Italo Calvino’s fictional work, Imaginary Cities (1974) gives of vignettes describing all kinds of weird and wonderful cities. We eventually discover that these are actually of one city: the Venice of Marco Polo as told to Kublai Khan. One vignette, “Cities & the Sky 3” stands out for me. In the city of “Thekla”, you can see little of the city, “beyond the plank fences, the sackcloth screens, the scaffoldings, the metal armatures, the wooden catwalks hanging from ropes or supported by sawhorses, the ladders, the trestles.” If arrivees ask why the construction is taking so long Thekla’s inhabitants reply: “So that its destruction cannot begin.” And if asked whether they fear that when the scaffoldings are removed, “the city may begin to crumble and fall to pieces”, they reply, “Not only the city.” Construction only stops at sunset. The residents point to the sky and say, “there is the blueprint”.

Like Calvino’s Thekla, his “city in the sky”, Hong Kong is constantly constructing the present. Our city is often described as “one big construction site”, with buildings going up and down with extreme alacrity. Take the word “development” for example. It is almost a hallowed term to the business community and government of Hong Kong. This word would figure prominently any Chief Executive Policy Address. For example in one such address, for 2007 the word occurred 122 times in the text.

The old City Hall. Photo: Wikimedia.

In recent times, the discussion of Hong Kong’s “collective memory” in relation to heritage and conservation issues has escalated as various historical sites make way for “urban renewal” or “redevelopment” and “rebuilding” the area in the style of the old, although I can see an increasing movement that these “sanitised” simulations no longer satisfy many residents of our city.

In addition to non-stop demolition and construction, Hong Kong is constantly re-constructing and re-figuring its past. Another fictional work, Dung Kai-chung’s The Atlas: Archaeology of an Imaginary City (2011) echoes Calvino. In this novel, the “City of Victoria” (Hong Kong) no longer exists and narrators can only divine from old maps and atlases what it was like and how it changed during 156 years as a British colony because of rapid erection and demolition of the city’s physical structures. The Hong Kong its people know, according to the writer cannot be actually pinpointed on a map, the map being only a limited and artificial translation of the place.

The Sun Yat-sen Historical Trail provides an example of what could be called the re-constructing and re-figuring of its past, or the “dis” and “re-appearance” of its history. The trail, launched in 1996, links up historical sites related to Sun Yat-sen’s activities in Hong Kong. The government put up plates imparting relevant historical facts on selected sites. However, the actual buildings with any historical significance to Sun Yat-sen have long been demolished. Each of the plates on the trail presents “the old site” of a historical building.

The Sun Yat-sen Historical Trail. Photo: Wikimedia.

Their historical context, their reality are no more. This is a kind of “decorative” or “sanitised” history. History has “disappeared” only to reappear in sanitised form, substituting attention away from the sometimes conflictual colonial history of Hong Kong to the harmonious accommodation and of Chinese culture in colonial architecture.

After 1997, many new museums came into being to this end to show the intricate links of Hong Kong and mainland China. In the Hong Kong Museum of History, the European role in Hong Kong’s history is marginalised while the last room of its permanent exhibition “The Hong Kong Story” shows the return to sovereignty on 1 July 2015. History ends at this point. I always think these types of exhibition “stories” should leave a room empty for a changing display as history happens in real time.

The Sun Yat-sen Trail and many other aspects of heritage preservation are thus presented as a “simulacrum” of the past that is no longer physically present. Recently the Lai Chi Kok fun park was “reconstructed” at the Tamar waterfront. Can a reconstruction capture the “heart” of the original? Have the simulated and the “real” been substituted so frequently that they have become indistinguishable?

I wonder what happens, like those citizens of Thekla wondered, what will happen if the construction ever stops and if history is seen in its proper context.

It’s still a work in progress.

Jennifer Eagleton

Jennifer Eagleton, a Hong Kong resident since 1997, is a policy committee member of the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation and was an adviser to the University of Hong Kong’s “Designing Democracy Hong Kong” project. Her PhD analyzed how Hong Kong talks about democracy through metaphor. She is a teacher of English and linguistics as well as researcher and editor.