Collective Memory

Published: 2021-09-12 17:50:10
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Category: Memory

Type of paper: Essay

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Not too long ago, pulling down an old landmark to make way for a new highway or other structure usually caused nary a whimper from the public. Such apparent insensitivity to the destruction of part of the city’s heritage was widely attributed to a lack of a sense of belonging, or, more bluntly, a refugee mentality. Not anymore. The much publicized protests over the demolition of an old ferry pier seem to have awakened the public sentiment described by sociologists as “collective memory”.
It is a term new to many in the city. All the years I have lived in Hong Kong, I have never heard it mentioned. This new concern must be a good thing because caring about our past is seen as reflecting our heightened sense of belonging. Our love for this city which we call home is embedded in our memories, which can be brought back in a flash by a familiar building, road, teahouse or song. The about-to-be demolished ferry pier with a clock tower, built in the 1960s has little to distinguish itself either in design or scale.
But it was, for many years, the favorite rendezvous for young men and women. In time, that rather plain and utilitarian structure assumed an aura of romance enshrined in the hearts of countless Hong Kong couples. To be sure, we still have the leisurely ferries, the clattering trolleys and the cable peak trams to arouse our collective memory. But we are beginning to miss those symbols of our past that we have lost and gain a new passion for holding onto the ones that are fast slipping from our grasp.
This passion is about preserving a slice of life that is shared and cherished by the people of Hong Kong. It must be distinguished from commercial projects dolling up old buildings as new entertainment centers or tourist attractions. Hong Kong people paid little attention to the demolition of the quaint red brick railway terminal in Tsimshatsui many years ago. Only a lonely clock towel remains to remind us of the romantic days of rail travel. But the public is taking an active role in the ongoing discussions about the use of various old public buildings.
They include the former marine police headquarters on a small knoll in Tsimshatsui and the Central Police Station on Hollywood Road in the center of town. This new passion for preservation doesn’t mean that Hong Kong people have become particularly sentimental or nostalgic. Collective memory leaped to our consciousness at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges. In face of mounting competition from mainland cities, the question of relevance becomes ominously pressing.
As confidence is waning, Hong Kong people are delving into their past in hope of rekindling the spirit, regenerating the energy and reestablishing the will power which helped them turn formidable challenges into spectacular opportunities. Lessons of these glorious struggles are deeply ingrained not so much in official records or history books as in the collective memory of Hong Kong people. Much of those memories were thrust into the dark recesses of our minds in the go-go years of the 90s, when speculative daring replaced brainpower and hard work as the passport to wealth.
The prolonged recession brought about by the Asian financial crisis in late 1997 was taken by many as an excuse for indulging in self-pity, rather than reflecting on past excesses. Now that Hong Kong has emerged from that painful economic down-cycle, we can focus our attention on rediscovering our traditional strengths in our collective memory to utilize the unprecedented opportunities presented to us by the economic development on the mainland. E-mail: [email protected] com. cn

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