Saturday, 5 September 2009

Time to Appreciate, Not Destroy

When I read news reports that the Urban Renewal Authority would invest HK$100 million to "revitalise" five streets in Mong Kok, arguably the most dynamic and energetic area in Hong Kong, I couldn't help wondering again what kind of species those working in the URA, or, any government agency in Hong Kong are. They seem to have come from another planet and their minds are so incomprehensible and annoyingly stubborn.

The narrow streets and small business circles in Mong Kok known for selling birds, fish and sportswear are achievements of organic growth and natural selection. The everyday life in those areas is so real and interesting that any artificial touch-up would seem unnecessary, if redundant at all. Entrepreneurs do not need any government support or intervention as long as there is a solid framework of legal and regulatory compliance. People should be allowed the greatest extent of freedom and flexibility to do whatever they want within the legal framework. Too much intervention from the authorities, as we have seen in the relocation of the Birds Street, which was forced to give way to the construction of the mammoth called Langham Place, was nothing more than the ruthless persecution of local culture – confusing, hybrid and difficult to generalise as it may seem, it is the essential characteristic of Hong Kong.

Look at the conceptual design presented on the URA web site, and you will find the so-called revitalisation can only serve to destroy the unique and indigenous but eroding character of Mong Kok. Why would the extravagant decorations of the undersea be effective in attracting people and tourists? Most people come to the area to enjoy the visual and behavioural experience provided by individual shops with distinctive characters of their own, not the lousy banners and signage. The only way to enhance the experience may be cleaning up the streets more frequently, making it more easily accessible by public transport, and promoting the colourful and local experience as something no visitor should miss when they stay in Hong Kong. But this requires the concerted effort of various government departments rather than the initiative of any single organisation. Unfortunately, as we have seen the past years, coordination seems to be the weakest link of the Hong Kong Government and it would take them forever to achieve anything.

If anyone at the URA bothers to listen, I would suggest that they withdraw this well-intended programme and focus on what they are meant to do. Better still, they should at least spend a year or two studying what culture actually means and learn to appreciate the unique colours of Hong Kong. Remember though, the monetary measurement does not work when it comes to measuring the value of culture.

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