Hong Kong, Version 3.0

Hong Kong defies simple solutions. The official slogan ‘Asia’s World City’ suggests a bland and artificial peace with its complex history: junk boats floating serenely past skyscrapers. In fact, Hong Kong’s transition from British colony to global city is characterized by rougher waters. ‘Asia’s World City’ has the right idea: it is precisely Hong Kong’s relationship to the rest of the world that defines its character and its qualities today, from its unique political and cultural institutions to its continued economic rise. Hong Kong, in contrast to post-colonial cities such as New Delhi, Penang, or Jakarta, is able to achieve cosmopolitan or extra-national status as a world city because of its ability to forge and maintain strong links between local and global populations. It is in the nature of ‘Asia’, ‘World’, and ‘City’ that the smooth and homogeneous marketing tool diverges from a segmented and heterogeneous reality. Exchange systems in Hong Kong force difficult balances at every level, as Tsung-yi Michelle Huang explores in her chapter in this book, which investigates both the historical forces and the cultural effects of Hong Kong’s post-1997 regional integration with Mainland China. Borders between cultures and economies and the systems for connecting them figure largely in Hong Kong’s formulation of itself as a global city. How do such systems for connection manifest themselves in built form? The answer may help explicate some of the more turbulent urbanism behind the city’s post-colonial marketing campaign.

HONG KONG ISLAND. Central and Wan Chai Reclamation.

Despite its long colonial history, Hong Kong bears almost no physical trace of its past. A rapacious development environment and a general antipathy towards history under both British and Chinese rule conspired to eliminate all but the faintest trace of the colonial city. Most visibly, the site of Murray House – an 1846 barracks later used as a government office – was vacated in 1982 (the building was eventually reconstructed on the south of the island) to make way for the Bank of China Tower. The Murray Barrack Parade Ground became the site of the Hong Kong Hilton Hotel in 1961, which in turn was cleared in 1995 to make way for a commercial office tower. In 2006, the 1957 Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier from which the Star Ferry had operated was demolished to make way for a new highway despite protests that it should be conserved as part of the city’s cultural heritage. Such examples demonstrate the ease with which Hong Kong has historically been willing to replace buildings and fabric rich in historical symbolism – and thus in links to the past – with the accoutrements of globalism. Ironically, it is one of the most conspicuously global of urban typologies – the shopping mall – that ultimately provides Hong Kong with the functional infrastructure for connecting between global and local communities within its borders. In place of symbolic links to its past that could provide the basis for a collective memory, shopping malls provide functional links in the city that bring diverse cultures into propinquity. This unlikely role for a building form widely considered to be fundamentally anti-urban is a unique characteristic of Hong Kong urbanism.

Buying Space
In the final years of British colonial rule in Hong Kong, a framework document was drawn up for the future of the city as an interconnected global metropolis. Dubbed the Metroplan, the first goal of the framework was to enhance Hong Kong’s role as an international port and airport. A Port and Airport Design Strategy, or PADS, was closely linked with Metroplan, with new development parcels planned along the infrastructure being built to facilitate access to a new airport planned on reclaimed land on outlying Lantau Island. The vision of these developments was clearly laid out in Metroplan. They were to be dense, multi-use communities knitted together by three-dimensional circulation networks.

PADS was ultimately realized as a US$ 20-billion public works project called the Airport Core Program, or ACP. The project comprises ten major infrastructure projects along 34 kilometers that connect the city to the world, including highways, bridges and tunnels, high-speed rail, a new international airport, and prodigious land reclamation for development in the urban core and suburban fringe. The Mass Transit Rail (MTR) Corporation, owner and operator of Hong Kong’s intracity rail network, was a major player in the planning of the project and a developer of the properties located over new rail stations. MTR Corporation had utilized the form of the podium mall to maximize the development potential of its other land holdings under Hong Kong’s unique constraints. The three-dimensional planning approach and integrated podium became the model for the new properties, fulfilling the vision behind Metroplan.

CELEBRATING NEW GROUND. Postcard from Hong Kong, dated 1974, Wanchai after reclamation was just completed

Some of the MTR-linked podium mall developments have led to enclave communities; others have succeeded in connecting global networks into the local context. This paper demonstrates how podium shopping malls that connect between Hong Kong’s global and local infrastructures create different communities from those that remain isolated, and ultimately serve as the urbanism of ‘Asia’s World City’.

Manuel Castells argues that infrastructure projects serving high valued spaces for international users constitute a form of neocolonialism, by which economic dominance replaces political dominance. Graham and Marvin have called such projects ‘glo-cal bypass’ – infrastructure designed to allow the empowered international business class to bypass the local context. Glo-cal bypasses are intended to create redundant and resilient solutions to ‘connect local segments of cities to other valued segments in different parts of the globe’. Often involving major physical planning schemes that circumvent the existing fabric, glo-cal bypasses connect selected users and bypass others, creating spatial and social stratification and establishing and reinforcing hierarchies. The podium shopping mall has the potential to reinforce or subvert glo-cal bypasses in proportion to their degree of engagement with the local fabric. This integrated model describes yet another outcome, for which we could use the term ‘global villages’ as outlined by Marshall McLuhan: a space of discontinuity and division developed out of increased connectivity. Not necessarily leading to greater cohesiveness or tranquillity, a global village describes not a utopian ideal but a contested space, a fractious and messy community in which inequality is not so much eliminated as confronted.

SPACE FOR INFRASTRUCTURE. Reclamation is a three-dimensional pursuit, providing ground surface for development and subsurface for transportation links.

Taken in its entirety, the ACP satisfies the definition of a glo-cal bypass in three ways. By building new single-purpose rail lines and redundant roadways, it creates a new infrastructure for international and global travel that bypasses existing local networks. By creating integrated, high-end living, working, shopping, and entertainment spaces, it provides a resilient form of infrastructure to target valued users. By allowing international personnel to live in a contained and privileged environment, it creates spatial and social stratification and establishes and reinforces hierarchies. However, when it is appropriately networked to the surrounding local social fabric, the podium shopping mall has the capacity to transform the glo-cal bypass into a global village in two ways: by creating intensive pedestrian links with the local context and, facilitated by these links, allowing the piggybacking of global infrastructure for entrepreneurial local uses. The first breaks spatial hierarchies and the second breaks social hierarchies.

Two malls on the ACP form the basis of a comparison between a glocal bypass and a global village. Facing one another across Victoria Harbour, The International Financial Center (IFC) and the Union Square Development are home to Hong Kong’s two tallest buildings and two of the city’s most prominent malls – IFC Mall and Elements Mall. Built explicitly to facilitate the transition from a colony to a global city, both are elite shopping malls associated with international travel. Yet due to its physical networking, IFC forms a global village, while due to its isolation Elements remains the cap of a larger glo-cal bypass.

A  Mahim-Sion Causeway
B  Umarkhadi
C  Pydhonie
D  Worli-Mahim Causeway
E  Hornby Vellard
F  Colaba Causeway
G  Sion-Kurla Causeway
H  Lady Jamsetji’s Causeway
I  Bandra-Worli Sea Link
J  Proposed Future Linkages
1  Filling of Great Breach
2  Dharavi
3  Carnac Bunder
4  Fort George
5  Further Filling of Great Breach
6  Filling at Mahim Bay
7  First Back Bay
8  Dockyards
9  Apollo Bunder
10  Tank Bunder
11  Filling of Flats at Matoonga
12  Filling of Flats at Nagaum
13  Ballard Estate
14  Hay Bunder
15  Worli Sluice
16  Filling of Mahim River Flats
17  Filling of Salt Pans
18  Filling at Malabar and Cumballa
19  Second Back Bay
20  Filling of Thane Creek Flats
21  Filling of Mahul Creek Flats
22  Third Back Bay
23  Bandra-Kurla Complex
24  Naval Dockyard
25  New Financial District
26  Creative & Innovation District
27  Diplomatic District
28  Expo District
29  Recreational District
30  Port Expansion
31  Proposed Airport

+ view drawings as pdf

A comparison of the transit network at each mall demonstrates that while both serve as hubs for the city’s global infrastructure with fast access to the airport, the IFC serves as an intermodal link between global and local networks while Elements does not. This statement can be supported by analysing the considerably complex pedestrian networks that surround and penetrate the malls. While some of the differences in quantity in this analysis simply reflect proportion (IFC mall, having more shops than Elements, has proportionally more elevators and escalators), others indicate a disproportionate difference. Indeed, the number of links between the IFC and its surrounding fabric is demonstrably higher than the number from Elements – 76 in the former to only 16 in the latter. The total number of various transit mode connection points, including bus stops, taxi stands, ferry piers, and train platforms is likewise higher in the IFC than Elements. The number of bus lines (used primarily for local travel) serving IFC and its network are 130, while Elements is served by only 60. In fact, the only categories where Elements exceeds IFC are in global connections, boasting a greater number of airport check-in lines and cross-border coach services.

Unlocking 3.0
Hong Kong is a special case in every category. It can be difficult to argue that with its unique geographical, political, and economic conditions, lessons from the city are applicable elsewhere. Nonetheless, the connectivity of IFC Mall clearly differentiates it from the glo-cal bypass exemplified by Union Square. Close examination suggests that new tools are necessary to analyze, value, and design the podium mall form, particularly in post-colonial cities in Asia where neo-colonial infrastructure is a common development model. ‘Global villages’ such as the IFC have a profound potential to mix more and less globally connected segments of the population and resist neo-colonial hierarchies while still creating connections between the city and the world. The case of the adaptability of a market-driven strategy for creating continuous pedestrian networks to a government-led design solution, and eventually to unintended uses by diverse sectors of the urban population, suggests that the model has the potential to address matters of social sustainability broadly in Asian cities. In the context of the postcolonial, global city of Hong Kong, it is no surprise that links between local and global networks should exist. What warrants interest is that it is the shopping mall, an iconic space of globalization, that should accomplish this function in the city.

Ultimately it can be concluded that the design of IFC effectively bundles passages from various local and global transit modes to one another and to the city center, while the design of Elements limits access to the city outside but provides smooth connection to global networks.


KAI TAK AND CHEP LAP KOK. Two eras of projected futures.

‘Hong Kong, Version 3.0’ is part of a series of essays analyzing the role of land reclamation in the (re)formation of eight coastal cities: Dubai, Mumbai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Incheon, Tokyo, Amsterdam, and Venice.


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