Reviewed by Christopher Cowell （Singapore: Springer, 2016）
Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch, Vol. 57, 2017: 272-275
A challenge facing any historian writing a history of modern Hong Kong architecture is the ability to bring divergent themes conventionally considered beyond the discipline, together and, moreover, to make them cohere historically. The avant-garde process, in charting a history of pioneering philosophical and aesthetic movements, which drove the field, simply does not apply to the territory. As a colony, it was neither situated nor culturally disposed to provide for such endeavours. On one level then, Hong Kong’s individual works of modern architecture, at least up until the 1980s, must be considered globally insignificant. On quite another level, at the level of its wider urban morphology, when faced with enormous demographic and political challenges, such a morphology has proved to be both regionally resilient and globally significant.
Charlie Xue’s book ambitiously attempts to traverse this ‘low’ architecture/‘high’ architecture conundrum from 1945 to 2015, explaining it as a movement ‘From Colonial to Global’. It also, quite necessarily, charts the parallel political and economic strands upon which much of Hong Kong’s architectural narrative directly fed. This period is fundamental to the territory as, unlike Western Europe, Hong Kong did not just face post-war reconstruction but. rather, a fundamentally new morphological construction, an invention of itself from the base up. On the whole, this complex movement is traversed by the author with a deftness and keen awareness of the need to shift gradually and transmute focus through scale, purpose, and agency, in order to define what Hong Kong’s architectural strategies meant within each of the periods under investigation. Obviously, this presents a structural challenge in sequencing and framing. Xue’s decision is both to work through a general chronology ordered through its three parts, while tackling various themes by means of the chapters contained within each. The parts are split by two ‘demarcation events’: the first having direct legislative and commercial implications upon the built environment—the start of the MacLehose administration; the second, much less visible but more politically potent—the transfer of Hong Kong sovereignty in 1997.
Surprisingly, Xue’s book is the first comprehensive English-language survey of the subject. It is based quite closely on Xue’s very popular work in Chinese Contextualizing Modernity: Hong Kong Architecture, 1946-2011 (《城 境 – 香港建筑1946-2011》, 2014). Occasionally one is reminded of this by passages that suggest transliteration rather than translation. For instance, ‘Hong Kong timely took Shanghai’s talent/fund and relayed to build capitalism and skyscrapers’ (p. xix). However, despite occasional typographic and grammatical errors, which pepper the book, the flow of the argument is clear. There are also moments of wit and personal reflection.
The chapter sequence is, on the whole, well-constructed. As the author emphasises, it is his intention to ‘counterbalance this trend’ of the overuse of theory in academic writing on architecture (p. xix). While this is an acceptable stance to take, it does not mean that theoretical influences found within architectural discourse in the international post-war era or, say, postmodernist dialogues of the 1980s, should not have interpenetrated Hong Kong’s own dialogue. Nor should it imply that local architects being ‘less affected by ideology’ (p. xx) deter one from testing for ideologies running underneath the currents of contemporary debates.
To give an example, the interpenetration of the International Style into colonial Hong Kong’s security-led ideologies of governance has not been clearly made, perhaps because what constituted high Modernism was filtered through the 1950s colonial government’s bureaucratic apparatus. Such translating is not given due attention. So, if one takes the first two chapters together in their sequencing, it could be misread that early mass-housing models such as Shek Kip Mei’s Mark I housing (1954), or the Police Married Quarters (1951), were conceived prior to Modernism’s arrival, as if proto-form forms sprung from the mind of government. I am sure this is not the author’s intention. Other chapters are similarly hamstrung by the relatively insular historical focus upon Hong Kong’s territorial development, despite numerous allusions to international precedent or to wider conceptual debates of the time. A deeper analysis is not often carried through explaining what actually got transferred across, and how.
Despite its title, as a history of architecture, what Xue’s book excels at is in its wider urban exploration across the workings of the colony. This is especially so in that play between the governmental and commercial forces that tugged Hong Kong’s built environment into the shape it became—or is continually becoming. The run of chapters three, four and five: from the influx of immigrant architectural designers; to the astonishing formal effects on tight land plots caused by altering building regulations; to the emergence of the Chinese developer, are critical dimensions within Hong Kong’s peculiar urban ecosystem and its history. Such a sequence gives chapter six, on the beginnings of the Mass Transit Railway system and the interconnections of infrastructure, financing, and satellite urban development, a whole new underpinning.
Chapters seven and eight explore the building boom of the 1980s onwards, when de-colonisation of the territory intersected with an enhanced global presence, and its emphatic move from manufacturing to services. It juxtaposes the work of international firms engaged in the colony’s regeneration with a new breed of local architects equally enjoying the fruits of this renewal. For the first time Xue is able to detach from the format of urban and infrastructural analysis, and to write in a mode more familiar in modern architectural history books. We encounter a curated list of both star buildings and star architects, and it is welcome to see not just Norman Foster and I.M. Pei appearing, but also home-grown figures of significance, such as Tao Ho, Simon Kwan and Rocco Yim. They have been written about in Chineselanguage architectural texts, but it is good to see them find their proper place within a historical analysis of the territory for an English-reading audience.
The final section, on Hong Kong architecture within the new post-colony, is perhaps the most valuable, yet also the most delicate to engage in. We are too close in time to contemplate an actual history. Here, then, Xue’s overly structured way of thinking enters prematurely. By immediately listing out his themes— sustainable development, heritage conservation, harbour protection, and green architecture—he forecloses wider opportunities of dialogue, of a chance to discuss interconnected, broader stakes, and of a more nuanced, contemplative approach to this final section. The author initially mused that his personal recollections, which end each chapter, might be ‘challenged as superficial and impressionistic’ (p. xix). Quite the contrary. Instead of placing them as tail-ends to his sections, here they would be greatly welcomed in an expanded, interrogative form. Perhaps, for example, extending the brief analysis of the Umbrella Movement’s space appropriation and civil disobedience (p. 307) might shed light on how the built environment and architecture is more generally affecting and shaping the politics of the youth and Hong Kong identity today?
Nevertheless, Xue’s book, for want of anything comparable, is a much needed text. It is written with breadth and earnestness. It conveys the complex sweep of time that placed Hong Kong firmly on the world stage, and how various pressures—bureaucratic, economic, geographic, and geopolitical—generated a city of visual hyper-density, mobility, and of intense opportunity and vibrancy. Hong Kong may have moved from the colonial to the global, but underneath this shift was a converse demographic movement from a Hong Kong as stepping stone on the way to someplace else, to a Hong Kong as a final destination, to becoming a home for a new, self-identified citizenry. And it is at the intersection of these reverse movements that the stakes for the territory’s future are pegged out.