What’s in a name? Ask Markus Shaw. That’s Shaw as in Run-Run Shaw, the billionaire entertainment mogul who founded Shaw Studios and TVB. “The name helps, I won’t deny it,” says Shaw, who is Run-Run’s grandnephew. But while Shaw spends his days managing his family’s fortune, it’s the future of Hong Kong that is his real concern.
“I’m very disappointed in the establishment,” he says in a boardroom overlooking Hong Kong Park. “We are quite possibly the richest city that has ever existed – what are we leaving behind for posterity?”
Shaw is no pessimist. Nor is he one of those tycoons who thinks Hong Kong has fallen off track because too much time is spent complaining and protesting. In fact, he has spent most of his life pushing for change, first as the chairman of World Wildlife Federation’s Hong Kong board, then as a founder of urban planning watchdog Designing Hong Kong and now as a supporter of a new initiative to turn noisy, polluted Des Voeux Road Central into a car-free zone for trams and pedestrians.
“Hong Kong was always a borrowed place on borrowed time, but after the handover, suddenly we have a future – Hong Kong belongs to us,” he says. “As much as we have a defective constitution and a defective political system, we have a very energetic civic space.
” The challenge is finding a way to harness that restless energy into something productive. “We can be the cleanest, greenest, bluest city in Asia,” says Shaw. “Right now, we seem to be building a city for tourists. Build a city for citizens instead.”
Shaw likes to say he was “almost born in Hong Kong.” In fact, he was born in London, when his parents were living there in 1960. He made the journey to Hong Kong just six weeks later. His youth was spent shuttling between home in Hong Kong and school in the United Kingdom. He finally settled down here in 1989. “I noticed so many extreme changes,” he says. The harbour was disappearing bit by bit as land was constantly reclaimed. Pollution was worse.
Shaw felt motivated to do something, so when he was invited to join the board of the WWF, he accepted – only to quickly find himself in the chairman’s seat. “I was promised only a couple of hours of work, but it ended up being four full days a week,” he laughs. After an initiative rough patch, Shaw hired a new CEO, Eric Bohm, with whom he had a good working relationship. The two fought hard to raise environmental awareness. It wasn’t easy. In the late 1990s, “you could say it was an expat concern,” says Shaw. “Today, it’s night and day. It became a niche concern in the Chinese community and then much more broad based.”
That’s something typical of Hong Kong. This is a city that can be slow to change, but when it does, change comes very quickly indeed.
“Whatever campaign we started, it looked as if it would take a generation to achieve our objectives,” says Shaw. “To ban trawling, we thought it would take 20 years. It took seven.”
Shaw says he “really believes in tipping points,” the moment when something gains enough critical mass to become a self-perpetuating phenomenon. Along with pollution, he saw such point in the battle for heritage conservation. For decades, fighting for Hong Kong’s historic buildings seemed like a losing war – until the government announced it would knock down the old Central Star Ferry Pier in 2006, which sparked an enormous backlash. “I was surprised by the passion. Kids chained themselves to railings,” says Shaw.
The same passion is what gave birth to Occupy, the 79-day movement that turned Admiralty, Mongkok and Causeway Bay into freewheeling democracy camps. Shaw walked through Admiralty every day, past tents, protest banners and a constantly evolving collection of artworks. “It was just so pleasant,” he says. “The wit, the creativity, the sense of community. Ignoring the politics of it, I was extremely uplifted by that whole experience, because it gave me confidence that the young people of Hong Kong have got it in them to make something really special. But we have to know how to release that energy.”
In a way, the Des Voeux Road project can be seen as a spiritual successor to Occupy, which demonstrated what happens when cars are banished from a major street: lanes normally devoted to cars and trucks suddenly become places where people build a community. “Hong Kong’s population growth is stagnating – there’s no more need for [new] roads and infrastructure,” says Shaw. “The problem is you can’t make a leopard change its spots.”
The leopard in question is the Hong Kong establishment, which Shaw says is stuck in an old way of thinking that values economic growth more than quality of life. “They have a very narrow view of what Occupy was all about,” he thinks. “They think it’s because [young people] can’t buy flats.” They don’t just want places to live – they want a place they can call home. “The old mentality is to build something as quickly and cheaply as possible, then get the hell out,” says Shaw. But a city made for quick profit can never truly be home.
Des Voeux Road is one step towards making Hong Kong a more human-centred place. The proposal calls for cars and trucks to be banned between Pedder Street and the Western Market, which would create a spacious pedestrian thoroughfare with room to saunter and linger. It’s an idea that has received plenty of attention in the press, but Shaw says there are still many hurdles to jump – the highest of which is the Transport Department, whose policy of maximising the vehicular capacity of every street runs against the traffic-calming trend seen in many major cities.
“The Transport Department is in so many ways Public Enemy Number One when it comes to any initiative to improve quality of life,” says Shaw. Given the bureaucratic opposition to doing anything outside the policy box, Shaw says Des Voeux Road’s transformation will rely on one strategy above all else: “Create unstoppable public demand for it to take place.”
The campaign will ramp up in the autumn, when it unveils a new slogan — hang4 dak1 (行德), which can be roughly translated as “Let’s walk!” but is also a play on the Chinese name of Des Voeux — along with more concrete proposals on how to transform Des Voeux Road. Shaw intends to play a background role. “My role now is to coordinate and pull people together,” he says. “In the old days, you had to do something because nobody else was doing it.” Now there’s a young generation of dedicated civic activists. “Give them the opportunity to take charge.”
Correction: This article originally misstated the name of the former CEO of WWF Hong Kong. His name is Eric Bohm, not Eric Bowman.