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Aug. 26, 2015

Carolyn Loeb: Greetings from Hong Kong

Aug. 26, 2015

Carolyn Loeb is an associate professor of art and architectural history and associate dean in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities. She taught a summer course at Lingnan University through the auspices of MSU’s Office of the Associate Provost for University Outreach and Engagement. Lingnan University is a relatively new, small, liberal arts university in Hong Kong, though its roots lie in pre-revolutionary Guangzhou, China.

It’s a slow season here at Lingnan University in Hong Kongwalkway at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, but it’s not hard to imagine how its many shady nooks and patios might be filled during the school year with lively groups of students and their boisterous and intense conversations. A compact, green, elegantly designed campus, its covered walkways — protection against both blazing sun and torrential rain — link academic and service buildings. These surround an open quad of burbling fountains and pools that are home to carp and to full-throated frogs that sound off nightly. But at this time of year, there seem to be as many cats in residence as students.

I’m here teaching a summer course called The Presence of the Past: Monuments and Memorials in the Department of Visual Studies. I have a good group of 12 students from a variety of departments, including English, translation, business, and science (these two are visiting students from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) as well as visual studies.

Instruction at Lingnan is conducted in English, though almost all the students are from Hong Kong and their first language is Cantonese. There are also some students from Mainland China; their mother tongue is Mandarin.

One of the liveliest classes we had so far took place the day we discussed historic preservation and the thicket of ideas about heritage in Hong Kong. This topic has emerged as a focus of attention only relatively recently, for reasons I mention below, and many of my students are clearly deeply engaged in identifying meaningful ways to connect to their complex past.Lingnan University on a hill

The past is multiple in Hong Kong: here it is represented by the colonial Marine Police HQ, now shops and a hotel; a Tang guest house from 1874 in the New Territories; and 20th-century neon signage that people today are fighting to protect and preserve.

Lingnan University is located on the western side of the New Territories, the large northern landmass of Hong Kong that physically connects this archipelago of 250 islands to China. An incredibly efficient public transit system allows for swift passage to the downtown areas of Kowloon, on the southern tip of the peninsula, and of Hong Kong Island, across the harbor.                                       

Lingnan University’s relationship to Hong Kong as a whole reminds me of that between my home college, the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, and MSU. Lingnan’s intimate scale and calm environment complement the bustle and dynamism of Hong Kong’s multifaceted districts in a way that is analogous to the balance between the RCAH’s small-scale, convivial living-learning community and the broader curricular and co-curricular menu that the wider campus offers.

They are similar, too, in that they are far from cloistered; both play active roles in their societies through civic engagement projects and curricular emphases. Students and faculty at Lingnan, just like many of their fellow Hong Kong citizens, have been motivated to reflect on and act to shape the new relationship that is forming between this former British colony and China. British control ended in 1997, at the expiration of its 99-year lease on the New Territories, when it “handed over” Hong Kong to China, within which Hong Kong is now a Special Administrative Region.

Since then, Hong Kong people have been examining what it is that defines them as a society and a culture. Having had such different historical experiences from Mainland Chinese, the idea of merging into that society is not a comfortable one for most Hong Kong people. Their search for their own footing also takes the form of struggling to create democratic institutions in the face of China’s unwillingness to permit them. This led to last fall’s Umbrella Revolution and to this June’s somewhat vexed vote in the Hong Kong legislature to reject China’s plan for restricting electoral choices.

In this regard, as in many others, Hong Kong provides a front-row seat in the theater of contemporary globalization. A nexus of international trade and finance, Hong Kong’s future will be shaped — in ways that defy prediction — by economic and social relationships and their impact on evolving political arrangements.

Hong Kong skylineMeanwhile, daily life here continues at a frenetic pace. Against the backdrop of steep green hills and mountains that otherwise command the landscape and shape its settlement, towers and high-rises dominate Hong Kong’s skylines. Every valley has been filled in with dense clusters of skyscrapers, climbing the hillsides as far as it’s feasible. The downtown business core is a bristling band of corporate towers crowding from nearly vertical hills to the harbor’s edge, a limit that’s always being pushed by expanding the buildable landmass with fill.

The global circulation of goods and money that drives Hong Kong’s economy has its counterpart in the seamless transit networks that speed people through the city. These are video games come to life, the actualization of virtuality, functioning in a real fourth dimension where space meets time.

Surface roads plug up with traffic, but beneath and above ground long expanses of train and subway cars run at three-minute intervals. Trams and buses, many of them double-decker, and mini-buses travel for shorter distances. Aerial walkways enable pedestrians to move independently of surface congestion and protected from the weather; they create a geography that’s separate from the street plan we read on maps. Shops line many old streets, but almost every newer building includes a mall, each one another node among the interconnecting walkways. People must circulate so that goods can.

And so it’s with a bit of relief that I return after a day of exploring the city to the relative calm of the campus and the syncopated bellows of the frogs.

Reprinted with permission from the RCAH website