Hong Kong, Where Are You Heading to?

[Translated and edited by EastWestSouthNorth. Editor’s Introduction:

Hong Kong Cultural Policy and Civil Society

If your sole access is the western media, you may have the impression that all people do in Hong Kong (or China, for that matter) is to sit around and talk about building democracy all day.  That is the meme that the western media have preferred to propagate, and I believe it as a (futile) exercise to determine if the CIA is behind this.  If you can also monitor the local Chinese media (traditional as well as online), you will discover a whole new world of other issues that people are concerned about.  But your western media will not inform you.

Recently, there seems to be a battle over the Western Kowloon cultural zone.  If you read the local English-language media coverage, this seems to be primarily an economic issue in the sense of doubting whether the demand for cultural offerings actually justify the project such that this whole enterprise was yet another cover to benefit real-estate developers.  Those are valid points.

But there is another debate over an essay published by the esteemed intellectual Lung Ying-tai in Apple Daily, and this ensuing debate does not seem to have broken into the English-language media.  This article has been plastered over all the local BBS’s and forums with extensive discussions.  I have been waiting for this important essay to appear in English, but it does not seem likely at this point.  So here I go again.
The original Chinese-language article is posted at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre (The University of Hong Kong site).  This is an unauthorised and unapproved translation, so our esteemed author may not be pleased.  Counterbalancing this is the importance of letting the English-reading world know about the points.  The importance of this article is that it extends the debate beyond the realm of pure economic benefits into the cultural identity of Hong Kong.  The article does not provide all the answers, but any attempt to criticise, revise or rebut is going to require you to formulate your own answers.
If you take the two principal questions raised in this article:

(1) Is there a genuine demand for culture in Hong Kong?  Without doubt, there isn’t right now — not for four museums and three performance auditoria.  But this may be putting the cart before the horse — you may be able to generate the demand after these facilities are in place.  I can’t prove it, but you can’t discount it either.  So this is plausible and you can’t run a survey to find out right now because people can’t be expected to respond meaningfully to concept tests of things that they haven’t seen or heard yet.

(2) What shall the soul of Hong Kong be?  Without doubt, I am very sympathetic to our author’s point of view.  You can read these two previous posts: Part 1 and Part 2, which are empirical illustrations.]
Hong Kong, where are you heading to? Some Biased Observations About Hong Kong Cultural Policy and Civil Society

After paying my taxes at the Inland Revenue Department, I felt especially bright when I went downstairs.  From now on, I have assumed yet another identity: a Hong Kong taxpayer.  I am writing this article as an obligation of a Hong Kong taxpayer.  Of course, it is also a right.

The Wild Ginger Lilies of Stone Nullah Lane

When I exited the Inland Revenue Department, I walked a few blocks to reach Stone Nullah Lane.  I wanted to buy a batch of wild ginger lilies.  The narrow Stone Nullah Lane is an open-air market.  It is crowded and full of humanity.  In front of the shoe store, there were several water buckets with fire lilies, babies’ breath and wild ginger lilies thrown in them haphazardly.  If you want to buy them, you can; if you don’t want to, you don’t have to.  In front of the seafood store, there were stands that sell live seafood.  Suddenly, a fist-sized prawn jumped up and landed on the green spinach in the next stall.  The startled housewife picked it up and handed it back to the smiling seafood vendor.  The butcher with the bulging belly is slicing meat with his knife on a butcher block that is dented in the middle from use.  The crouching old lady is inching along in the crowd, and she was not bothered at all because she knew every inch of this ground and she knew every vendor here.

The wild ginger lilies come from a marsh on Lamma Island.  I bought one big batch, I hugged them and I got on board the old tram heading towards Shek Tong Tsui.  So it was that I made it back to Sai Wan in the company of the ringing bells of the tram.

A Question for a Citizen

If I were a teacher of civil education in Hong Kong, I would ask this question:

The seventeen historical buildings of the Central District police precinct are being handed over to real-estate developers to develop.  The open-air market at Stone Nullah Lane in Wanchai is about to be demolished.  The old “Printing Presses On One Street” at Lee Tung Street is about to be demolished.  The Wanchai old market is about to be demolished.  The ancient, the old, the low buildings and the narrow and crowded old streets and alleyways are making way for the steel-and-glass skyscrapers which will be either expensive apartment buildings or brilliant business offices and shiny hotels.

The various bidders for the WestKo wloon Cultural District project have all offered their plans.  Not surprisingly , they are all real estate financial groups.  The bid requirements specify that there must be four museums and three performance auditoria.  The real-estate developers have been publicizing their global connections, and the Hong Kong newspapers have been citing the long and difficult-to-pronounce  names of the international art museums.

At the same time, the Civil Education Committee has produced a short propaganda film about “Caring About The Home Country.”  The national anthem of the People’s Republic of China is broadcast accompanied tenderly moving scenes, and this is shown before the daily television news broadcasts.  The neatly packaged patriotic education is being conducted quietly.

Therefore I ask: Based upon the three seemingly unrelated events, what is the hidden connection?  From these three events, please describe the developmental stage of Hong Kong’s cultural policy and civil society.

The Monopoly of the Central District Values

The slogan used by Hong Kong to advertise itself is: Asia’s World City.  This self-advertisement is correct, because this is what the tourists see: above the ground, there are tall buildings that reach into the clouds, housing fine and modern shops; underneath the ground, there are inter-connected transportation networks and the nature-conquering landfill technology.  They can see the large banks everywhere and they can see the cargo harbors stacked with containers.  They may not be able to actually see the refined and sophisticated financial system, the specially trained professionals, the clean and efficient government and the rule of law.

This is the Hong Kong that the world sees, and this is what Hong Kong is happy to present: the impressive buildings, the elegance of the stores, the fluency in English language, and the middle-class people walking quickly between buildings in Central District in their sparking white collars.  That is to say, the Central District represents Hong Kong.  The Central District values monopolized and represented the values of Hong Kong: within the operational logic of capitalism, people pursue individual wealth and emphasize commercial competitiveness, and they use “economics”, “wealth”, “efficient”, “development” and “globalization” as the standards of social progress.

When outsiders walk down the major streets of the Central District, they look up at the luxurious skylines but they won’t see the sad-looking and depressed faces of the unemployed workers of Shumshuipo streets, nor those new immigrants who live in Kwuntong and Yuenlong and who have never even been to the Central District.  Outsiders wait on the Avenue of the Stars for the amazing fireworks show to commence  but they do not know that 1,450,000 of the seven million people in Hong Kong live below the poverty line, with many single senior citizens living in cages like chickens and ducks.  They cannot imagine that this Asia’s World City ranks number five in the world in terms of economic inequality alongside Chile, Mexico, Costa Rica and Uruguay.  Outsiders cannot imagine that the proud and elegant Central District is only one of the many faces of Hong Kong.

This sort of narrative is not accurate either, because I have discovered that even among people who live in Hong Kong, many of them do not see the Hong Kong outside of Central District and they also hold the Central District values as the only set of values.

Demolish, Demolish, Demolish

Kowloon Wall City and Tiu Keng Leng have both been demolished a long time ago, because they were filthy, messy and crowded and are therefore shamefully ‘backwards’ according to the Central District values.  The collective memories and historical emotions associated with the Kowloon Wall City and Tiu Keng Leng were swept away into the ‘backwards’ garbage bin at the same time.

Langham Place in Mongkok has just been completed.  This huge building sits right on the very narrow Shanghai Street, and its tall walls make Shanghai Street look puny, like a mouse at the corner of the walls.  Ever since Kai Tak Airport was removed, the building codes in Kowloon have been revised for buildings to soar tall into the sky.  Langham Place foretells that future of Kowloon: it will become just like Central District.

The Mega Tower in Wanchai is another huge architectural plan for real estate developers.  If passed, the old street market of Wanchai will disappear.  Together with the demolishing of the old neighborhood, the old tall trees will be cut down and new small trees will be artificially planted in their stead, with concrete poured on the ground between the tall buildings.

The Bauhaus-style old street market will be demolished.  The blue old houses will be demolished.  The old street market on Stone Nullah Street will be demolished.  The Central District police precinct house will be demolished, together with Victoria Prison.  All will be handed over to real estate developers to ‘handle’ so that they can build hotels and commercial buildings.  More hotels, more commercial buildings, more skyscrapers.  They will come like a flood to overwhelm all of Hong Kong.

The Central District police precinct house: Can your Grandmother’s diary be auctioned off?

I have been in Hong Kong for a year, and I have encountered many surprises.  But my greatest shock was to discover that the Hong Kong government has such a feeble feeling for the history of Hong Kong.  Let us look at the Central District police precinct house.  The group of Central District police precinct buildings represents the architectural aesthetics of the colonial era, and these are rare buildings that form an endangered species.  Victoria Prison was used in the past to imprison anti-Qing Dynasty revolutionaries, and it was also used to oppress anti-Japanese intellectuals.  As to whether Sun Yat-sen was imprisoned here, that question is still being debated by historians; but even if it is established Sun did not stay there, the debate itself would have lent weight to the history of the prison.  Even if Sun Yat-sen wasn’t there, then should not the blood and tears of Dai Mong-shu have been enough to immortalize this prison?

Prison Poem
If I should die here,
Friends, do not be sad.
I will live forever
inside your hearts …
When you return, from the earth
you dig up that wounded body …
Place the white bones on the peak
Laying in the sun, bathing in the wind.
Inside the dark and damp underground cell,
This is his only good dream.
1942 April 27 (by Dai Mong-shu)

Aside from Dai Mong-shu, how many more laudable histories are buried inside Victoria Prison?  If a robber was held in the prison, then that would highlight the history of security in Hong Kong; if a citizen was sent there for a minor poverty-driven crime, this would illuminate life at the base of society; if there was a cold and hungry illegal immigrant, this would characterize the complicated history of mobility to Hong Kong; if there was a wrongfully imprisoned dissident, this would be a testimony against imperialist colonialism.

Each jail cell and each wall are historical artifacts of Hong Kong.  I dare say that each brick inside Victoria Park is moist, because it is soaked with the tears and sighs of the preceding generations of the people of Hong Kong, and they are the collective wounds and glory of the people of Hong Kong.  Why does the government have the right to hand them off to real estate developers to ‘handle’?  Would you auction off your grandmother’s handwritten diary?

The jail will be preserved, so said the government.  But there are many other old buildings that surround the jail, and those are not considered as valuable.  Perhaps, but I wonder if a thorough historical investigation has been conducted?  Or a serious survey of public opinion?  If the cultural values of these historical buildings are truly valued, then why do we keep hearing only about the words ‘economic benefits’?  If the historical meaning of the prison is truly being valued, would you cut off its connections with its environs and let it stand by its lonesome self among tall hotels and commercial buildings?

If I were …

The title of the essay is: If the Central District police precinct buildings were in Taipei, what would I do?  [Editor’s note:  Lung Ying-tai became the first Cultural Minister of Taipei in 1999]
If I were the Cultural Minister, I would have immediately formed a task force to do the following things:

I will try to convince the mayor and the financial director: “Historical memory is the passport for the common identity of citizens and the emotional mark that distinguishes one group from another.  The preservation of culture is the lifeline of a city, and it does not have to oppose economic development.”
Each of the seventeen buildings will be researched in depth on its history.  Using Victoria Prison as the example, history scholars will be asked to open the prison files and review each case to produce books about the history of Victoria Prison.  Through the study of political prisoners, innocent inmates, criminal records, punishment and rehabilitation systems, there may emerge a brand new vista about the deep relationship between Hong Kong and contemporary Chinese history as well as English colonial history.  If there is sufficient material, we can even think about establishing a prison museum.  For example, the Prison Museum in Melbourne is that city’s most touching historical museum.
Funds will be raised by soliciting large corporations as well as the general public for the purpose of preservating historical sites through a citizens’ trust fund.  Large corporations can donate large amounts of money, and citizens can become a friend of the historical site through “one hundred dollars per person.”  The funds will be used to restore the historical sites and then to protect and operate the sites hereafter.

But if I am only an ordinary citizen and not an official with decision-making powers, I would try everything I can to initiate a civil resistance movement and join with all the non-government organizations — environmental protection groups, consumer groups, groups for parents of elementary school students, groups to protect women from domestic violence, labor rights groups, historical research groups, young volunteers … as well as international groups; I will unite the history departments, architecture departments, social studies departments, urban planning departments and landscape departments, as well as the educational departments at all the universities to engage in a long-term struggle against the government.  I would participate in sit-in’s, demonstrations and marches.  I would keep writing to the local and international media.  I would ask for assistance from UNESCO.  I would complain to the national parliament.  I would engage lawyers to investigate the possibility of suing the government.
Finally, I will tell you about the last thing that I will do: I will use my electoral vote against a government that does not respect culture and that ignores our history and elect another government.  But it is not possible to change the government in Hong Kong because there is no popular election.

West Kowloon: Who is it built for?

The Hong Kong government will not only hand over the old districts that are full of historical memories for financial groups to develop, it will also let the financial groups develop new open space.  The case study for West Kowloon can practically be directly offered as counter education material in textbooks about cultural policies.  This is the last gem of a piece of harbor front land in the heart of Hong Kong.  It is one thing to say that it has been marked for commercial development and is being sold for the money.  But the government is saying that this is a cultural program with four museums and three performance art centers and so on to build up Hong Kong culturally.
To build up a culture in Hong Kong, is it not necessary to know first just what Hong Kong has, and what its strengths and weaknesses are?  Before the auction, there ought to be dozens of essential research investigations:

For example, the study of the entire art educational system: Hhow much art education exists within the Hong Kong educational system?  How does it compare with international standards?  which facets of art education are missing?  What kind of cultural upbringing do Hong Kong people expect for the next generation?  Should the West Kowloon plan make the art education of young people as its core consideration?
For example, the analysis of the creative industry: Which industries are the most competitive and most worthy of support in Hong Kong?  How to support them?  Does South Korea already have the advantage in animation?  Does water ink painting have any room for development?  Is design a Hong Kong advantage?  If so, should we build museums or design schools or neither?

For example, the nurturing of artistic talents: Apart from subsidies, should the system be reformed?  Should protection of intellectual property rights be elevated?  Should the university art subjects be strengthened?  How can West Kowloon nurture local creativity? …
For example, the expansion of art appreciation:  How many people under 18 years old appreciate art?  What incentives or subsidies can be given to get more people to appreciate art?  What type of facilities will attract younger art appreciators?

For example, the study of the civil cultural rights of socially vulnerable groups: What do seniors older than 65 years watch and listen to?  What percent of them enjoy cultural facilities?  The blind, the death, the single mother, the homosexual, the wheelchair-bound, the mentally ill, the prisoner, the foreign laborer, the Nepalese and Pakistani minorities, the poor who live below the poverty line, the children of the poor … how much public cultural resources do they consume?  what percent of them participate in the activities organized by the Cultural and Leisure Services Department?  If the cultural rights of the socially vulnerable groups have been ignored, then should West Kowloon include them for consideration?

For example, a thorough examination of the cultural facilities: How many people attend the History Museum, the Science Museum, the Museum of Art, and so on?  What is the assessment of art education?  Are they underutilized?  Are they wasting space?  Are they mismanaged?  Are they duplicating resources?

For example, the 2003 Hong Kong cultural development blueprint suggested: What is Hong Kong’s expectations of its culture and its cultural position?  What is it actually missing: community children libraries and neighborhood cultural activity centers at the grassroots level, or modern performance arts centers with chandeliers, red carpets and 10,000 dollar seats?  Should it be Chinese or western? modern or traditional? local or international?

For example …

There are various research projects that are actually in progress, but there is no complete blueprint.  It would be like erecting a big cultural map on the war, and then overlaying a macroscopic future blueprint on top of the existing situation in order to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses.  What are the functions of West Kowloon?  What should exist there?  What should be done or not done?  They must be put on this macroscopic, forward-looking blueprint to consider in responsible planning.

Without full-scale research and without a macroscopic cultural blueprint, and without a defining the cultural position of Hong Kong, West Kowloon is being handed over to the financial groups for development.  What will the financial group do?  Does it care about the development of art in Hong Kong?  Does it understand the cultural potential and problems of Hong Kong?  Does it have the ability to foresee the future of culture?  Will it be responsible about the cultural civil rights of the socially vulnerable groups and the ordinary citizens?
If West Kowloon falls into the hands of business people, we will see the typical Hong Kong commercial operation: one group says that they have invited Centre Georges Pompidou to set up a Hong Kong branch; another group says that they will partner with the Guggenheim; a third group is even more audacious for wanting an ‘alliance of museums from eight countries’ with the Palace Museum in Beijing, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg (Russia), the Louvre and Versailles, the Australian Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum of England, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Prado Museum in Madrid (Spain).  The business people show off the names of artists, architects and museums just as they show off Gucci bags, Bali shoes, Armani clothing and Dior cosmetics, except that the meaning of culture has been excluded.

Did anyone ask: When these famous international museums come to West Kowloon, what do they bring to Hong Kong?  Will the children of Hong Kong receive better education in art?  Will the local artists get more space for expression or receive creative resources?  Will Hong Kong culture take root and will the people of Hong Kong have greater self-confidence in their own culture?  Or will it mean that Hong Kong can attract French people to come to Hong Kong to attend the branches of the Louvre and Versailles, to attract to Americans to Hong Kong to attend the Guggenheim branch, to attract the Russians, Canadians and Spaniards to come to Hong Kong to view the art of their own country, or for the people of Beijing to view the treasures from the Imperial Palace?

Why is West Kowloon being built?  For whom is it being built for?  The even more core problem is: What is the cultural blueprint for Hong Kong?  What are the strategies for enhancing humanist values and the perpetuation of cultural development?  If there is any concern for the humanities and responsibility for the future, these questions are unavoidable ones for the decision-makers.

But you cannot demand that from business people, because they are there to earn money.  It is the government that exists to care about and be responsible.  It is not business people but the government who is responsible for Hong Kong’s children, artists, cultural development and the future of the city.  When the government does not care and shirks responsibility, then that is a troubled government.

Development is the Ideology of Hong Kong

The old districts are being demolished one by one, while the new districts are being developed with nary a thought.  The bosses of the financial groups issue directions from the seats on the bulldozers while the government officials smile inside their air-conditioned offices.  When the Secretary of Finance announced with a smile about the intent to ‘develop’ Lantau Island — building adventure theme parks, aquatic sport centers, golf vacation villages … I coiled up like a wildcat with my hair erect and I wanted to ask: What is your 2003 urban blueprint?  Have the choice between developing versus protecting the environment and the positioning of the city of Hong Kong been clearly thought through before you turn over the green Lantau Island for the financial groups to turn into construction lots?
In Hong Kong, economic benefit is the core value for all decision-making, and development is the sole ideology.  The meaning of ‘ideology’ is that this has become a firm belief about which people no longer doubt or probe the logic of its existence.  The consequence of this is that Hong Kong is very diversified, or is it?  No, it is very monotonous because the whole city is monopolized by a single commercial logic.  The look of commercial buildings and streets is an obvious example: no matter whether it is Taikoo City or Exchange Square, it is the same buildings, the same shops, the same merchandise, the same taste, the same “Please visit again” tone.  As you walk down the sparking clean corridors, you see only objects but not people.  All the objects are the same brands over and over again.  The sales people are like standard models that come off production lines.  Even coffee shops are franchises with standard looks.

If you only stroll through the corridors of these large commercial buildings, you will get this impression: Hong Kong has everything except for a personality.  The reflections from the buildings are very cold; birds think it is the sky and if they slam into them, they die.
There is another way for urban development: old streets have old shops; old shops have old trees in front; old trees have old people underneath; old people carry the special memories of this city and those memories can give an inimitable atmosphere, smell and color to the shops.  If this were not an old shop, it could be a new store opened up by a young person, with every pole in the shop and every nail on the pole expressing his personality and taste.  When a divorced women opens up a coffee shop, every cup, every table cloth and every vase is an expression of her personal aesthetics  The pickled cabbage at the old lady’s grocery shop is still soaked in a ceramic bowl that you saw when you were young, and this will be the warmest sign that you will remember when you are away from home.

It is not that Hong Kong does not have these personalities and warmth.  Nullah Stone Street where one can buy wild ginger lilies and Lee Tung Street where one can print wedding announcements and revolutionary declarations are all faces of Hong Kong at its most touching and beautiful moments.  But under the ideology of ‘development’, they are disappearing one street at a time and replaced by the uniformly expressionless, people-less and personality-less urban constructions.

When the government and the financial groups make land deals, they spit out astronomical numbers and they speak to the cameras about economic benefits.  What bothers me is that just who is responsible for contemplating the question: What kind of Hong Kong do we want?

Do you know Gough Street?

The Hong Kong that I saw in the twenty-first century has broken away from colonialism for seven years already.  The government now is a government belonging to the people of Hong Kong.  But I discovered that the operational thinking of the government apparatus is still the thinking of the colonial era.
Colonial thinking has these special features: first, it devalues local culture and history; second, it neglects the grassroots citizens; third, it does not value long-lasting development.
While the Englishman ruled, the bronze statues that he erected, the biographies that he wrote, the days that commemorate the births and deaths and the names of the streets are all based upon the people and histories from the viewpoint of England.  All the historical memories about China and Hong Kong are ignored.  Wang Tao, Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Sun Yat-sen, Lu Xun, Xiao Hong, Eileen Chang, Xu Dishan, Dai Wangshu, Cai Yuanpei, Qian Mu, Xu Fuguan, Yu Guangzhong … these names don’t mean anything.  The oral history of the Chinese people who perished during the plague, the abandoned sites where the houses were burnt to the ground, the villagers who died while resisting the English, the assembly halls of the workers during the great strike, the diaries of the intellectuals who were killed for resisting the Japanese, the lecture hall in which Lu Xun spoke … none of these matter to the colonizer.

In the so-called breakaway from colonialism, the most important implication is that people can turn around to retrieve the history that was distorted, revised and ignored; to retrieve grandmother’s diary that was thrown into the garbage pile by the colonizer, to clean the dirt off it and to read one word and one phrase at a time in order to rediscover one’s identity from the frail yellowed paper and the fading handwritten letters.  To break away from colonialism means that each Hong Kong child should know that when he/she walks past Gough Street in the Central District, they would know that this Gough was merely the name of an English lieutenant-general, but that he/she would also know that the Central School at No. 44 was where Sun Yat-sen studied and that No. 24 Gough Street was the place where the “Four Bandits” including Sun Yat-sen and Chen Shaobai plotted the revolution.

Breaking away from colonialism implies while it is not necessary to overturn everything, it is necessary to reflect anew on the aesthetic tastes, the value system and the historical viewpoints infused by the colonizer and to use one’s own vocabulary to define oneself anew.  The post-colonialial government should preserve the native culture and historical sites.  The memories of the old streets and alleyways, which may be neither pretty nor presentable, should be treated as the most valuable treasures.

I did not really see this process happen in Hong Kong.

A Government Without Culture

To be more precise, the colonizer not only ignores the culture of the colonized but he does not value culture at all because culture represents thought, and thought implies independent thinking and values which will threaten his rule.  From the organizational structure of the Hong Kong government, we can see that in the administration and development of this city, culture has no position and is heavily marginalized.  There is no special organization for culture alone.  Culture and arts are ‘included’ under the Home Affairs Department, mixed in with pest control, soccer betting, postage stamp design, administration of domestic helpers, swimming pool cleaning, inspection of hotels and apartment buildings and other businesses.  The ‘mission’ of the Home Affairs Department contains fourteen statements, of which two are directly related to culture.  Which two?

The most important one is culture and leisure.  That is to say, the appreciation of culture in Hong Kong is still stuck at the same level of organizing leisure activities.  The other statement is the preservation of historical sites.  Isn’t it good to list the preservation of historical sites as one of the fourteen items?  But you will discover that the preservation of historical sites is the responsibility of a third-level organizational unit.  The Home Affairs Department also has various libraries, art galleries and museums which organize their own activities.  The key feature of this organizational structure is that culture is placed at a lower level, and does not figure in the decisions of the top level.  In other words, within the top-level decision-making structure, there is no thought or viewpoint for culture.

We can imagine the following scene: at the top-level decision-making meeting about the Central District police precinct, the Secretary of Finance, the Secretary of Commerce, the Secreterary of Economic Development, the Secretary of Transportation and the Secretary of Housing and Planning will all express their opinions from the economic perspective.  So who will stand up to defy the common opinion about the cultural tradition and historical meaning of the historical sites?  The Secretary of Home Affairs is responsible for home affairs, not culture.  Therefore, the seat for culture is actually not being represented there.  All the decisions are made in the absence of culture.  Within the organizational structure of a government without culture, economic benefits obviously supercede all other considerations.  Developmental models will proceed without obstruction, urban construction is determined by financial group leaders and the city atmosphere is decided upon by engineering and finance bureaucrats …

Why is it like this?  When the colonizer was here, it was understandable that he was not interested in promoting any basis for for culture.  He knows that he will have to depart sooner or later as Hong Kong is not his home.  Development is a logical activity, because development enriches his mother country where his true home is.  He is not concerned about whether development will result in the sacrifice of other values such as social justice or historical sentiments, or the weakening of culture.  To break away from colonialism implies that the post-colonial government must step back to challenge the colonizer’s philosophy of development above all and to place the values that the colonizer had ignored at the top: the caring of the poor and vulnerable, the respect for literature and language, the emphasis on culture and history, the love for a green earth, the long-term investment in the humanist education of future generations, a kind of thinking to “grow your indigenous culture of excellence” as the mainstream philosophy to replace the “profit first” thinking that the colonized adopted after assuming control.  Thus, in the post-colonial government, culture should have assumed the top post.

But I did not see this process taking place in Hong Kong.

Ten Thousand Slogans Do Not Measure Up To One Old Song

The colonizer comes with the modern advantages of his mother country.  His country must be led by an elitist system: “The people may be allowed to do what they want, but they must not be permitted to know.”  The government officials control the knowledge, skill and power.  All decisions are transmitted and executed from top to bottom.  In a time of crisis, a midnight telephone call is made to the mother country and the instructions will come the next morning.  The mother country has a strong culture and rich experience, and therefore the results are sometimes excellent at the colonies.  To break away from colonialism is like someone taking out your brain and then you have to think.  Where are your own thoughts going to come from?  From the people.

Breaking away from colonialism means that you have to step down from the former elitist position to talk with your own common citizens.  To preserve or develop the Central District police precinct house?  To preserve or demolish the old district of Wanchai?  That should be decided by the will of the citizens.  The Leisure and Cultural Services Department is no longer the organizer of all activities and it will no longer control all the resources; it will no longer be the sole benefactor of artists and performance groups.  The people themselves will become powerful and diversified.  Breaking away from colonialism, the local scholars, experts and cultural workers will delve into the decision-making processes of the government after the colonizer’s brain is removed; they will not just sit as decorative vases on the various ‘consultative committees’ to permit the government to pretend that democracy exists and they will become a major force in affecting social development.  What is the cultural direction of West Kowloon?  Will Lantau Island be developed?  These will all be subject to in-depth debates among the citizens as well as competition among the intellectuals and cultural professionals.  At the same time, when the people begin to truly engage in the making decisions and exercise their rights to determine their own future, civil society will be formed.

I did not see this process really taking place in Hong Kong.

What I saw was in fact two other processes.  On one hand, the colonizer’s thought system and operation formula were accelerated in Hong Kong with the same efficiency and there was no reform of the ‘brain.’  On the other hand, the new ‘civil education’ is quietly brewing: “Caring About The Home Country” packaged the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China as a sweet beverage and lets the people of Hong Kong swallow a cup of “Love the Family, Love the Nation.”  The kindergarten children are learning to sing “Rise up, rise up, rise up …”  Civil education is being simplified as patriotic education, and patriotic education is being simplified as the political correctness of loving the party.

It is not wrong to love China.  The colonizer had tried so hard to prevent you from loving her, even preferring to gloss over the Opium Wars.  But what is it about China that is worth the people of Hong Kong to understand and love?  Their judges or their prisoners?  Their armies or their people?  The Tang and Sung dynasty poems or the state-party machinery?  The earth or the bureaucrats?  If Hong Kong is to make a truly contribution in the history of China, should it obey or monitor China?  Children should receive civil education, but it should not be about what to love — it would be about how to love and how to choose what to love.

True civil education should consist of teachers bringing their children to walk through the hills of Hong Kong to teach them how to recognize the flora and fauna; to let the senior citizens of Victoria Park hold community forum in groups to debate whether Wanchai should get the Mega Tower; to let university students conduct the historical research of the Central District police precinct house and then to protest at Government House; to let middle-school students learn to be concerned about the sadness and loneliness of the Hong Kong residents of Nepalese and Indian descent; to let the community moms organize “wetlands protection societies”, “Shek O cultural history workshops”, “friends of historical sites foundations”, …

True civil education should let the next generation be clear-headed about why they are proud of their land and culture.  True civil education is to let children know that when they disagree with the thinking and decisions of their government, they can stand up to challenge and defeat them.

If the false civil education takes root, one has to worry that before the Hong Kong people can even find their grandmother’s diary from a pile of old papers, they are already toppled over by the collapse of the new pile of papers that has just arrived.

To leave colonialism behind implies the colonized must seriously find himself, to know himself, to discover himself and to love himself.  Each march, each debate and each struggle will clarify the puzzle of “What kind of person am I?”.  Each old house that is preserved, each old tree that is propped back up, each old street that is caringly loved — even if it is a street of poor people — will bring pleasant surprises: what I stand on is my home, my island, my country.  How to make people love their country?  Don’t waste the taxpayer’s money to manufacture propaganda!  You don’t demolish his old house and his old street, don’t chop down his old tall tree, don’t break up his old neighbors, don’t auction off his grandmother’s diary, and then he will “care about his home country”, he will sing and he will shed tears for it.

A common identity is forged first from having our own history and memories.  Ten thousand politicians shouting patriotic slogans is not as good as the touching emotions coming from a sad low-keyed old song, or an old tree, or an old street in the fading evening.  Old songs, old trees, old streets, the collective memories passed from one generation to the next — that is culture.  Civil society begins with a cultural identity.

The Central District values cannot create a foundation for humanism; colonialist thinking cannot form a civil society.  Furthermore, please do not tell me that “although Hong Kong does not have democracy, it still has freedom.”  Freedom not guaranteed by democracy is false freedom, because it can be cancelled at any time by a power beyond your control.  What are you going to do if the entire Central District police precinct area is demolished?  Can you blame the government?  Even elementary school students know: if the people are like this, then the government will be like this too.  So, Hong Kong, where are you heading to?

The Necessity of Light and Heat

All the criticisms here are incomplete, because there are many people — where civic or governmental — who are trying their best: protecting the harbor, the concern of the Wanchai Legislative Council members about the old Wanchai district, the work by the Cultural Committee members four years ago, <>, Project Hong Kong and various efforts by the social groups, the continuous debates in the cultural pages of the media, the daily callings from the columnists and even the various cultural forums directed by the Home Affairs Bureau.  Everything indicates that Hong Kong’s civil ability and humanistic thoughts are like the hot air underneath the shell of the volcano, ready to burst open.  During the July 1st march, the heat was building up.  But the Central District values and the colonial style of thinking are still as firm as an iron mountain.  It has been seven years since, they have loosened up but only for a tiny bit.

I can only borrow the words of the black writer James Baldwin to offer to those friends of Hong Kong who are trying hard to bring light and heat: “My inheritance was particular, specifically limited and limiting.  My birthright was vast, connecting me to all that lives, and to everyone, forever.  One cannot claim birthright without accepting the inheritance.”

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