The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Distinctly Indistinct

You can always spot the tourists, because their eyes constantly glance upwards. I guess that makes me a tourist. I still unabashedly stare at Hong Kong’s charismatic skyscrapers and massive residential slabs. On the one hand, this means I’m actually seeing buildings—unlike local residents who whisk past them with an efficiency of movement that prohibits even a momentary look upwards. The tourist’s gaze, however, rips buildings from their context, fetishizing structures instead of understanding the building within the fabric of the city. Certainly, my photography does not help, but only further pulls them out of their place. In photography, one takes images, even the verb implies a plucking out of context. Perhaps stemming from its origins as a gateway city, Hong Kong’s built environment encourages a global—even placeless—outlook on the world that, paradoxically, is distinctly Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s architecture aids in this destruction of context. Much of the city is in an international architectural style that ignores the local geography. The ten story mall near me has no windows; with its inward looking atrium and high-end chain stores, it could be anywhere in the world. This refusal to recognize a place is not uncommon in Hong Kong. Even the few efforts to create a Hong Kong identity through architecture only furthered the erasing of context. Many Hong Kong residents were furious with the construction of the Bank of China Building, because it did not adhere to the rules of feng shui. One well-known politician even refused to live in the central city to avoid the bad feng shui that reflected off the building. Despite the attempt to create a unique Hong Kong architectural style, the Bank of China Building did not adhere to local standards. However in eyes of the Bank of China, the building succeeded in its goal of becoming an international icon, strengthening the image of the bank around the world.

In stark contrast to the iconic buildings of Central, my favorite areas to explore are residential neighborhoods that consist of rows upon rows of high-rises. These buildings were not built for the sake of any architectural statement but rather to maximize profit through cost-efficient construction. Even more so than New York, the architecture of Hong Kong unapologetically inscribes capitalism into space. These nondescript residential slabs look as if they could belong anywhere, but at the same time, they are the direct result of government land use policies that I’m only beginning to learn something about. This combination makes these buildings simultaneously “placeless” and particularly HK. You can feel it when you walk around these areas. These neighborhoods blur the boundaries between the eerily familiar and the new and strange.

This month, HK was again ranked the “most free” place on Earth in terms of trade. Blessed with few natural resources, Hong Kong grew as a wildly successful site of exchange. Both the residential slabs and the iconic buildings are indicative of a so-called import-export mentality that’s devoted to profit and global trade. The tourists snapping photos of famous buildings may not understand the particular set of policies or cultural milieu that gave rise to them, but by circulating photos of the buildings, they enhance the buildings’ global appeal through exchange. And nothing could be more Hong Kong than that.

Category: Blog Entries


2 Responses

  1. Amy says:

    Hey Chris~~

    I’ve been enjoying your blog as well. And I love the “photo blog” — you’ve taken some really beautiful and interesting pictures.

    Good luck with the teaching and everything. If I do make it down south I’ll be sure to give you a ring. And likewise if you ever find yourself in Beijing this year, let me know!

  2. chezshay says:

    Nice shot of the couple, a lot of emotional intensity captured.

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