When Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, it was from Queen's Pier that the final governor, Chris Patten, departed. For Ronald Lu, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects, the pier is an intricate part of the territory's history. "Architecturally, it is not a significant masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination," he says. (Reaching for the Sky) The protests - organised by students, conservationists, environmentalists and civic action groups - won a last-minute reprieve for the pier, which was closed in late April. For Steve Tsang, of St Anthony's College, Oxford, the campaign to save Queen's Pier is motivated by a mixture of sentimentality and practicality. "It the destruction of Queen's Pier represents unrelenting development, environmental degradation and disregard of heritage sites. That is what people are reacting against," he says. (Reaching for the Sky) Even the Institute of Architects - which supports the protesters' aims, if not their methods - understands the government's infrastructure dilemma. "Hong Kong has good crossings from north to south of the island but not from east to west," acknowledges Mr Lu. "The government is trying to address traffic problems." (Reaching for the Sky) As Mr Tsang adds, "In development terms, Hong Kong has a history of caring about some of its sites and heritage, but there just hasn't been as much of a desire to preserve as one would expect." (Reaching for the Sky) For the past 150 years, Hong Kong has been a city in flux. It was transformed from a trading port into a centre for light industry and, in its latest incarnation, a global hub for the services industry. Change is part of Hong Kong's DNA. With those changes Hong Kong has reclaimed land from the sea, swallowing more of its own harbour and altering its waterfront each time. "Since 1841, the waterfront has moved forward four times," says Stephen Davies. "Hong Kong island has been moving seawards since the 1850s and becoming progressively bigger. " (Friess 2004) When authorities announced that the pier would be demolished to make room for a shopping mall and a highway, few people seemed to care. After all, this was Hong Kong, a city built on money and property. Demolition and construction were the lifeblood of China's financial capital.
Then, a 42-year-old single mother named Ho Loy launched a lonely, one-woman sit-in to protest against the demolition. At first, she was deluged with angry criticism. "You're wasting your time," people spat at her as they strode past. "You're stupid. The city needs to grow. Why are you stopping development?" (Friess 2004) But within a few weeks, Ms. Ho had ignited a fast-growing protest movement that has transformed Hong Kong's civic consciousness. The Star Ferry pier became a new symbol - the inspiration for a burgeoning political activism that is reinventing Hong Kong's identity. For the first time, this relentlessly energetic city is questioning the materialism that made it one of the richest cities in Asia. A new phrase - "collective memory" - has emerged as a rallying cry for a young generation of activists who have rediscovered the city's history. Hong Kong, which once saw itself as merely a temporary place of business for capitalist refugees who fled Communist China, is finally recognizing that it has a soul. Dozens of protesters were breaking through police lines at the Star Ferry pier. They were camping inside the site, launching hunger strikes, chaining themselves to posts, climbing the scaffolding and shouting slogans. The police hauled away the protesters and threw Ms. Ho into custody, along with several of her supporters. On the night of Dec. 15, the pier and clock tower were demolished. But public outrage erupted. Suddenly, it was the city's hottest issue, dominating headlines and sparking legislative debates. Even the territory's chief executive, veteran bureaucrat Donald Tsang, acknowledged that the Star Ferry protests were a "sea change in public opinion" for the city. "We cannot ignore this awakening," he said, pledging a stronger system of heritage protection. (Friess 2004) For years, Hong Kong had been ruthlessly clearing away the legacy of its Chinese and colonial past, replacing it with anonymous malls and apartment towers. The constant clamour of redevelopment seemed fitting for a city of uncertain identity, torn between Britain and China, filled with migrants who held passports from Canada and dozens of other countries, ready to flee at a moment's notice. The city's unofficial slogan was: "Borrowed place, borrowed time." (Friess 2004) After a long economic slump following the 1997 handover to China, the city survived and stabilized. The passport holders who escaped before the handover were returning. People began to think of Hong Kong as their home, a place with a "collective memory." (Friess 2004) In the aftermath of the Star Ferry battle, there is a growing movement to defend dozens of threatened sites -- historic markets, piers, old apartment blocks and cluttered streets of shops that for decades were the heart of Hong Kong life. "It's a sign of a maturing society that takes its own future more seriously," said Martin Lee, a veteran pro-democracy leader in Hong Kong. "I'm proud of our people. Nobody expected this. The Star Ferry clock won't affect their daily life, yet they care about it. There's a sense of belonging now. Hong Kong is our home, and we want a say in how this home will be managed." (Friess 2004) Ho Loy's story is typical of the young activists. Her father fled from Southern China in the 1950s after his land was confiscated by the new Communist regime. He worked as a labourer and a street vendor in Hong Kong, hawking traditional Chinese desserts in the streets. As a child, his daughter rode the Star Ferry, fascinated by the sailors who jumped onto the pier to tie the boat down with thick ropes. Ms. Ho went on to have an eclectic career as a professional dancer, newspaper editor and arts-festival organizer. But she was shocked when she discovered last year that the pier would be demolished. The project was approved in 2002, when few people were paying attention. A legal challenge had failed, and the city pushed ahead without debate after the case ended. The clock tower - made famous in the opening scene of the popular 1960 Hollywood film The World of Suzie Wong - was to be demolished along with the rest of the Star Ferry pier. The city built a sterile replica of the old pier several hundred metres out into the harbour, and announced that a shopping mall and highway would be built on reclaimed land where the pier had stood. The new pier is filled with glitzy new Starbucks and Haagen-Dazs outlets replacing the old pier's mom-and-pop shops. A group of artists began a campaign against the demolition last August, but it failed to gain momentum until Ms. Ho began her sit-in in November, in support of another protester who picketed Hong Kong's Toronto trade office. Ms. Ho today is facing two criminal charges, including a weapons charge for using a paper cutter to damage the scaffolding around the pier during the protests. She could be sentenced to up to two years, but she views it fearlessly. "It will be a chance for the public to learn more about this issue," she says. (Friess 2004) She spends a lot of her time now at the nearby Queen's Pier, which is also slated for demolition. It was the colonial-era landing place of British royalty and a traditional spot for wedding photos, and polls show that most Hong Kongers want to preserve it. The government has agreed to review the demolition, but it is expected to proceed. One of Ms. Ho's fellow hunger strikers was a young man named Chu Hoi-dick, a 29-year-old freelance writer and heritage activist who has campaigned to save the endangered history of Wan Chai, one of the oldest neighbourhoods on Hong Kong island. Giving a tour of the area, he begins at Lee Tung Street, popularly known as Wedding Card Street, where Hong Kong's card-printing business was born in the 1960s. Once there were dozens of small printing shops on the bustling street, with their owners living in apartments above them. Now, they are deserted. Hundreds of owners have been evicted, and the shops will be demolished to make room for a massive $500-million commercial and residential complex. Two blocks away is the famed Wan Chai Market, built in 1937 in a distinctive Bauhaus style with a gracefully curving fa?ade. It is said to be one of only two such markets in the world. It, too, is slated for demolition. Yet the fish and vegetable vendors, determined to stay, are campaigning against the demolition, and a huge protest banner flutters at the market entrance. As the city begins to redefine its identity, the clashes at the Star Ferry pier have played a crucial role in strengthening the activist movement. "Politically, it stunned the government," says Christine Loh, head of Civic Exchange, a leading think tank in Hong Kong. "The protesters weren't the usual suspects." (Friess 2004) The authorities failed to understand that the Star Ferry pier had become close to the hearts of a generation of Hong Kong people - even if it lacked the grandeur of a historic monument. It is apparent that for Hong Kong’s residents heritage means much more than economic benefit associated with site reconstruction. Queen's Pier used to be the embodiment of the collective memory of the whole nation, as it was associated with many important events in Hong Kong’s history. Destruction of this historical site means total neglect for one’s history, and that is why significant part of Hong Kong’s population so rigorously opposed site’s destruction.