Of Forbidden Words and Architecture in Hong Kong

In “Of Forbidden Words and Architecture in Hong Kong” author and journalist Ilaria Maria Sala sketches the development of architecture in Hong Kong as it opens more and more doors to Beijing and the interests of the Chinese mainland. The controversial Palace Museum, designed to house antique objects from the Forbidden City of Beijing, is the latest example of how the local culture is being undermined for the benefit of the central culture. For The Dissident Blog she writes about Rocco Yim, the architect who created the Central Government Complex that symbolically faces north and the more dominating Beijing.

June 13 2019 Text: Ilaria Maria Sala

Rocco Yim is one of Hong Kong’s most prominent architects: he designed the buildings that form the government complex, which opened in 2011, the centre of which is a tall, modernist arch facing north. It looks towards the Victoria harbour, the natural deep-sea port that made Hong Kong a desirable trading enclave for its British conquerors in the mid-19thcentury. It looks north towards the Kowloon peninsula. But if we want to be symbolic about it, we can say it looks towards Beijing, searching for clues, maybe. It is an unrelated fact that soon after Rocco Yim’s building was inaugurated, the Hong Kong government gave up all pretence of listening to its citizens, and making policies with local needs in mind. This is not to say that while the government was headquartered in Central, just a short distance away, the relationship between the Hong Kong people and Hong Kong authorities had been easy and seamless. Far from it. Since the handover to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, things have been changing always in the same direction. Fences have been going up. Journalists have had an increasingly hard time getting interviews from the political eliteand if they do get them, the replies are so vague and dismissive of all concerns as to make little sense. 

Also, in spite of the official slogan Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong, intended to end a century and a half of colonization, today there is less public consultation and public involvement, both in day-to-day affairs and in the creation of more fundamental policies, than there was. The British colonial authorities were definitely not keen on democracy, but Hong Kong has narrower representation today than it did in 1997. While universal suffrage for the election of the legislature and of the executive has not yet been fully introduced, in spite of all the promises, the first post-colonial Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa, scrapped the Regional and Urban Councils, which were elected by universal suffrage, in 1999. Today, Hong Kong’s governance is characterized by top-down decisions that mostly benefit big real estate developers, local pro-Beijing groups and mainland Chinese interests, weather political or economic. Not exclusively, of course, but mostly. However, back when Rocco Yim’s building was unveiled, few among us here in China or even anywhere in the world, were quite able to predict how much things were going to change once Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. 

In 2006 I interviewed Chinese journalist Li Datong, the reform-minded former editor of Freezing Point, a critical weekly in the state newspaper China Youth Daily, that was always pushing the envelope. Li, a widely respected senior editor, had been suspended from his position following a series of challenging articles he had approved: in one, the writer was questioning the official narrative on Taiwan. In another, a different author was decrying the way in which history was being manipulated to serve the needs of Communist Party propaganda. Yet another article even tried to have an open discussion on the Cultural Revolution that ravaged the country in the 60s and 70s, under Mao Zedong. Many other essays in Freezing Point were promoting critical thinking, and walking just a few steps beyond the safety line. Nobody knows for sure whether it was a single piece that enraged the censors, or if they had just grown tired of his overly liberal approach, but Li was removed from his position and made jobless. The magazine was pulped and went out of print. A few months after this, I went to see him in the outskirts of Beijing, and we sat in a small café where I was prepared to offer my sympathies for his predicament. He surprised me by being upbeat and full of hope: he said he had gone to school with Xi Jinping (who was already being groomed as the next in line to become General Communist Party Secretary and President) and he thought that a new generation of leaders was going to be more modern. More in tune with society. Less hell-bent on censorship. I finished the interview feeling moderately optimistic: internal reforms seemed unlikely, as they might unleash forces that the Communist Party would be unable to control, but perhaps things might start opening up somewhat.

Instead, six years later, as Xi Jinping’s reign started (and we do not know how long it will last, given that in 2018 Xi removed all term limits on his mandate) the whole of China felt the chill. Hong Kong too was squeezed, every day a little bit more. Students were fighting to keep their curriculum free of heavy-handed political ideology and obviously chose the small square inside Rocco Yim’s complex to demonstrate, with a sit-in that managed to delay the introduction of what is known as the National Education Curriculum. Then in 2014 Beijing showed it had no patience for Hong Kong’s desire for democracy, and proposed a long-awaited electoral reform package that technically did allow universal suffrage, but only for pre-approved electoral candidates. The opposition to this undemocratic version of democracy spread rapidly—turning into a 78-day student-led protest, which took possession of some of the main avenues of Hong Kong, both in Hong Kong island and in the working class neighbourhood of Mongkok, on the Kowloon Peninsula. 

After having deserted the region for quite a while, hundreds of journalists from all over the world came to report on the biggest Hong Kong political event to take place since the 1997 handover of sovereignty. Everyone was walking and sitting, sometimes even sleeping, all around Rocco Yim’s government complex. Ramps that had been designed for vehicles had become the living quarters of pedestrians; a garden that was meant for weekend walks had turned into a slightly softer terrain for the occupiers’ tents; near-brutalist concrete walls a blank canvas for endless creativity. About a month after the protests were over, in January 2015, I asked Yim for an interview. I wanted to know how it felt to have had his own design used in such an unexpected way, with every single nook he had planned re-purposed in a novel fashion. He received me in his office, where his firm, Rocco Design Architects Ltd, is located, and seemed at ease and fairly serene. In spite of three months of protests coming to an end without any concessions for the students, many people at the time felt relatively relaxed. There had been no violence, though some had feared a replay of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. There had been few arrests. And those who had been active during the demonstrations were planning to run for elections, and bring the voices of protest and dissatisfaction into the government. At the time, neither Rocco Yim nor I knew that an even colder wind would bring all this to an end through the use of court cases and pretextuousarguments to throw newly elected young pro-democracy legislators out of the Legislative Council. 

During our conversation, Yim told me he had been happy to see parts of the government complex turned to such unorthodox use. In particular he had been inspired by what became known as the Lennon Wall, where everyone was attaching colourful Post-its with messages of encouragement. He enjoyed seeing how it had started “having its own life: I didn’t before, but I do now. It would be very stimulating for it to go on being what it was,” he said, smiling.

Then, little by little, everything changed. Certain things have now become unspeakable. And the space in which we move has become much narrower. A fence has gone up surrounding the government building, and access is a lot harder than ever before: journalists now have to go through a metal detector, an electronic turnstile, and are then ushered in by security. A lot of new anti-terrorism drills and measures have been put in place in Hong Kong, even if, by all accounts, the risk of terrorism is relatively low in the territory. 

In mid-February, Rocco Yim was invited to give the opening talk in a series of public lectures on architecture at Hong Kong University. I always enjoy architecture talks, as they are right at the intersection of philosophy and art: how should people live? How should the space around them be structured, and for what purpose? And how do we make it appealing? Nowadays Yim probably wouldn’t speak as positively about the idea of a wall as a free canvas, right by the government’s headquarters. In fact, he illustrated his work, and Hong Kong’s ingeniousness in maximizing spatial use, openly wondering how local cultural particularities “can be of use to the rest of China.” 

Also, continuing on his steady path of ever greater imprint on Hong Kong, Rocco Yim has been nominated to take charge of one of the most controversial projects to date. He will be building the new Palace Museum, as part of the West Kowloon Cultural District: it is going to be a new container in Hong Kong for a collection of antiques from the Forbidden City in Beijing—a present meant to strengthen Hong Kong’s cultural knowledge and identification with the rest of China, which has been decided in the most secretive of ways. A gifted jewel. A Trojan horse. A new sign that local culture isn’t as precious as centralized culture. 

During Rocco Yim’s lecture, the main theatre was packed, and the talk was stimulating, but I was constantly distracted by the very persistent, disrespectful chatting of two young women behind me, and of two others, just a few seats away. And I was trying not to feel particularly annoyed by the fact that they were not speaking in the local language, Cantonese, but in Mandarin, the language of mainland China. Their rudeness, I kept repeating to myself, would have been just as bad in English, or Cantonese. Except it was in Mandarin. And they kept criticizing Hong Kong’s skyline, which made me feel annoyed and defensive. When they said that most Chinese cities have much taller buildings I turned my head and looked at them very sternly: “Please be quiet,” I said. 

On stage, Yim had finished his presentation, and was accepting questions from the audience. One student asked how was it possible in modern Hong Kong to push forward “social architecture without fear after what… after… after what has happened”. Yim nodded, as if telling her he understood what she was referring to. Another student asked a question on a similar vein, again trying to reference the protest movement without actually saying it. After all, it had taken place around Rocco Yim’s complex. And there we were. Wondering out loud how it was possible to serve the Chinese mainland, while learning not to pronounce what has become politically inconvenient. Eliding Hong Kong’s history and aspirations as quickly as possible.

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Ilaria Maria Sala is an author and journalist, raised in Italy but currently living in Hong Kong. She writes for international papers such as The New York TimesLe Monde, and Hong Kong Free Press. She writes mainly about politics and societal concerns in China and Hong Kong. She is one of the founders and current Vice Chairperson of PEN Hong Kong.