Defying Disappearance: Cosmopolitan Public Spaces in Hong Kong

Lisa Law

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Law, L. (1). Defying Disappearance: Cosmopolitan Public Spaces in Hong Kong. Urban Studies, 39(9), 1625–1645.

This paper explores the relationship between public space and cultural politics in Hong Kong. There is a tendency to assert that public space is disappearing in the city, whether through overt control of the public sphere or the commodification of landscape. While similar views have been expressed in relation to many cities around the world, in Hong Kong these concerns are difficult to disentangle from post-colonial politics. This paper therefore situates anxieties about public space within an historical geography of the Central district. This contextual strategy is deployed to frame a contemporary case study of the imaged powerful and powerless in the city: Hong Kong Land, Central leading landlord and Filipino domestic workers who gather in Central on Sundays to enjoy their day off. It is suggested that this gathering and the political rallies it hosts disrupt normative understandings of public space by introducing a transnational element that helps us to see Hong Kong’s public spaces as contested. The paper concludes by pointing to the possibilities opened up by conceiving the public space of Central as a cultural landscape and as a cosmopolitan space reflective of Hong Kong’s possible futures.

Main finding
Through the study of Filipino domestic workers appropriation of Statue Square on Sundays (transforming it into ‘Little Manila’), the author challenged the notion that this public space is disappearing through corporatization or is simply (reductively) architecturally cultural/symbolic with immigrants occupying it. Rather, the author suggested the public space is one being continually transformed, rewritten, and reinterpreted by different people in connection to transnationalism and globalization - hence it is a cosmopolitan space with a multiple and dynamic cultural symbolism. Within this dynamism a transformative potential exists. The birth of Little Manila was in part born out of both economic restructuring (need for domestic workers) and corporatization (creation of pedestrian mall), yet the migrants inscribe their own meanings into the space and transform it socially and materially every Sunday and through their advocacy actions.

Description of method used in the article
The author included an historical approach to the case study through written and photographic documentation of British colonialism in Central Hong Kong from the mid-19th century to the 1990s. The author also drew on and critiques two scholarly perspectives on the disappearance of public space to develop her conception of the case study site as a cosmopolitan space. First, with the work of Ackbar Abbas, the author challenged the notion that physical architecture’s symbolism is what maintains colonial space and contributes to ‘placelessness’ and anonymity - thus, the visual alone cannot capture the dynamism social relations bring to space. Second, the author drew on Cuthbert and McKinnell’s analysis of the role of corporatization and consumerism in the privatization of public space.

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