Twenty-six years on from its handover to Beijing, Hong Kong has been so degraded that it often is said to be just another Chinese city. What was once a hub of global culture and commerce is now, this way of thinking goes, indistinguishable from Mainland China, due to the Communist Party’s influence over the political environment. While each new edict and show trial—Jimmy Lai’s is now underway—gives this idea more credence, it conflicts with another: that a place’s life and fate are shaped not only by governance but also by its physical form—its built environment.
Few have expressed this idea more succinctly than Winston Churchill, who, after the German blitz, argued for the restoration of the damaged House of Commons to its prior form. Churchill remarked to Parliament in 1943, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” While in vogue among conservatives, the idea that buildings provide more than shelter—that they can inspire or corrupt—is not exclusive to the Right; some leftists have taken it up just as eagerly, Chinese Communists included. If the idea is true—if architecture genuinely matters to civic culture—then Hong Kong’s society may prove more resilient to the Party’s influence than its doubters expect.
Hong Kong’s architecture is distinct from that of the mainland’s great cities in important ways. Though the city is famed for its skyscrapers and capitalist sparkle, some of its most arresting buildings are its small temples. One such site is the Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road in Sheung Wan. Built in the nineteenth century to honor a literary god and a war god, the temple embodies spiritual traditions that Mao Zedong suppressed in the People’s Republic. While older mainland cities like Shanghai are steeped in history, they also suffered mightily at the hands of Maoist wreckers during the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards, in their rampages, targeted emblems of capitalism and of traditional Chinese culture (what Mao condemned as the Four Olds) with equal vitriol. Among the destroyed religious sites in Shanghai was the famed Jing’an Temple, which the Communists converted to a plastics factory.
While Jing’an was rebuilt after Mao’s death, the memory of destruction lingers. Other, lesser-known temples across China, deemed unworthy of restoration, have been paved over in favor of China’s new religion of glitz. In recent decades, Chinese cities have seen breakneck state-capitalist development. Hong Kong, on the other hand, benefitted from an incrementalist, dynamic continuity that contrasts with the disjointed urban form of the mainland. Despite its relative youth, having only become a major settlement within the past two centuries, Hong Kong is a reservoir of heritage.
Another factor that distinguishes the city is its abiding connection with the Western academic tradition, as the University of Hong Kong campus reveals. HKU’s Edwardian-Baroque main building, which presides over Hong Kong Island’s western section, was built in 1912, declared a monument by the colonial government in 1984, and today stands as a reminder of Hong Kong’s history of inquiry and intellectual freedom. The building was a gift from Sir Hormusjee N. Mody, a distinguished Hong Kong businessman of Parsi origin. A statue of Mody remains in the building’s courtyard, a rebuke to the Party’s attempt at fully Sinicizing a cosmopolitan city.
Across Victoria Harbour (Kowloon side, Hongkongers would say), the city’s urban vernacular attests to its half-century of spontaneous, frenetic economic growth between World War II and the 1997 handover. In the aftermath of the Communist Party’s 1949 triumph over the nationalists, thousands of mainlanders fled to Hong Kong each year. By the mid-1960s, the colony’s population was 3.5 million, up from 1 million three decades earlier. Hong Kong Island was entrenched as the home of the colonial establishment and well-to-do Chinese, so the newcomers congregated in Kowloon, which became the locus of Hong Kong’s rollicking golden years. Together, they forged a legendary culture of commercial prowess, encompassing everything from cinema to tailoring to pop-up manufacturing. In that milieu emerged Hong Kong’s signature neon signage and tong lau, shophouses with ground-level retail and skyward-stretching residences. The effect of urban rootedness is still palpable in Kowloon neighborhoods like Mong Kok, where one feels an unmistakable sense of place.
China had no comparable economic experience during the period of Hong Kong’s boom. Only with the implementation of Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening policies would the mainland emulate elements of Hong Kong’s economic openness. But Beijing built in a decidedly centralized way and on a scale that ignored the people whom its buildings were intended ostensibly to serve. Shanghai’s vaunted Pudong financial district exemplifies this tendency, being visually stunning, engineeringly impressive, and yet unapproachable. Hong Kong’s central financial district, by contrast, is located a pleasant stroll downhill from the Hollywood Road Man Mo Temple.
Of course, in the years since the handover, much has changed in Hong Kong, even physically. New megaprojects connect Hong Kong to nearby Guangdong cities and are indistinguishable from mainland-style infrastructure. But much of the colonial and postwar built environment lives on as a testament to a time before Beijing’s power play. Insofar as buildings influence our emotions, thoughts, and sense of being, Hongkongers may still be moved by the crown colony’s pluralistic legacy. If the Chinese Communist Party wishes to establish a durable influence on the minds of the people, it has more wrecking left to do.
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