A few weeks ago, I met with one of my friends in Hong Kong for some nice food (a fusion of Thai and Malay and some other styles as well) and conversations. After dinner, we strolled back to the Tai Wai MTR station, passing through Tin Sam Village, according to the website of the MTR – which advertises the village as a tourist attraction – a historical village dating back more than 400 years ago, once built as a Punti walled village. The village still has some ancestral halls and gates that protect the good fengshui of the village. Apart from that, most houses in the small village are three-stories high complexes, 700 square feet large, built in the 1970s.
The village stands out against the backdrop of other tall, residential building complexes with fancy names such as the Festival City Towers and the Sha Tin Heights Blocks. Compared to these buildings – which look the same as other residential buildings in other parts of Hong Kong, or even China – the village looks like an ancient, characteristically local settlement. It is a settlement that could be described, if following the theory of Professor of Comparative Literature Ackbar Abbas(1994), as Merely Local (“all those buildings belonging to another historical era, existing now largely on the economic margins of the city”, p. 444), surrounded by buildings that can be described as Anonymous (“all those commercial and residential blocks which seem to endlessly replicate themselves”, p. 454).
It wass nice to wander through this very small “merely local” walled village on our way back to the MTR station; it gave me the feeling of being in another place, travelling in another city. My friend also seemed to enjoy it. The place where she lives – Tsuen Kwan O, one of the nine “new towns” of Hong Kong, built on reclaimed land** – is an anonymous area, perhaps even a non-place, and strolling through another area, a “place”, briings about different feelings.
In the 1990s, the French anthropologist Marc Augé developed his theory of non-places: spaces that don’t hold enough significance to be regarded as “places”. His theory mainly focused on airports and other places of transience: places you travel through on your way from point A to point B. However, since Hong Kong is often described as place of transition itself, perhaps the theory can be applicable to the whole region.
Every day, when my friend leaves the residential complex in which she lives, she immediately finds herself in a shopping mall. Developers of residential buildings in Hong Kong can sell their apartment for higher prices if they develop a mall nearby. Hence, in most residential buildings, the ground floor contains many shops. The rent of these shops is however so high, that local shop holders can’t afford to stay there. Hence, local companies are being pushed aside by high rental rates, leaving only space for big chain stores and fast food restaurants, which are the same in all of Hong Kong’s shopping malls – a consequence of the free market. “Actually,” my friend says, “the free market is not so free: local people can’t participate in it.”
As population in Hong Kong grows and more and more residential complexes are being built, Hong Kong more and more gets turned into a non-place, a place merely containing anonymous buildings with anonymous shopping malls. This naturally has effect on residents of the region, such as my friend. “The environment in which I live dictates my choice,” she has told me. She is forced to eat in fast food chain stores, since local restaurants are simply not around. Similarly, people in Hong Kong might have no choice but to shop at H&M, Zara, Top Shop or Uni Clo, simply because local clothes stores are too expensive or rare. Thus, choice becomes anonymous, similar to behavior, all dictated by the non-place character of Hong Kong.
But, luckily, not al is lost. There are still some local areas in the region – areas such as the Tin Sam Village – and they are being preserved by the Hong Kong Government (I will write more on this later, in regard to Hong Kong’s preservation projects). Even though the number of these local places is small, they are still out there – and they give and my friend something local to enjoy after a night of good food and conversations.
** On a different note: I am still a bit confused by the term “reclaimed land”, particularly about the “reclaimed” part. “Reclaimed” in my understanding means an object was once claimed by subject B from subject A, and now subject A is taking it back (reclaiming it). In this analogy, the land is the object, the sea subject B, and the Hong Kong government or mankind subject A. How can you reclaim a land that has never been yours in the first place?