by the time it reached Times Square it consisted of a fairly sizable crowd. I was fairly certain that security would intervene, but as Jing sounded a few mournful notes on his trumpet and Kay set each page of the letter alight, nothing happened. The paper vanished in bright, ghostly bursts. We stood in silence for a few minutes, bathed in the artificial daylight of video screens and billboards, and then left.

Times Square piazza a real people’s forum
Fanny W.Y. Fung and Amy Nip
South China Morning Post, Sep 13, 2009

The piazza of Times Square shopping centre in Causeway Bay has emerged as one of the most popular venues for street performers, politicians and activists seeking publicity since it was revealed to be public space in a row last year.

But while activists have embraced the piazza, the mall management says it faces a dilemma.

It says it is difficult to maintain order with so many activities taking place without prior warning.

Since June last year the piazza has hosted 155 public activities without prior application to the police or mall management. The number peaked this June, with 22 assemblies marking the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

The most frequent visitor is an acrobat displaying a piece of cloth with the slogan “Times Square pays back the money” while doing his show. Seventy-five singing, dancing, magic and drama shows have been among the colourful events held in the square.

Political and activist groups have used the space for 23 activities – protesting, electioneering, publicity seeking and fund-raising.

Yesterday, Slow Development Hong Kong organised 12 performing groups for a concert against the construction of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou Express Rail Link.

With the Lane Crawford department store in the background, farmers from Choi Yuen Tsuen sang out in a plea to preserve their homes.

The protest included passers-by showing their support by placing vegetables on a mock-up of village farmland.

(…)

Student Frederick Fan Cheung-fung joined a hunger protest over the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in the piazza in June.

“A lot of people pass by there when going to and from work, so the effect was even better than we expected,” he said. “Many stopped and joined us, with some observing silence for those who died and some putting flowers on the site. We collaborated with other groups that held activities there at the same time. We didn’t obstruct anyone.”

Pressure group Local Action, which advocates the free use of open space, has also held several protests.

“The mall is a commercial place. It is a good place for activist groups to convey their messages to consumers,” member Chu Hoi-dick said.

Meanwhile, the management says it is hard to deal with so many unplanned events.

“We are in a difficult situation. We want some order at Times Square and we also want to balance the interests of different parties,” Times Square general manager Leng Yen Thean said.

A business executive close to The Wharf (Holdings), the owner of Times Square, said the company had called police to report a nuisance but had been told they would not intervene because it was private property. He is worried there could be strife when groups with different political views meet.

The prospect of clashes is high as the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China plans a demonstration in the piazza on National Day, while some Beijing-loyal groups are also considering having celebrations there.

“Police won’t intervene unless hawking activities or crime actually happens,” he said. “We don’t think there is anything we can do. We have been very tolerant and patient. On some occasions we even offered these people water and electricity. We also clean up after, as they always leave a lot of rubbish behind.”


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2 comments

  1. C. Szabla says:

    It certainly looks like a more active, participatory space than the newly-pedestrianized New York Times Square, which many locals think feels inert. Where once the narrow sidewalks forced tourists to waddle at a pace at least approaching New York quick, they now layabout in the cheap beach chairs strewn in the street and gape at the vacuity of the ads. It doesn’t help that the pedestrianization of the square is still considered something of a temporary experiment, and that the cheap chairs are accompanied by giant orange barrel drums to keep the traffic off the reclaimed tarmac.

    September 14th, 2009 at 2:18 pm

  2. Patrick Donovan says:

    What’s it like on New Year’s eve?

    August 7th, 2010 at 8:46 am