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Decolonise street names? Why not honour Hong Kong’s literary and cultural heroes instead?

Earlier this month in Beijing, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Shie Tak-shun, suggested that the central government ought to push the Hong Kong government to “decolonise” local street names.

This would mean, presumably, getting rid of Queen’s Road and King’s Road, among all the Elgin and Staunton streets, although who knows, maybe the whole Victoria Harbour, under such a proud display of patriotism, should be called something else, more in tune with mainland toponymy?

This might have been a good thing to voice in Beijing, to prove one’s zealous loyalty, but it is a terrible proposal.

The fracas that took place a while ago, when it was suggested that the remaining old post-boxes still carrying British royal insignia should have a metal plaque added, in order to disguise all signs of the past, was such that that proposal was put on hold. Maybe, for now at least, Shie’s idea too can be left dormant.

But given how cavalier with local memory and Hong Kong’s material history the Hong Kong authorities have always been, once a crazy proposal like that is made, it is impossible to rest assured that it will never be revived and maybe even adopted.

queen's road west

Photo: Wikicommons.

Instead, I would like to make a counter proposal: that when new roads are opened up, as villages are bulldozed and turned into small towns so that real estate developers can be kept happy, we start to remember some of the great people that have used Hong Kong as a safe base, and celebrate their contribution to this city.

Erasing history is never a good idea. Instead, why don’t we add to what we have, and honour that which has been left out?

The first that comes to mind is Eileen Chang, one of China’s greatest writers, who spent significant time in Hong Kong, and who described the Japanese invasion with elegant poignancy in some of her best known novels – like Love in a Fallen City, or the recently translated Little Reunions.

It is astounding that Hong Kong still doesn’t have an Eileen Chang museum – the executor of her estate, Roland Soong, has proposed donating all papers in his possession to the city, but the political frisson that continues to hang over her name has meant that no museum has even been envisaged yet.

Chang, whose first husband, Hu Lanchang, was a Japanese collaborator, was indifferent to politics and never voiced any enthusiasm for the Communists. Eventually she moved back to Hong Kong, on her way to the US. These factors put together meant that for a long time she was not published at all in the mainland.

Yet her Shanghai novels are among the best pages written in that city. Her former apartment building, the Chengde Apartments near Jing’an Temple, now sports a plaque that says she lived there, though a coffee shop at the corner that tried to remember her legacy was quietly shut down.

Hong Kong remembers her with just three benches in Repulse Bay – one with a little side table sprayed with bullets, another with piles of metal books, and a third one with a metal suitcase and coat laid upon it – and that’s about it. Eileen Chang Road, on the other hand, would be quite a cool address to print on a name card.

eileen chang bruce lee

Another obvious candidate that comes to mind is Bruce Lee (that there is no museum to his memory, either, remains a complete mystery) – but why not be even bolder, and name a street after José Rizal?

The national hero of the Philippines lived here, near Rednaxela Terrace, and for a while practiced ophthalmology out of his clinic in D’Aguilar Street. It was in Hong Kong that he founded the Liga Filipina to fight against the Spanish colonial occupation.

Surely honouring his memory locally would be a better tribute against colonialism than pretending that local history never happened, simply erasing all the colonial names here and looking astonished when anyone says that Hong Kong used to be British.

At present, there are just two plaques that bear memory to Rizal’s passage through Hong Kong, by the Rednaxela Terrace and the former clinic, but a whole Jose Rizal Street would send out a totally different message.

Lest Shie Tak-shun thinks that the list is wilfully keeping out all that has to do with Communism, let’s also have a Ho Chi Minh Street maybe? The man described as the “national father” of (socialist) Vietnam came here to merge and unify two parallel Vietnamese Communist Parties in 1930, in an underground meeting that made Vietnamese history.

For his troubles, he was imprisoned in Hong Kong, at Victoria Gaol (the former name of Victoria Prison), in 1931, and remained in captivity, on and off, for two years, as he was arguing against his deportation back to French-controlled Indochina.

He was lucky that the British were not too keen on pleasing the French authorities, and so, after having been reported dead, he was released. Surely this is an important enough event to be commemorated in Hong Kong, but as of now there are no plaques, and not even a small sign in the Hong Kong Museum of History that retells this interesting bit.

bruce lee

Photo: Pixabay.

If it were up to me, actually, I would even have a street named after Richard Mason, the author of The World of Suzie Wong: old fashioned, infuriating at times, and all the rest, it was one of the first literary works to put Hong Kong firmly on the map.

And of course, Shirley Hazzard’s name belongs in our streets, too: her The Great Fire is partly set in Hong Kong, as the great Australian writer moved here, with her family, in 1947 when she was 16, and loved Hong Kong for the rest of her life.

Other candidates for at least a street name must surely be some of Hong Kong’s greatest artists prematurely gone: Leung Ping-Kwan, our poet of the everyday. Together with Anita Mui, and Leslie Cheung.

Hong Kong has already destroyed too much of its own heritage, starting well before 1997. Take the Repulse Bay Hotel, for example, so poignantly described by Eileen Chang in some of her novels, which was destroyed in 1982.

Now all we have in its place is a shopping centre that mimics the former hotel with a partial replica. So there really is no need to become a replica of any mainland city, full of streets called “Zhongshan” and “Liberation Army.” Even Ho Chi Minh Road would feel better.

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Decolonise street names? Why not honour Hong Kong's literary and cultural heroes instead?