Weeks of unrest by Hong Kong’s democracy campaigners has met with intransigent opposition from the government, while producing new experiences of the city’s spaces, writes John Lin
Just try and kick a ball around on one of Hong Kong’s many green lawns and almost immediately a uniformed guard will appear to politely inform you that it’s against park rules. That is if you are even allowed on the grass at all. This is certainly the case if you try to enjoy the beautifully maintained open space running directly underneath the new government headquarters building, connecting the new harbor edge with the old city edge. This well-designed and well-intentioned civic space, described on the official government website with the self-stated theme ‘Doors Always Open’, would seem to be the perfect place to stage a protest. A photogenic backdrop framed directly underneath government offices, including the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. Even the architect Rocco Yim has discussed his intention to bring public use right to the heart of the government. But in over three weeks since the so called ‘umbrella revolution’ began in Hong Kong, the space has remained strangely silent. Instead thousands of protesters have preferred to occupy the highway infrastructure running beneath and along the back of the building, where civil servants typically enter for work. This choice of protest site, whether strategically placed to disrupt traffic or a strong desire to inhabit spaces against their design, has resulted in an impromptu and often exhilarating experiment in Hong Kong urbanism.
On 28 September, when students took to the streets in Hong Kong after the arrest of several of their leaders at the culmination of a week of class boycotts, initially the effort was simply a mass demonstration of dissatisfaction with new rules regulating the promise of universal suffrage in the upcoming 2017 elections for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. These regulations handed down by Beijing allow for a small nominating committee of 1200 members (representing mostly business interests) to put forth candidates for election, effectively maintaining political control with Pro-Beijing loyalists. This proposal has been criticized as ‘false’ democracy. Police were immediately sent to quell the protest with pepper spray and tear gas. Students defending themselves with goggles, masks and umbrellas, were dubbed the ‘umbrella revolution’. In the weeks of standstill following the initial violence, the students occupied the streets and highways, transforming them beyond recognition.
The use of the central business district as an urban recreational ground is not new in Hong Kong. Especially on Sundays where streets are closed off to allow for some of the nearly 300,000 Filipino and other foreign domestic workers to gather on their single day off. Under current regulations, helpers must live, often in small spaces, within their employers’ flats. As a logical solution to find space suitable to accommodate the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of these workers, the centre of financial power in Hong Kong is given over to those near the bottom of the economic scale one day a week. Activities such as dancing, fashion shows, hair cutting, sports and informal markets occur in broad daylight on empty streets. The sight of hundreds of domestic helpers gathered in makeshift cardboard spaces on the open ground floor of the Norman Foster designed HSBC bank headquarters building makes a unique urban spectacle. It reflects the ability of architecture to facilitate a social agenda through the provision of public open space. However, over the past three weeks since the protests began, perhaps the fear of political involvement has prompted even the HSBC bank to shutter its own ground floor space, leaving the domestic helpers out on the streets this past Sunday. Like the government headquarters building, the HSBC bank is well-intentioned but it is ultimately subject to the politics of its leaders.
Hong Kong is not really a city of the street; there is not much street available in the first place. With its combination of wildly varyied topography, which results in extremely narrow sidewalks, and the hot and humid climate, forcing the public to congregate within indoor malls and retails spaces, this is not the first time that the city has had to do battle with the streets. Starting in the mid ‘70’s the city decided to clean up the vibrant network of open air marketplaces and food stalls called Dai Pai Dongs in the quest for better hygiene and control. Subject to strict government regulation, these street markets have been in decline ever since. Unusually during the SARS epidemic in 2003, the Dai Pai Dong experienced a brief rise in popularity due to the belief that indoor air conditioning was contributing to the spread of the disease.
However over the past month, the streets have been reclaimed. The political occupation and the blockading of major highways in three of the busiest districts in Hong Kong has fostered creative and spontaneous urban responses. Transforming the space from traffic direction to the organisation of pedestrian activity has led to new signage and a graphic urbanism in the form of message walls, projection screens, alterations to existing signs and information displays on concrete barricades, walls and the pavement. The surge of protest art has also turned the site into a live gallery with tourists and artists in residence. Informal classrooms, free tutorials, yoga classes, and open air movie screenings have all occurred. Large scale constructions range from a draped canopy made from discarded umbrellas to custom-built bamboo structures as protest barricades. The atmosphere oscillates between casual street life mixed with protest activities and occasional clashes with police. Despite the inconveniences caused by traffic disruption, there is another story from residents in the area who suddenly enjoy walks along empty highways and three weeks of pollution free air in usually congested neighbourhoods. The protest site had transformed into a family friendly and environmentally conscious place to be, complete with playgrounds and cycling paths.
‘Even now as the barricades are forcibly removed, the city only appears to return to normality’
We really shouldn’t underestimate the demand for the Hong Kong street. It has been exhilarating for many to walk along empty highways, to experience wide open avenues in the midst of one of Asia’s busiest financial centres. As citizens of the city, it is a feeling we won’t soon forget. Even now as the barricades are forcibly removed and the government engages in talks with student leaders as protester numbers dwindle, the city only appears to return to normality. The early weeks of the umbrella revolution, when mostly students took to occupy the streets taught us a lesson in informal urbanism. The occupation did not spiral into chaos, but instead young people took responsibility for self-organized living, dealt with water and waste, creating zones of public and private space, built and amended existing highway infrastructure as necessary and literally transformed the city into their own vision of community living. Despite the efficiency of Hong Kong urban infrastructure, the common good, and community participation are not often factored in. Many of the underlying causes and concerns of the protests surround the unequal distribution of wealth in the city. Occupying the highways as space for vibrant pedestrian activity is an embodied critique of the established urban rules of the city and a de facto demand for an urban equality of space. Perhaps highlighting the potential for a new umbrella urbanism.
As the AR went to press, talks between protestors and government officals had stalled and a court order to clear the site was in force but not implemented