Every weekend for the past month my social media feeds have featured photographs of the dramatic roof arches at the State Theatre in North Point. People upload photos after visiting the exhibition, which has been meticulously curated to record the forgotten glories of the building.
It is a smart marketing move by Adrian Cheng, CEO of New World Development. The once abandoned cinema, a grade one historic structure built in 1952, is now a weekend destination.
Many visitors are excited that they can set foot in the city’s last grand post-war theatre after reading so much about it in the past couple of years. The exhibition, however, is not without its critics, with some saying the developer is promoting business in the name of culture.
As a conservation writer who witnessed the frustrations in preserving vernacular architecture – buildings characterised by the use of local materials and knowledge and based on local needs – the State Theatre is a case study in developers’ changing attitudes towards conservation.
For as long as we can remember, only grand colonial buildings, important temples and ancestral halls that confirm the overarching narrative of Hong Kong have been preserved, while vernacular structures have been labelled obstacles to development. The structures that shaped our past and our memories have been denigrated as “dilapidated” and “eyesores”, which must make way for flashy buildings befitting a financial centre.
The opening speech by Donald Choi, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects, in the institute’s January webinar calling for the conservation of the Bishop Hill Reservoir, was the first time a major member of the development sector had openly rebuffed such a narrative.
“Cities are carriers of culture and histories, and function as transmitters of social identities,” said Choi, who is CEO of Chinachem Group. “Forms of cities represent community values. Historical structures and cultural heritage are indispensable to the long-term success of our culture and tourism. Many global cities earnestly value historical and cultural heritage and see them as important resources.”
“They invest in heritage conservation so the heritage can contribute to the cultural development of cities. Thus, conserving historical structures should not be treated as obstacles to development. Demolition of historic buildings is destruction of Hong Kong’s common heritage and valuable resources.”
Last month, in an online forum, Cheng of New World Development said artistic considerations are now part of a developer’s business model, as a new generation seeks intangible experiences in life.
Historical structures, including the vernaculars, are an important common heritage. Previous generations made the structures meaningful and the structures in turn made the city meaningful and special. Unfortunately, they are seen as inconveniences to the short-sighted people and institutions who care only about earning windfall profits as quickly as possible. So our common heritage is constantly being belittled, slandered and framed as unfit for a metropolis and an obstacle to development. For persuasion to work, conservation advocates must argue their case in business terms.
Political theorist Wendy Brown in her 2015 publication Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution maintained that neoliberalism has transformed the rationality of governing so that everything is “economised.” In simple terms, the dominance of neoliberalism means people and things are monetarised and judged in accordance with their economic value. While it is important to acknowledge the profound impact of neoliberalism and how it twisted our value system, why not use its logic to get things done?
Choi’s comments and the business decision of a major developer show that some 15 years after the wholesale demolition of Wan Chai’s Wedding Card Street, and the government’s unfulfilled pledge to reinstall Queen’s Pier, cracks are appearing in the narrative manufactured to belittle and slander vernacular architecture.
In the case of the State Theatre, the developer curated an Instagrammble exhibition for visitors. People bring meaning back to the once abandoned theatre, through which new meanings are created.
Memories and experiences that made space meaningful and rendered Hong Kong unique are playing a more important role in the development sector, thanks to the persistent efforts of many who believe in the intangible value of our vernacular heritage.
It is important to acknowledge that this is still only a fringe practice. Across Victoria Harbour, we have started seeing the soullessness of a new Kwun Tung town centre following the wholesale demolition of a vibrant working-class neighbourhood. The General Post Office in Central will soon by pulled down to make way for a huge commercial development.
We still don’t know what the future of the State Theatre will be, such as what kind of cultural performances will be staged in the rejuvenated theatre. Let us congratulate ourselves for now and return to the campaign after taking a short break.
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