September 22, 2005

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Hong Kong's Times Square

Today the SCMP profiles Hong Kong's Times Square - not the Causeway Bay shopping centre, but Mongkok's Portland St. Just as New York City cleaned up Times Square, so Mongkok is being transformed. The opening of the massive Langham Place office/hotel/shopping centre complex has changed the area from a red light district to a fashionable tourist and entertainment mecca. The new centre has resulted in rising rents (by 75% according to the SCMP), forcing out the triads and brothels and bringing in wealthier shoppers and tourists. But hookers and triads don't disappear, they just move their place of business.

To that end I highly recommend reading Times Regained, from The New Yorker about the history and regeneration of Times Square. Much of it applies to equally to Hong Kong and Mongkok, with one important exception. Some excerpts (but read the whole thing):

...There are, of course, people who miss the old Times Square, its picturesque squalor and violence and misery and exploitation. Those who pointed at the old Times Square as an instance of everything that capitalism can do wrong now point to the new Times Square as an instance of everything that capitalism can do worse. Where once Times Square was hot, it is now cold, where once varied, now uniform, where once alive, now dead. Which just proves, as with the old maxim about belief, that people who refuse to be sentimental about the normal things don’t end up being sentimental about nothing; they end up being sentimental about anything, shedding tears about muggings and the shards of crack vials glittering like diamonds in the gutter...

The myth they [authors of two books on Times Square] want to dispel is that the cleanup of Times Square in the nineties was an expression of Mayor Giuliani’s campaign against crime and vice, and of his companion tendency to accept a sterilized environment if they could be removed, and that his key corporate partner in this was the mighty Disney, which led the remaking of West Forty-second Street as a theme park instead of an authentic urban street. As Traub and Sagalyn show, this is nearly the reverse of the truth...

The story follows, on a larger scale than usual, the familiar form of New York development, whose stages are as predictable as those of a professional wrestling match: first, the Sacrificial Plan; next, the Semi-Ridiculous Rhetorical Statement; then the Staged Intervention of the Professionals; and, at last, the Sorry Thing Itself...

Of all the ironies of the Times Square redevelopment, the biggest is this: that the political right is, on the whole, happy with what has happened, and points to Times Square as an instance of how private enterprise can cure things that social engineering had previously destroyed, while the left points to Times Square as an instance of how market forces sterilize and drive out social forces of community and authenticity. But surely the ghosts of the old progressives in Union Square should be proudest of what has happened. It was, after all, the free market that produced the old Times Square: the porno stores were there because they made money, as part of a thriving market system. Times Square, and Forty-second Street, was saved by government decisions, made largely on civic grounds. Nothing would have caused more merriment on the conservative talk shows than the luts regulations—imagine some bureaucrat telling you how bright your sign should be—but it is those lights which light the desks of the guys at the offices of Clear Channel on Forty-second Street, and bring the crowds that make them safe. Civic-mindedness, once again, saved capitalism from itself...

This last point is where the New York/Hong Kong comparison falls down. Here civic-mindedness is non-existent in Government circles. Make Tamar a park instead of building a new Legco building? Make West Kowloon a park and arts complex rather than a property development? Stop reclaiming the harbour for evermore roads and office projects?

A simple dose of civic-mindedness could do wonders for this city. It's a shame it will never happen.

posted by Simon on 09.22.05 at 11:14 AM in the Hong Kong category.


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Noooo ... Leave Mongkok alone! Never mind driving out the hookers and triads, I'm sure they're vastly outnumbered by the small legitimate businesses which make Mongkok the most interesting place on Earth. Another bit of heritage bites the dust.

Furthermore, the disturbing architecture of Langham Place is clearly indicative of some evil plot by the great Cthulhu.

posted by: Bromgrev on 09.22.05 at 06:11 PM [permalink]

I'd like to welcome the visitors from Great Eagle holdings visiting this post. Great job with Langham Place.

posted by: Simon on 09.22.05 at 07:20 PM [permalink]

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