Walking through the ever-changing streetscapes of twenty-first-century Hong Kong, one comes to accept that familiar sights, local shops, and architectural structures can easily come and go. While most Hong Kong locals are oblivious to the threats of urban wear and tear and the disappearance of their culture’s history, the increasing social challenges and financial pressure of attaining a decent lifestyle in the city have, since the 1997 handover, created a nostalgic desire for the past in growing numbers of the city’s residents. For instance, in 2006, when the government announced plans to demolish a forty-nine-year-old pier built in the colonial era, a public outcry erupted, though to no avail. In this context, two conclusions become apparent: first, pictures play a crucial role in capturing urban landscapes and streetscapes, many of which have a short lifespan; and, second, it is time for the importance of Hong Kong’s heritage to be brought to the attention of a society that shows little affection toward the past.
Hong Kong’s only standing clock tower, located in one of the city’s most important tourist districts, was declared a historical monument in 1990. Despite being branded as a reminder of Hong Kong’s colonial past by the local tourism board, in part for commercial purposes, little information about the clock tower’s history is readily available to the public, except for a plaque stuck on its outer wall commemorating the structure’s status as a celebrated monument. Travel guides, on the other hand, generally describe the clock tower as a landmark of the age of steam and recommend the monument as a stopover for tourists on their way to enjoying the view of Victoria Harbor.
Having lived in Hong Kong for a decade and having passed by the clock tower more than a hundred dozen times, I frankly never paid much attention to the structure. Even the ice cream truck that parks next to it looks more attractive than an old monument stripped of its function and seemingly of little significance. In early 2013, however, I got involved in a project on Hong Kong icons and accidentally came across the long-forgotten story behind the clock tower. My subsequent conversations with colleagues and friends further revealed Hong Kong locals’ lack of knowledge about their city’s historical landmarks. For a fast-moving city like Hong Kong, where identities are transformed as easily as streetscapes, the past is apparently of little importance in the face of sophisticated commercialism and the pursuit of making money.
That project launched my journey of piecing together a more complete tale of the clock tower and its many careers with one goal: to give the colonial object a life of its own, as inspired by anthropologist Igor Kopytoff’s concept of the “cultural biography of things” (1986, 66–68).[i] I hope that these images and accompanying essay, by reexamining the clock tower using the concept of “agency” (Gell 1998, 17–19)[ii] as well as focusing on its temporal and spatial dimensions, will cast new light on this historical landmark’s meaning and importance. Therefore, apart from grasping the changing roles and functions of the clock tower, this photo essay seeks to explore how the transformations in the monument’s surroundings reflect bigger social and economic alterations in Hong Kong. Some of these changes have affected the clock tower; others were influenced by the monument’s existence itself. For instance, in the early 1900s, pressure from the rapidly increasing number of people and motorcars in Hong Kong ended the life of the clock tower in its first location; later, in the 1970s, land rezoning along the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront was designed around the clock tower.
By compiling a series of photographs on the clock tower, I hope to invite readers to observe the backdrop that has stood behind the monument, including the Western-style buildings, Indian watchmen, and rickshaw pullers that accompanied the clock tower from 1862 to 1910 and the streetscape of early colonial Hong Kong in a district dominated by European businessmen and Chinese laborers. From 1919 to 1990, the resurrection of the clock tower next to a train terminus endowed the structure with newfound meaning, as it served not only the local and European expatriate communities but also travelers and immigrants entering a hybrid world of Asian and European features. Today, the clock tower completes the Victoria Harbor skyline (or vice versa) and is part of a thriving cultural complex.
The photographs in this collection are an assorted mix from different sources, including postcards (old and new), online resources, newspaper articles, pictorial publications, and recent snapshots I have taken at Tsim Sha Tsui. Hopefully, the transformations in space and time exhibited in the collection can help underscore the persistent presence of the clock tower as a continuous and transformative agent capable of both shaping society and being redefined by external changes. From its construction to its designation as a historical monument, the clock tower has never stopped breathing along with the rest of the city.
Catherine S. Chan received her MPhil in History at the Hong Kong Baptist University, where she is currently a lecturer in the College of International Education. Her research interests include urban and heritage studies, transnational representations of popular culture, and Hong Kong cultural history.
Gell, Alfred. 1998. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Kopytoff, Igor. 1986. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as a Process.” In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, edited by Arjun Appadurai, 3–63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
1 According to Kopytoff (1986), objects carry cultural biographies that can be categorized into historical timeframes based on a number of factors: origin and creation, career and ideal careers, collectively recognized markers, transformations in usage, and the object’s worth when it ceases to function.
2 Due to the inevitable relationship between the human world and inanimate objects, objects are endowed by their owners or society with social agency, which subsequently interacts with other social agents. In this context, Alfred Gell (1998) suggests that objects are an extended form of human agency, possessing affective power that influences and shapes people, environments, or societies.