The question of space, place, and the particular pressure of an accelerated time, make Hong Kong a unique platform of exchange within both the Asian and world markets. During its early colonial period it was an emporium, then in the 1950’s Hong Kong became a competitive factory, and now it has developed as a new competitive force as a centre of the global information system. Since 1997, the territory has rapidly acquired a high potential for experimentation and the development of extreme conditions. This implies that Hong Kong’s urban structure can still incorporate the latest economic changes and strategies. Because of its particular history and geography, Hong Kong aldo represents the synthesis of both a global city and local territory. Globalisation contributes to the wide diffusion of economic activities while intensifying centralisation and the tendency towards a centralised control. The rapid development of exchangers – centres as platforms for exchange – has led many observers to assert that the effectiveness of Hong Kong’s Central Business District (CBD) constitutes only one centre among many others 1: the new airport core programme, the container terminal, the current Cyberport development and the future Disneyland project are also specific competitive international centres which rely on their capacity for global production, communication, entertainment and control. From a local perspective, geography, history and culture still participate in giving shape and qualification to this new strategic network.
This evolution raises questions concerning economic and social changes since most of Hong Kong’s urban environment materialises these transformations. A limited territory has given planners an opportunity to avoid the conformities of centralised and linear growth, and encouraged a diversified and complicated territorial system. Instead of a homogeneous city, there is a multiplicity of archipelagos that are connected by an efficient network of communication and transport infrastructures. The correlation between economic profit and territorial movement has driven the Hong Kong government to use its ability to produce more land, as one of the major sources of revenue. Reclamation is not only an expression of the territory’s economic and demographic progression, but also the appropriation of its natural environment. Mountains fall sharply into the water as the new strips of reclaimed land add progressively more vertical layers to the urban fabric. From the beginning of Hong Kong’s colonial history, successive reclamation projects have halved the original width of Victoria Harbour in order to construct extensive infrastructures and high-rise developments. Despite a visible energetic activity, the harbour has been gradually supplanted by highways and railways built on reclaimed land, to conquest additional land inside the territory. Together, these infrastructure lines form an original approach towards a territorial urban scale that extends further than the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) into the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region.
Taking advantage of the emerging infrastructure of communication and transportation, a continuous urban corridor has been created from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, via Shenzhen and Dongguan. This “running corridor” is not located along the shores of the Delta, but inland along a high-speed transportation system that connects each production unit to a terminal container. The configuration of this strategic network is exclusively determined by the production/exportation dependency between the PRD and Hong Kong. Geographically, Hong Kong is one apex of a 48 000 km2 triangle (Guangzhou and Macao are the two others) that has found a spontaneous expansion in the agricultural land of the delta. Strategically, territorial interests between Hong Kong and the PRD coincide with the rapid growth of the new industrialising countries in the East Asia Region. To remain competitive, Hong Kong had to decentralise and expand its industries, in order to enlarge to the scale of the Tokyo-Yokohama conurbation, the Singapore-Johor-Riau “Growth triangle” or the Shanghai-Nanjing-Hangzhou-Wuxi region. This development perfectly matched with Deng Xiaoping’s “Open door” policy in 1978 and the creation of two Special Economic Zones (SEZ) – Shenzhen and Zhuhai – sort of experimental urban sponges between two political systems. In Shenzhen, the leap between a quiet fishing village and a full blown mega-urban area, demonstrates the energy and money coming from Hong Kong. The PRD growth has been achieved through substantial investments by desirous entrepreneurs and the approximately 7 million workers in Guangdong are now directly or indirectly employed in Hong Kong funded companies. But PRD success is not only dependent on the regional situation. It includes a massive “floating population” coming from inland Chinese provinces, which in return have now become partly dependant upon the PRD. Today statistics estimate 10 million seasonal workers in factories and on construction sites 2, plus the 20 million in the PRD and Hong Kong’s 7 million.
The prevailing tendency is to encourage “opportunistic” developments that have the capacity for global exchange and which maximise the options within each built structure. Basically, HK/PRD region is competitive in sectors where Hong Kong has traditionally been predominant - finance, manufacturing and industry, trade and tourism. To achieve this goal, the entire production and urban condition are combined through a method that Koolhaas has labelled “City marketing” 3, or the association of city and market economy through diverse forms - planning and corruption, rules and ambitions, speed and cheap. The PRD is the backstage for manufacturing and industry, isolated enough to provide free trade with few democratic freedoms. This extended territory results in scattered forms of land development, taken from agricultural fields and erased features of the natural landscape – or everything below and above the sea level. Entire stretches of land are then randomly filled up with a bare amalgam of industrial, residential, commercial structures and construction of incomplete highway links. The speed in the shifts from one condition to another is consecutively replacing existing structures with new ones, leaving behind abandoned sites and obsolete constructions. This “hidden” landscape which lives off the energy of a 20 to 25 year olds population, today represents the necessary motor which feeds Hong Kong. On the other hand, Saskia Sassen4 has pointed out how the decentralised pattern of global capital flows have in return reinforced the concentration of power and capital in specialised financial cores. Hong Kong has become this mono functional core, reserving the bright and prestigious for its post-industrial citizens. Today, its function can easily be reduced to one activity, namely the exchange of goods and values (products and service) and as a place to live or to visit. Glittering skyscrapers offer, behind their frigid facades, high-end finance and legal services, which from outside produces an outstanding skyline for tourists.
Because of this simultaneous condition of decentralised development and concentrated economy, Hong Kong is now completely dependent upon the PRD areas. It can be regarded as the head of the regional body, offering a relatively stable condition and a strong $ currency, while Shenzhen and further Dongguan, Foshan and Zhongshan are its forceful arms with hundred of kilometres of assembly-lines. Perfectly located in the middle of the triangle, Nansha is the belly offering a space for a potential alternative. An hyper-connected island, Nansha received in 1997 the first bridge to cross the estuary and has been recently included into the administrative limits of Guangzhou (Canton), the still deep-rooted cultural foot of Guangdong. Dis-equilibrium between both branches of the delta also participates in edifying the fascinating face of the entire system. The recent retrocession of Macao emphasises its role as the colonial memory of the region 5. History and heritage are directing the scales and the silhouettes of its growth, making Macao the worlds’ greatest urban density. As a counterpart to Shenzhen, Zuhai (the other Special Economic Zone) aims to offer everything Macao and the PRD have left out, meaning the low density and green. Calling itself a garden city, it has received the honour of being named China’s best living place for its still rare inhabitants. The Pearl River is the fluid connecting all its constituent parts, even if expansive reclamation, artificial islands and bridges aspire to erase the natural flow. Each of these centres competes and develops strategies in contrast with the others, so that despite its chaotic appearance there is no real sense of spontaneity. The lack of long term planning in the sprawling landscape explains the free distribution of urban developments and the poor quality of building construction. As an experimental territory, the delta is a mutant corpse consisting of wild juxtapositions, with localised and unique dead parts below the next flourishing plot.
Since the body has been completed, commuting in the PRD has become the next phase, changing regional perspectives. As Hong Kong and Macao fully belong to China, the number of commuters have tremendously increased and special permit is now given at boundaries to allow one to : work in Hong Kong and live in Macao; Live in Hong Kong and trade in Shenzhen; Live in Zuhai and work in Zhongshan; Work in Foshan and live in Guanzhou; Live and work any place at all, yet still have a weekend residence in Nansha. This mutual exploitation of each urban component in the Delta will soon condense into one single entity, with different enclaves. With no hierarchy or centre, this may produce a spontaneous exploitation of a singular and exarcerbated quality. Future policy would then be to “get the best from each part!” – reinforcing the status of the “islanders” and their growing advantage over the “mainlanders”. These movements involve another evidence that goes beyong simple displacements, towards a territorial dislocation. Hong Kong relocates itself into China extending the “One country-Two systems” post-colonial direction to the entire region and contingent provinces. What emerges then, is an island culture, made of introverted territories that are largely based on economic grounds and disengaged from their surroundings. As a former island, Hong Kong has blown up into a network of islands which facilitates and provokes this speculative activity. Linked with gates, tunnels and bridges, this enlarged archipelago finds its unity in the diffusion of a system that will increasingly generate more islands, produce more alternatives, and so become a potential model for Asia.
1 When imperial institutions and early capitalist trade used to occupy strategic corners along the main streets of the business centre, new market economy prefers decentral, flexible, multi-polar directions to spread along. See A. Cuthbert, The Genesis of Land Use Planning and Urban Development, London, Ashgate, 1998/ Ramesh Kumar Biswas, Metropolis now !, Wien, Springer-Verlag, 2000.
2 Coming from the Central Provinces like Fushian, the floating population brings cheap manufacturing to the industries and rarely spend more than 5 years in the region.
3 Rem Koolhass, “Pearl River Delta” in, Mutations, Barcelona, ACTAR, 2000, p.312.
4 Sakia Sassen, The Global City. New York, London, Tokyo, Princeton, NJ, 1991.
5 Macao has been a Portuguese colony from 1557 to 1999 and Hong Kong British from 1841 to 1997.