Hong Kong: Cultural Heritage Conservation in a City of Change – Part 1

SFU City Program – Free Public Lectures

Architectural Conservation Programme at the University of Hong Kong

I had the pleasure of attending this recent lecture at SFU Harbour Centre.  It was hosted by Heritage BC and SFU.  They invited two professionals and academics in the field of hertiage conservation in Hong Kong: Lynne DiStefano and Ho Yin Lee.  It was a very interesting lecture and I’ll divvy up the parts over a few posts here.

I should say that I do have a very personal interest in Hong Kong.  My family is from there and I have visited the colony/territory about 5 times now.  I have seen most sides of Hong Kong because when I visit I don’t only visit as a tourist, but I do get to experience much of the city as a local does.  The only thing I don’t have to endure is the crazy Monday to Saturday work weeks that are standard in Hong Kong.

Although most people outside of Hong Kong envision the skyscraper megalopolis that we see in movies like the Dark Knight.  It’s tower upon tower upon towering tower.  The tallest tower in Hong Kong, the International Finance Centre 2, or IFC 2, figures prominently in the movie poster.  This is what people think about when they see Hong Kong.

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Ho Yin Lee even said that a German journalist interviewed him once and compared Hong Kong to the future Los Angeles as depicted in Blade Runner.  Blade Runner is full of tall towers and gigantic billboards beaming onto the denizens below.  Hong Kong certainly has a lot of that.  The article said that living in Hong Kong was sort of like living in the future.

Lynne and Ho Yin continued with the movie depictions of Hong Kong.  They wanted to show a different side of Hong Kong apart from the skyscrapers.  They started with the question: How is cultural heritage expressed? There were 2 movie clips that they played.  The first was a scene from an old movie, “The World of Suzie Wong” starring William Holden and Nancy Kwan.  The movie review says that it perpetuates Asian stereotypes, but Lynne and Ho Yin used a clip where William Holden’s character, Robert Lomax, is walking through the streets of Hong Kong.  Specifically, Holden is filmed walking through the busy street markets of Hong Kong in the 1950’s.  Some of these markets are the ones that are now being pressured by urban renewal and may be gone forever.

scene from "Ghost In The Shell"

scene from "Ghost In The Shell"

The other movie they used is the 1995 anime classic, Ghost In The Shell, which uses Hong Kong as its template for the city of the future.  Much of the detail in the film takes its cue from the way Hong Kong’s urban environment is built.  The street signs that extend over the street, the harrowing descent of a jumbo jet over the low rise apartments, the many shops and restaurants overlooking the street from multiple floors, the large and bright advertisements on the sides of walls, and the highway flyovers that snake between buildings are all a part of the Hong Kong urban fabric.  All of those things in the anime are literally lifted out of Hong Kong and recreated in the movie.  The only thing that isn’t true in the scene depicted above is that the streets are all submerged underwater.  Some of this urban fabric is in the crosshairs of urban renewal.  Because they are not a clean, sanitized urban environment, they may face the dangers of being “cleaned up” at the expense of losing a way of life.

The next post will talk about the context of government policy in Hong Kong with respect to cultural heritage conservation.

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