It’s seventeen degrees and there isn’t a cloud in the sky, which is exactly the kind of weather that Hong Kong is most agreeable in. The sweltering humidity of summer has passed, and this year’s predicted ‘polar vortex’ hasn’t yet set in. I’m making my way down Hollywood Road, famed for its antique shops and galleries, towards the district of Sheung Wan.
Sheung Wan is perhaps best known for being an expatriate, hipster, blogger, and Instagram-famous international school hangout. The gentrification that has taken place over the last ten or so years has led to a proliferation of boutique stores, cafes, health food and vegetarian restaurants, and art galleries, all contributing to Hong Kong’s buzzing urban lifestyle. Sheung Wan seems to be a microcosm of Hong Kong as a whole, poised on the cusp of development and connection, while still desperately trying to cling on to its traditional roots. East merges with West and the old battles it out with the new. Not uncommon is the sight of a cheap Kodak disposable being pulled out of a satchel, or a Cannon DSLR strung around a neck. The area is undoubtedly photogenic and entire blog posts have been dedicated to days out in Sheung Wan. The juxtaposition of the heady incense drifting out from the temples with close-ups of latte milk designs is any young creative’s dream.
With their purely aesthetic intentions, these photographs fail to confront the underlying questions which surround Sheung Wan and Hong Kong as a whole. What kind of city does Hong Kong want to be? Is it still a post-colonial state, where traditional culture is to be gazed at curiously while supplemented by the amenities and comforts of the West? Is it an area that wants to be defined by the massive influxes of cash that mainland tourists provide, buying designer goods and one of a kind art works, but bringing with them increased influence from Beijing? Or, is it a place consciously trying to define its own identity, despite being bombarded by conflicting influences from all sides? Drifting through Sheung Wan provides a case for any of these possibilities, the streets contradicting themselves past every corner. A massive health food market is a mere minute’s walk from a Chinese medicine shop, where ingredients are being left on the sidewalk to dry.
Those of us who live in this fantastic city are responsible for recognising these issues, and the fact that they will become increasingly prevalent. Being born and raised in Hong Kong no longer means you are by default ingrained in its culture. The expatriate community especially must take action to learn about the new ways in which culture is changing here, to begin to disentangle ourselves from all of our colonial connotations, to take ourselves out from behind the camera lens and see more than just the aesthetics. We cannot keep on taking our photographs without realising their deeper significance, particularly looking back at the Umbrella Revolution (Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy protests) and this year’s parliamentary controversies, involving the rejection of anti-Beijing lawmakers from Hong Kong’s main legislative body, the Legislative Council. It is becoming increasingly clear, especially for expatriates, that our role as citizens must involve more active participation in all aspects of Hong Kong’s politics, culture, and lifestyle. Without a meaningful dialogue about what we want Hong Kong’s future to be, we run the risk of losing the city that we love to the often unforgiving forces of globalisation. In order to claim and citizenship, we have to prove that we are willing to stop taking Hong Kong for granted by relegating it to little more than an aesthetically pleasing post for our Instagram feeds.