In the rush to gentrify parts of Hong Kong, essential elements of the city's vibrant nature are being lost. So what does the gentrification of Hong Kong mean for the city? Columnist John Batten offer his opinion
In Hong Kong's older industrial areas it is still common to see a sign outside a restaurant stating that its use is for "the building's factory employees only". I imagine one consequence of these restaurants having a restrictive zoning provision is that the landlord must charge reasonable rent and this is passed down by the restaurant operator with lower-priced meals. Such a restriction on the use of a site is not unusual in Hong Kong's industrial areas.
Hong Kong's character is specifically defined by its vibrant street activity. Most of Hong Kong's older areas commercial activity
Something similar is happening in California. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently proposed an ordinance to prohibit large tech companies from serving meals to staff within their own premises. This is an attempt to ensure other nearby independent restaurants are not unfairly disadvantaged by employees eating in-house only. By imposing such a law, it is hoped that food and beverage establishments and the retail environment will have a greater chance of survival by getting employees out of their offices and patronising an area's local businesses. It was not so long ago in Hong Kong that there was a similar tradition: businesses providing lunch for their employees, with food prepared and delivered by a nearby restaurant and everyone eating together, like a family, at round tables. A modern variation of this practice is that some businesses offer discounts to their employees at company-owned restaurants.
The ecology of a retail and commercial shopping and eating area is fragile. At a minimum, for it to be a vibrant and safe place, the streets need to be full of people. To achieve this, of course, streets need accessible street-level shops. Remove shopping and an area becomes desolate and unwelcoming. Places without street activity, such as neglected areas in large American cities, can become crime-spots.
Hong Kong's character is specifically defined by its vibrant street activity. Most of Hong Kong's older areas commercial activity. Apartment and commercial buildings in these areas will usually have a narrow corridor-entrance leading to a small lift lobby, so a shop can fit into the ground-floor layout. And, as public transportation is so good, residents living in Mong Kok, Yau Ma Tei, North Point and Wan Chai don't need a car or car parking.
But gentrification changes everything. Having the right image is important. New, expensive developments make a feature of the entrance lobby, and a car-entrance is a necessity. In new commercial developments that replace older residentia l buildings, the Transport Department demands that car parking be included, requiring ground-level ramps and unloading spaces. Shops are removed from development plans and the surrounding space is monopolised as circulation areas.
The gentrification of Hong Kong is what is happening at 45 Queen's Road East in Wan Chai, a new development proposed by Swire Properties that adds to its nearby Pacific Place portfolio. The Town Planning Board is currently considering their planning application (number A/H5/411). If passed, another slice of Hong Kong's streetscape will be sanitised and local services lost to gentrification.