Last December I traveled back to my hometown Hong Kong for the holiday. Feeling nostalgic, I decided to embark on a journey to tour places that I had not visited before on previous trips. My visit to the Blue House, however, went beyond merely touristy site-seeing; rather, it gave me the opportunity to think more deeply about the interdependent relationships between urban planning, sustainable community development, cultural heritage preservation, and art education.
Inside the Blue House, an 80 year old building constructed before World War II, is Wanchai Livelihood Place, located on Stone Nullah Lane in Wanchai, Hong Kong. Wanchai is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Hong Kong and has been undergone tremendous gentrification due to the Hong Kong population increase in the past several decades. Upon stepping into the building, I found it both educationally fulfilling and emotionally overwhelming. Here I want to capture a snapshot of this community-based cultural preservation effort.
According to the Hong Kong Information Services Department, the place has a legendary past; it used to be the Wah To Hospital and was rebuilt in 1924 to become a typical four-level Chinese-style building. Various charitable parties once settled in this tenement building for private schools; the ground floor used to function as a Chinese chiropractic clinic, famous for its founder being one of the apprentices of the well-known kung fu master Wong Fei Hong. Later, the space turned into a brewery.
Originally grey in its deteriorating exterior, the wall was painted blue out of simply a lack of other available colors during the time of governmental property acquisition and its urban development plan in the 1990s. The color has remained since then. The first to third floors are currently for residential use, mostly occupied by long-timer elderly. The ground floor is the home of Wanchai Livelihood Place since 2006. Now most of those typical Chinese style buildings are gone, the Blue House is now instead surrounded by a forest of high-rises which cater to the middle-upper class.
The exhibit I saw was about the tram – an icon of Hong Kong public transit. Although I did not take it very often when I was a child, I loved the sound of the tram which has earned its nickname “ding ding.”
The space at the Wanchai Livelihood Place is not big, but one-third of it is used to re-stage the interior of a tram with few pieces of the original furniture from the early to mid-1900s. On the other side are displayed the artifacts collected and donated by locals.
As I sat on the bench in this partial tram replica, I looked out to the street cluttered with mismatching glass-filled skyscrapers, feeling a bit uneasy. The docent, who works there as a volunteer and is a resident of Wanchai, explained the importance of preserving the building and opening a space like Livelihood Place – that it is about maintaining the cultural richness of the community which has played an important part of Hong Kong’s history and growth.
The resident-docent described Livelihood Place as more than a collection and exhibition venue; it is a platform for community activism. Unlike most of the other cultural institutions in Hong Kong, which are traditionally organized top-down by the government, Livelihood Place is an effort spearheaded and supported by a group of neighbor-enthusiasts with St. James Settlement – a local nonprofit social service organization.
In addition to the seasonal exhibitions, the Livelihood Place has offered many incredibly attractive community programs, ranging from workshops, specialized cultural tours examining the old and today’s Wanchai, namely the haunted house and ghost story tour, native eatery guide, deity-and-myth tour, grassroots industry tour, cemetery walk, grassroots entertainment tour, urban re-development tour, historic landmark tour, and the “old elite street” tour. The topics touch on thought-provoking issues relating post-colonialism, economic development, labor, religion, folk art and traditions in contemporary times, and more.
The Livelihood Place has shown me how to respond to the intensified gentrification by celebrating the spirit of multi-culturalism in its own neighborhood. This used-to-be brewry-clinic-school has not retired from its social position after over 80 years. It demonstrates the power of organic organizing and grassroot participation. It exemplifies the intimate relationship between the community and its inhabitants; the community and its history nourish the residents, and the residents educate the community and the future generation about its cultural essence. A collective effort in preserving and educating the culture of a community is an asset to build a sustainable community.
More information about Wanchai Livelihood Place can be found at www.wclive.net.