That’s Nice, Let’s Tear it Down

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One wishes that Hong Kong’s heritage movement would pick its battles with greater discrimination. Its current cause célèbre—at least for another few hours, until bulldozers come and sweep it into the sea—is Queen’s Pier. I was there last night, to bid farewell to the equally doomed protestors who have been camped there for weeks, and as I picked my way among the listless hunger-strikers, the fluttering banners and the news cameramen—who have already staked out the best vantage points for filming the rout that will surely take place when the police arrive to evict the protesters—it struck me that Queen’s Pier was a strange thing to want to preserve. It isn’t particularly venerable (in fact it’s just 50 years old). It has all the architectural grace of a bus shelter in Almaty. It’s also a glaring symbol of colonialism, for this was the place where successive British governors landed to assume power over the empire’s little Asian dominion.
The last fact alone should spark off a round of high-fives at its demolition and replacement with a six-lane highway, but no. Here are the poets and the songwriters, the bearded profs and their nervous looking students, signing petitions in blood and calling for the pier to be preserved, in situ, forever. The reason is obvious and sad: it’s because, when it comes to conservation, this mucky little pier is about all we have. The structures that were really worth fighting for—the old General Post Office, the Hong Kong Club, the Repulse Bay Hotel, Kowloon Railway Station—were all atomized long ago, each of them replaced with artless new buildings. If one or two of them had been preserved, would anyone seriously consider going on a hunger strike over Queen’s Pier?
The protesters are well meaning. They have beautiful hearts. But there’s hardly anything left to save. Perhaps Hong Kong’s fate is to be forever shiny, forever new, to build up and tear down in a ceaseless reinvention of the cityscape. I know that isn’t much consolation, but I don’t see any other being offered at the moment.