Inner-City Colonies: Memory, Power, and Identity

by Eva Hayles Gledhill

Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong shows how 'urban regeneration' is used to displace residents and erase memories of what went before.

First published: 21 March, 2014 | Category: Class, Philosophy and Theory

Gentrification has a new name: urban regeneration. That sounds nice and natural - a spring-like process of growing green shoots, stripped of class implications. It is this ‘de-politicizing’ of debates about gentrification I address here, rather than the process itself, or the research practices investigating the trend. This subtle process of naturalising certain values as ‘normal’, as accepted definitions of successful, rather than as specific to the modes and lifestyles of the middle-class, enables the de-valuing, and therefore the displacement, of those who do not seek to – or cannot afford to – live in this manner. And this process hinges on how, and what, we remember.

The organisers of a session on gentrification at the Resourceful Cities conference in Berlin last August quoted Marcuse’s observation that “[d]isplacement is the essence of gentrification, its goal, not an unwanted side-effect.”[1] The blurb for this session further states that 

though being the core of gentrification, displacement has proven difficult to research  empirically. In particular the processual character of gentrification has posed difficulties to researchers. […]The lack of empirical proof for the injustices created by gentrification has also had a de-politicizing effect on the whole debate (cf. Slater, 2006).[2]

Lacking ‘proof’ of change, disruption and displacement, those who have not experienced the process directly rely on memory and cultural presentations of the geographical area under discussion to inform their opinions. The de-politicisation of gentrification is a de-politicisation of displacement and, therefore, a de-politicisation of the memories and experiences of displaced people.

There has been much recent discussion about cultural semiotics and the disturbing idea that symbols that cease to retain meaning become available for other meanings to be imposed upon them. The cultural emblems that are under threat of being emptied in this way range from the symbols of Nazism to punk songs, according to contemporary commentators.[3] The endless recycling, reinterpretation and revision of post-modern cultural practice threatens to leave us with a world in which the available interpretations of historical events depend not upon discussions of fact and experiential memory, but on commercial interest and pop-culture accessibility. Thus, not only are the inhabitants of the geographical space displaced, but their memories, their cultural practice, their experience within that space is also displaced by new cultural interpretations. The discussion of their displacement then becomes available for other meanings to be imposed. A key example of this trend can be seen in the positioning of Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City [KWC] in English-language popular culture.

A Colony within a Colony

The history of the small area of Hong Kong that came to be known as KWC covers approximately 150 years from a Western colonial perspective. In 1841 at least one Chinese fort on the site was destroyed and, according to contemporary British government records of the area, it seems likely that construction of a city wall around Kowloon was begun soon after, in response to the British presence in Hong Kong.[4] In an odd quirk of legal confusion, Chinese jurisdiction in the Walled City was reserved under the Convention leasing the New Territories to Britain in 1898, but the Chinese were then expelled less than a year later.[5] Yet, the Chinese Government continued to claim jurisdiction over the area for at least another fifty years:

‘The Chinese Government,’ said the Hong Kong Annual Report 1948, ‘considered that […] according to their interpretation of the Peking Convention […] jurisdiction in Kowloon City was reserved to China. His Majesty’s Government have been unable to accept this interpretation.’[6]

KWC continued to expand in population, though not in size, attracting those whose habits, addictions and businesses the British sought to regulate or criminalise. The British found it a diplomatic nightmare to try and impose order on the area, and the Chinese government made little attempt to directly govern this colony-within-a-colony, restricting themselves to sending emissaries to the city’s Kai Fong Association in the guise of reporters from the New China News Agency.[7] The area once surrounded by the walls of the fort became an unregulated shanty town and, in the mid-twentieth century, grew up as it was unable to grow out. The result was a fortress of approximately 350 inter-connected towers, nicknamed Hak Nam, ‘city of darkness’.[8]

The cultural reinterpretations of this unique site are many, varied, and predominantly found in Western or Japanese productions. On film this reimagining includes the Mega-City blocks of Judge Dredd, the urban skyscapes of Blade Runner, the interiors for Batman Begins and in print William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, and Kazuo Koike & Ryoichi Ikegami’s manga Crying Freeman. In the words of one modern commentator, KWC has been “permanently inscribed into the collective consciousness.” Having failed to colonise the area physically, it seems the memory of the place has been culturally appropriated. The most disturbing manifestation of this re-colonisation might be the recreation of a section of the city as a tourist attraction, described by one journalist as an ‘amusement park’, within a Japanese gaming arcade. Taishiro Hoshino, a set designer on the project, used HK mailboxes that were going to scrap, and even asked a “family in Hong Kong to send a box of their house garbage all the way to Japan.” Hoshino’s desire for authenticity is at odds with the consumer desire for air-conditioning and clean bathrooms, but he says that “the finishing of it is so dense and outstanding that it gives the sense of its smell and humidity”. The ‘amusement park’ terminology seems apt, considering blogger David Gilbert’s description of a “high-tech Japanese toilet in an authentically grimy bathroom”. This is a foray into a different world, with none of the inconveniences of real travel and cultural exchange.

The City of Darkness was demolished in 1993 and replaced by a landscaped park, its residents displaced but not replaced. Repackaged and ‘sold’ back to the world that rejected it, KWC becomes, at face value, a depoliticized backdrop for videogame arcades and first-person shooters.  The fictions inspired by KWC seem blind to their part in the ultimate process of meta-colonisation, exploring only the implications of the untrammeled commercialism and neoliberalism that the city’s legally anomalous position enabled. For example, the Judge Dredd comics, if not the films, were developed under Thatcherite-government in the nineteen eighties as a satirical commentary. Are these recreations simply a [posthumous?] gentrification, or a memorial to a space that the ‘real’ world could not tolerate but which the cultural imagination cannot do without?

Memory, Identity and Power

This is a story about power. It is often said that “the winners write the history”, yet who were the ‘winners’ in KWC’s story? The Chinese HK authorities who finally demolished the towers had to fund an expensive process to dominate that space by rehousing its inhabitants. Some of the inhabitants themselves saw themselves as coming out on top, finding the prospect of modern retirement homes superior to cramped cells with no windows.[9] Yet, overall, it seems that what has been lost is the city and its inhabitants’ unique identity; the real inhabitants of KWC and their experiences are available to the English-speaking world only in a single text, captured by Western journalists, before the demolition, out of print since before the turn of the millennium, a mere collectors’ piece. Their identities as immigrants, criminals, businessmen, families, has been erased or layered over like the walls of yellowing paper advertisements on the walls of KWC’s tenement buildings. How did this situation become acceptable?

This is a process of ‘recolonisation’ in which those minority groups who have been incorporated into a dominant culture through colonization are then assumed to have adopted the values of the dominant majority. The difference is between the imposition of one culture upon another by force in the former model, and the imposition of a dominant paradigm by a tacit assumption that the colonized must aspire to join the dominant group.

In a 2009 journal article Stefan Kipfer and Jason Petrunia wrote about the redevelopment of a Toronto social housing project, describing it as: “a multipronged, racialized strategy to recolonize a segregated and long-pathologized, but potentially valuable central city space in the name of diversity and social mixity.”[10] These theorists are working within a framework informed by the work of theorists Franz Fanon and Henri Lefebvre, quoting the latter as stating that “where there is periphery and centre - there is colonization.”[11] They draw on Fanon’s claim that racism is the “most visible […] modality of the systematized hierarchisation”; Kipfer and Petrunia are clear that colonialism lives on in these power struggles: “racism as lived experience is intimately tied up with various forms of colonial spatial organization”.[12] Racial discrimination is thus played out visibly in access to spaces, whether that is in access to places at institutes of higher education or tenancies in high-end developments.[13] Noting particularly that in the USA and France, where inhabitants from former colonies represented a large proportion of the population in the least desirable locations of the social housing, they state:

[…] the retrenchment and privatization of public housing affect those racialized as nonwhite disproportionately, often involving a peripheralization and dispersed resegregation of people of colour. Public housing revitalization can thus be called recolonization insofar as it is shot through with racialized dynamics of territorial reregulation and symbolic stigmatization.[14]

Observations about the reform of social housing in Toronto echo the experiences of the displaced tenants of the Walled City: in these locations their “powerful demonization […] as a site of social depravity and behavioural deficiency became a central feature of tenants’ lives […] helping to explain their stark material and social marginalization and featuring prominently in strategies of coping, resistance, and escape.”[15]

In KWC the ‘infamous’ reputation the development held not only enabled the criminal elements to avoid the law, but also enabled poor immigrant families and refugees to establish affordable households and businesses.[16] The majority of tenants in KWC resisted attempts at rehousing them in 1930s, 1950s and in the late 1980s when the final demolition was announced after Chinese reintegration ended its legal status as no-man’s-land. Theirs was a community of mutual interdependence in many respects. So, why was it not simply integrated into the surrounding area, rather than bulldozed to make way for parkland? Like the Canadian social housing project Regent Park, “surrounded, [it] became an objective limit to land rent valorization and the City’s reinvestment strategy.”[17] In Toronto, a site with an 80% immigrant and non-white population was redeveloped to conform to new ideals of ‘normal’ defined by private property ownership and middle-class, typically white, cultural ideals for success. By normalizing these ideals race and class were not debated, and the tensions brought to the fore were commercial versus community, exemplified by comments such as that by the chair of Toronto Community Housing Corporation declaring the area ‘open to business.’[18] In Hong Kong, using these depoliticized and normalized references, the replacement of KWC by a beautiful shared open space became an unarguable public good. The ‘gentrification’ of formerly working class and immigrant areas of UK cities and towns is often recognised and discussed in the terms of power struggles between commercial and community interests. Which standards are used to judge the success of the area: the happiness and well-being of its residents, or its ability to line the pockets of so-called ‘wealth creators’? It is a question which echoes the experience of those in KWC.

There is a long tradition of recognizing that the ruling elite in Great Britain treat the so-called ‘lower’ class subjects in a very similar manner to their colonial subjects. William Booth’s 1890 book about poverty in London’s East End, In Darkest England and the Way Out, deliberately echoed explorer Henry M. Stanley’s publication from earlier the same year In Darkest Africa. The belief in universal measures of success and ‘normality’ that make re-colonisation possible, and the de-politicisation of memory enabled through the promotion of certain media representations of spaces, are clearly at work again. In 1981, Thatcher's then-Chancellor Geoffrey Howe recommended ‘managed decline’ for the city of Liverpool, rather than ‘over-commit’ resources, which he saw as akin to ‘trying to make water flow uphill.’ By which he meant trying to make Liverpool residents subscribe to his government’s measures for success, and agree to the economic methods by which those measures should be achieved.

What do we use to measure progress, if not our memories and records of what went before? Success is not judged simply by economic measures for many communities. Liverpudlians took up other measures of community such as the memory of the Toxteth riots, and Sheffield memorialised the Hillsborough disaster, these events becoming part of local identity-fashioning that was vocal, northern and working class. Memories of place are personal and political, and as such, powerful shapers of reality. Regeneration is not just another name for gentrification, it is a new process. It is the process of generating new norms for an area, to replace those acknowledged by former and current residents. Gentrification at least acknowledges the imposition of class norms; the colonisation of memory is a much more insidious tactic.

This article is part of NLP’s series The Contemporary City.

Eva Hayles Gledhill currently works in educational administration and is starting PhD study at Reading University later this year. 

[1]  “Resourceful Cities: RC21 Conference 2013”, Research Committee 21: Sociology of Urban and Regional Development, International Sociological Association,  (2013)

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  The claim that the term ‘Nazi’ has become a “free-floating signifier” which, because it has no specific meaning, will come to have no meaning at all, was made in Sara Buttsworth and Maartje M. Abbenhuis, Monsters in the Mirror: representations of Nazism in post-war popular culture, (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), p.xvi.

[4]  Wesley-Smith, Peter, ‘The Walled City of Kowloon: Historical and Legal Aspects’, The Hong Kong Law Journal, Vol.3, (67:96) : p.72

[5]  Ibid.
[6]  Op. Cit., p.76

[7]  Greg Girard and Ian Lambot, City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City, (London: Watermark, 1993), p.29

[8]  Girard and Lambot, p.10

[9]  Girard and Lambot, p32

[10]  Stefan Kipfer and Jason Petrunia, ‘“Recolonization” and Public Housing: A Toronto Case Study’, Studies in Political Economy, Vol. 83, Spring 2009, (111:139), p.113.

[11]  Henri Lefebvre, De L’Etat Volume 4, qtd. in Kipfer and Petrunia, p.112

[12]  Kipfer and Petrunia, p.113

[13]  Franz Fanon, “Racisme et culture”, qtd. in Kipfer and Petrunia, p.113

[14]  Kipfer and Petrunia, p.114-5

[15]  Sean Purdy, ‘”Ripped off” by the System: Housing Policy, Poverty, and Territorial Stigmatization in Regent Park Housing Project, 1951-1991’, Labour / Le Travail, Vol. 52, Fall, 2003, (45:108), p.107

[16]  Girard and Lambot, p.57

[17]  Kipfer and Petrunia, p.120

[18]  Ibid, p. 121.

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