A man in a plaid shirt emerges from the folds of his collapsed tent and rolls up a foam mat. It's just after 10 a.m. on a rainy Saturday, and as small birds rush between the pillars of Queen's Pier, Hong Kong begins to cough into life with the ubiquitous sounds of buildingand of demolition.
Chen Yun-chung is one of about 20 activists who have been camping out in shifts on the grubby tile floor of Queen's Pier since April 26, the day the government closed this gray-on-gray Modernist structure for good. An assistant professor of urban planning at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Chen and other members of a loose-knit coalition of NGOs and student groups are determined to stop the pierbuilt in the colonial era as a disembarkation point for incoming dignitariesfrom being torn down or moved to make way for new roads and land reclamation. "People feel very powerless," Chen says. "They are very pessimistic about saving historic monuments."
Quixotic though protest may seem in the face of Hong Kong's relentless development, heritage is a hot issue. But the effort to save the pier (and a handful of other historical sites) is not so much about aesthetics as about what constitutes the community's inheritance and identity now that local officials, and not expatriate civil servants, are determining what gets saved.
You certainly couldn't call Queen's Pier beautiful. It's the memories bound up with it that seem to matter, like the comings and goings of Governors and royalty such as Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Diana. Activist Wat Yau-tin recalls being chosen to hand flowers to a visiting British dignitary as a boy. "It was the experience of a lifetime," he says. "I have witnessed the most glorious parts of this pier." Not everyone is so nostalgic for colonial rule, but Edward Leung, who chairs the heritage-and-conservation committee of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects, says that post-handover woes like the SARS epidemic and the resulting economic fallout ultimately helped residents develop a greater appreciation for what they have. "We discovered our own heritage," he says. "And we said, 'Oh, it's a great city after all. Maybe we should treasure it.'"
Taken aback by the criticism that followed the demolition and replacement last year of one of Hong Kong's two Star Ferry pierslike Queen's Pier, it was of doubtful architectural merit but an emotionally laden landmarkthe government has held public forums on heritage, and opened up some planning meetings to the public. But the official attitude is pragmatic at best. "We cannot afford heritage preservation if we do not preserve our economic sustainability," Chief Executive Donald Tsang said in a radio address earlier this year. "The two go hand in hand." (This of a place whose economic growth since the SARS year of 2003 has averaged an annual rate of 7.6%.) Preservationists say such an attitude ignores the desire of Hong Kong people for a say in shaping their environment. "We thought we'd gotten rid of colonial attitudes," says Chen, "but they are still with us."
Mary Ann King, a district councilor for the neighborhood of Wanchai, another area feeling the pressure of development, says the public clamor over the fate of Queen's Pier is just one facet of a growing civil-society movement that she feels Hong Kong's current leaders do not sufficiently acknowledge. "The British took away a lot of from us, but they knew how to leave space for people," she says. "You'd think to yourself, 'At least I have freedom, [even] if I don't have democracy.'" King is not advocating a return to the old days, but her position reflects the general frustration at the ability of the present government and the big property companies to alter the cityscape apparently at will.
In fairness to the authorities, finding more room for development out of a total available area of just over 1,100 sq km poses constant challenges, even with the currently miniscule rates of population growth. Most of Hong Kong's hilly, unstable land is unsuitable for building on, and the flat tracts and ravines making up the urban area have reached saturation. As for the fate of Queen's Pier, there are three official proposals: that it be dismantled during reclamation and rebuilt on its original site; that it be rebuilt on another waterfront site; or that it be rebuilt inland. The latter would look incongruous, certainly, but compromises between expedience and quality of life have characterized Hong Kong since its beginnings. A landlocked pier would be a strange but fitting new monument for the city.
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