The Status Quo Rules
約翰百德 (John BATTEN)
at 9:49pm on 23rd January 2017
Central to Wan Chai bypass construction on Harbour-front blocking access to harbour, 2017.
Overseas friends were visiting Hong Kong and I went to the airport to meet them. They quickly cleared immigration and we jumped into a taxi for a trip back to Hong Kong island. The obscured Lantau hills revealed obvious air pollution and I openly explained the reasons. But, I tried to tone-down my explanation, “…actually, we have had much cleaner, clearer days over the last two years…”, but, it could not be denied, the weather and pollution from the mainland was very bad that day, that week.
As we travelled through Kowloon, I pointed out some landmarks: “Mong Kok is where teenagers hang out…”; “About 55% of Hong Kong’s population lives in public housing…” etc, but realised I was also saying “…behind those buildings…” as a preface to each statement. I explained that the former flight path of planes landing at Kai Tak followed a parallel line with the Kowloon hills and ensured that buildings remained low-rise. Now, huge buildings lined either side of the West Kowloon reclamation motorway on which we were travelling.
Then, on the following day I read an article by the Financial Times’ travel writers of their “discoveries and disappointments for 2016.” The well-known journalist Lucia van der Post made her choice: “When I first visited Hong Kong, many years ago, it seemed a magically exotic place…you came across crowded streets, tiny shops selling strange wares, little restaurants filled with steam, tailors who would run up a skirt for almost nothing…I went back a week ago…the overwhelming impression was of vast high-rise buildings, as far as the eye can see….It’s called progress and I know people have to live somewhere but, oh, how I miss the Hong Kong of long ago.”
I have long extolled the uniqueness of Hong Kong’s older urban areas. Now, visitors and international taste-makers are also noting the city’s high-rise homogeneity, loss of character and an environment that is dirty and unhealthy. Is it any wonder that tourist numbers are falling?
It really is simple: have a diversity of places and natural, organic experiences on Hong Kong’s streets, islands and country parks which are enjoyable to walk around, without the competition of cars. However, we have painted ourselves into a corner: every property owner/developer demands their development rights – in the process we fail to preserve the city’s heritage and character; and, without any commensurate planning improvements.
The Chief Executive election is heating up and Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee says, “It is time for change, and change, we hope, will come in the next election.” I can’t see that happening: sadly, the status quo will rule.
Originally published in Perspective architectural magazine, January 2017