The Vanishing City: Tit Hong Lane and the Future of Hong Kong

A label like Hongkonger—or Berliner, Melbournian, Istanbulite, and so on—implies a connection between a specific physical environment and a state of mind. The mental experience of living in a particular place isn’t only in our heads: it’s backed up by environmental psychology and a phenomenon known as place identity, which posits that conceptualisations of self arise from the natural and built environments. But what happens when the environment is in constant flux? How does a Hongkonger relate self and city when, as is so often repeated, the place itself is vanishing? 

The question haunts Chan Ping-chiu, the director of On and On Theatre Workshop. If it’s difficult to pinpoint what it means to be from Hong Kong, he says it’s “a little embarrassing” to hail from Central, the seat of British rule in the colony and a decidedly unsexy administrative and commercial zone. But Chan’s “homeland,” as he still calls the district, was decided for him when his father began to sell chickens in Central Market in the 1970s, and moved his large family into a flat immediately across from its entrance. The street he called home now lends its name to On and On’s newest work. Tit Hong Lane, written and directed by Chan and infused with his memories, digs into Central’s history and Chan’s place identity: a complicated and conflicted space where urban development and personal desire clash, much as they always have in Hong Kong. 

“Central affected my feelings, my identity very much,” says Chan before starting a day of rehearsals at the Xiqu Centre (Tit Hong Lane will be performed at Freespace in May). “If you say that your homeland is somewhere in the New Territories or a housing estate, it’s much easier to connect with people because their childhoods also relate to these spaces. But my childhood is related to a business area” – one whose echelons typically didn’t allow entry to Chinese. 

Chan uses the word “odyssey” when he describes the emotional journey that tracks through his most autobiographical show in 35 years as a playwright and director. Partly this is because Chan himself was an intrepid adventurer, a “wild child” in his words, roaming the urban maze of staircases, tiny temples and hidden recesses around Staunton Street where his family first lived. But like Ulysses’ odyssey, that time of discovery presented constant challenges to the boy’s burgeoning sense of place and self, especially when the family moved to cramped Tit Hong Lane and its incessant commercial activity. His young psyche experienced that upheaval as a fall from grace; after the “lost paradise” of Staunton Street, as he fondly remembers it, Tit Hong Lane is where he started a “lonely” chapter, where he learned to hide his address from his friends and work hard in school to get ahead.

Tit Hong Lane is conceived as documentary theatre, which means it is devised from extensive research that is also woven into performances. To take the pulse of the neighbourhood today, the creative team, which includes dramaturge Lai Sim-fong, researcher Suyin Kan and producers Felix Chan and Lawrence Lai, went to Tit Hong Lane and asked passersby about their knowledge of  the area. What they learned is that, notwithstanding a historical marker erected near its intersection with Jubilee Street, the lane has fallen into oblivion even for people who work in Central. Its primary attraction today is its invisibility, making it a discreet spot for stealing a cigarette break or sorting delivery boxes. 

That’s not how historians remember it. The story of Tit Hong Lane is inseparable from the rise of the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O), whose mail and freight services linking London, India and Hong Kong in the late 19th century transformed the colonial outpost into an international trade hub. Its name came from P&O’s Chinese name (tit3 hong4 leon4 syun4 gung1 si1  鐵行輪船公司, “Iron Firm Steamship Company”). That, in turn, was likely derived from the wrought iron balconies of its Italianate offices, which stood on the harbourfront at Des Voeux Road, behind which the lane ran. Photos from the early 20th century show a bustling ecosystem of dai pai dongs, merchants and tradesmen. 

According to Alvin Yip, curator-in-chief of Chinachem’s Central Market redevelopment and formerly the director of the Design Institute for Social Innovation at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Central Market and Tit Hong Lane were “bang on” a segregation line at Jubilee Street that separated the British elite in the eastern districts from the Chinese settlements to the west. Throughout its history, Central Market was “the only public building, in the truest sense” in Hong Kong, one where the British and Chinese met and interacted before returning to their respective neighbourhoods. The sleek Bauhaus makeover it received in 1939, later complemented by Hong Kong’s first elevator and access to the Central-Mid-Levels escalator, can be read today as a symbol of the upward mobility the colony offered to anyone seeking a reversal of fortunes. For Yip, Central Market was ground zero of Hong Kong’s unique “cultural confrontation” that lends the city its distinct mix of cultural, ethnic and social codes. 

The construction of The Center office complex in 1998 radically changed the neighbourhood’s character. The Center’s large footprint, which truncated six historic lanes, including Tit Hong, sealed the block’s fate as another sterile skyrise platform. Central Market did not resist those disruptions and closed its doors in 2003. The opening in 2017 of H6 CONET (an acronym for Community Open space NETwork) by the Urban Renewal Authority was meant to reestablish some of the area’s pedestrian flow but its network of indoor corridors and pop-up exhibition spaces can be a puzzle for pedestrians who have wandered in looking for an entrance to The Center or, as its mall-like aspect promises, a 7-Eleven or a Watsons. 

After Chan left Tit Hong Lane in 2000, he rarely returned. “Everytime I went there, I thought, how can I tolerate these things? It’s horrible. The so-called urban planning is a nightmare for me.” Discussions with urbanists such as Sampson Wong (whose Youtube series When in doubt, take a walk urges Hongkongers to wander the city’s streets with fresh eyes, and with whom Chan is developing a walking tour of Tit Hong Lane that will debut in June) convinced him of the importance of imagination when trying to recover Hong Kong’s past. “If we are to create a sense of history in a community, we have to first encourage [it] to imagine the place, try to collect different materials and shape the story,” he insists.

That is precisely the task he has set himself in Tit Hong Lane. This multimedia production with a cast of seven actors plus Chan, is organised into four parts. Chan begins by sharing personal reminiscences of Central and contextualising these with projections of historical records, maps and archival photos. Paradoxically, however, in a show ostensibly concerned with the past, his attention shifts insistently to the future. To be fair, for most of its modern history, Hong Kong has been preternaturally obsessed with certain upcoming deadlines. Chan said in a 2020 interview that he feels a responsibility as a theatre maker to address Hong Kong’s social issues, especially as seen through the eyes of its youth. That future-minded perspective appears in a section of Tit Hong Lane set 20 years in the future, where a diaspora Hongkonger travels to her parents’ hometown to discover her origins. In another, a group of enterprising computer designers have the idea to create NFTs of Hong Kong history. 

“The new generations know a little about our past but they don’t think they need to imagine or invent these feelings themselves,” says Chan. It’s a “problem” that these scenes consider with both empathy and a bit of side-eye.

Alvin Yip locates some of Hongkongers’ ambiguity about the past in the city’s urban development, which has followed a playbook that reflects Hong Kong’s mixed heritage. On the one hand, the rule of thumb in the West is towards historic building conservation, a policy first set in stone, so to speak, by the Romans who were past masters at repurposing remnants of imperial monuments for use in new construction (the term spoliation comes from the Latin spolia, designating recycled ruins). On the other hand, in Hong Kong there is an impulse in some quarters to burn down the monuments of the former rulers and start over, as was the case in China with each successive dynasty change. 

Chan teases out these tensions in Tit Hong Lane by imagining himself in conversation with another Chan Ping-chiu, who is an urban planner. In an ironic mise en abyme that winks at the real Dr. Andrew Chan Ping-chiu, who sits on the board of the often derided Urban Renewal Authority, Chan confronts his feelings about development in Central with the detached gaze of an urban planner. 

This section of the play takes place not in Hong Kong but in Istanbul, where Chan attended a writer’s workshop in 2019. There he discovered a shared affinity with Istanbulites, who, like Hongkongers, have lived at the intersection of East and West for centuries and whose famously impregnable city fell to more zealous adversaries when the invading armies of the Ottoman Empire finally breached Constantinople’s walls. Chan visited while Hong Kong was being consumed by the anti-extradition protests, and what he saw in Istanbul’s past gave him pause for Hong Kong’s future. He repeats the words of the Turkish poet Efe Duyan, who told him at the time: “Don’t worry, my friend. Things will only get worse.” 

Of perhaps any writer though, the novelist Orhan Pamuk is inhabited by the kind of messy, melancholy relationship with his hometown that Chan entertains with Central. His autobiographical evocations in Istanbul: Memories and the City are an opus of place identity. It was in Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, however, that Chan found a useful analogy for understanding Hong Kong’s development. The novel tells the story of a man who obsessively collects memorabilia of his mistress but whose excess of attention kills her. Chan likens the insidious labours of Pamuk’s lover-collectionneur to the work of an urban planner: “The desire, the feeling, the love of the city is real but the outcome can be very tragic.” 

Chan has a way of offhandedly juxtaposing the mundane and the metaphorical that belies his training with one of the great avant-garde theatre makers of the late 20th century, the American director Richard Foreman. Foreman developed a non-narrative theatrical style inspired by the American modernist poet Gertrude Stein’s experiments with time and repetition and that used alienating devices like lights, noises and screens to stymie rational understanding of his work. Chan studied under Foreman for a year in 2001 through a Lee Hysan Foundation Fellowship. Inspiration from Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter early in his career likewise contributed to his sometimes deadpan humour and taste for the absurd.  And while in the course of our discussion he repeatedly heaped doubt on his skills as a documentary theatre maker, On & On has been assisting the hands-down leaders in that field, the Berlin-based collective Rimini Protokoll, on Hong Kong tours since 2015. Their production 100% Hong Kong, seen at the Xiqu Centre last October, was a sneakingly provocative celebration of Hongkongers’ resilience. 

Declaring himself uninterested in the work of “old masters,” as a director Chan has also brought contemporary international voices to Hong Kong, including Sarah Kane and Martin Crimp from the UK, and Falk Richter and Marius von Mayenberg from Germany, though he has said he finds it difficult to translate their concerns and styles for local audiences. Chan typically dresses in conservatively cut trousers and pressed button-downs but you sense he could be wearing a Velvet Underground t-shirt under that genteelly academic disguise. 

When Chan returned from Istanbul, he was searching for a theatrical language that could bear the weight of the moment while connecting with Hongkongers’ aspirations for tomorrow. “We cannot access the truth through theatre,” he said at the time. “We can only approach the truth, to get as near as possible but that is the real challenge for theatre makers.” Today, his focus is on the young woman in Tit Hong Lane who returns to a city and a people she has never known but with whom she shares a sentimental connection. “I can’t stop thinking about the people who left Hong Kong, what they are feeling,” he says. He wonders if, in the circumstances that led them into exile, they can apprehend more deeply or intensely than he can what it is to be a Hongkonger. His hope is that, whatever the future may hold, Hong Kong’s diaspora and those who remain “still have a link with each other.” In a disappearing city, giving form to even such a simple wish will indeed take a very intentional act of imagination.

Tit Hong Lane runs from May 14 to 22, 2022, at Freespace. Click here for more information.

Tickets for the Tit Hong Lane walking tour will be on sale starting May 14 on art-mate.net.

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