A Flâneur is an urban explorer — a connoisseur of the street. In our rotating column, guests share their musings, observations and critiques of the urban environment in cities around the world. John Batten, art critic, curator and activist, is this issue’s Flâneur
Across Hong Kong’s harbour and its grand skyline, Nathan Road runs away from it all, through and past the tourist mile of Tsim Sha Tsui. Then straight through Hong Kong’s most vibrant older areas — Jordan, Yau Ma Tei, Mong Kok and Prince Edward. It’s a noisy, grimy road, pedestrians pushed to its edges, parted Red Sea-like by bus and car overkill.
Along Nathan Road’s side streets are located catering suppliers, engineering shops, ships’ chandlers and construction industry equipment agents. These and other businesses supplied the busy shipping trade previously located on the nearby, now reclaimed, waterfront, and have remained in place. This is where to find an electric pump or a new pneumatic drill; a steamer for a restaurant or a crockery set, staff uniforms and chopping boards; or an unusually sized door hinge or an extra-long self-tapping screw.
In this backstreet mixture can be added the real life and film scenes of gang stand-offs, yelling street market vendors, smoking tattooed pimps and their in-tow contraband. It is still a thriving residential area and possibly Hong Kong’s most multicultural: Nepalese, Pakistani and a worldly itinerant workforce.
However, this past October, sections of Nathan Road closed. In the immediate aftermath of a dramatic and unsuccessful police action in Admiralty on Hong Kong Island using tear gas and pepper spray to clear pro-democracy student protesters, spontaneous protests also rose along Hennessy Road in Causeway Bay and Nathan Road in Mong Kok.
Suddenly, car-dominated Hong Kong became something else. Initially, these roads were battlegrounds of barricades, bristling police and jostling protesters, but now have become dissident oases of study, rest and recreation, and vigorous spontaneous public debate in the streets. There has been nothing like it, ever, in Hong Kong. It’s a major continuing political crisis upsetting the city’s stolid capitalist fabric — and the usual overbearing rhythm of cars.
Unprecedented, Nathan Road has become a quiet place for people. In the early days of the protests, it was possible to walk from Prince Edward to Yau Ma Tei. The road remains closed between Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei: open to pedestrians, it has become Hong Kong’s most prominent promenade. In Mong Kok, HSBC Bank’s street-level windows have been spontaneously converted into an elongated notice board displaying protest banners, witty and satirical posters, and raw rhetoric. Every day, thousands of passersby read this changing exhibition of social and political commentary.
And on the road amongst protesters’ tents and community activities, there is a soapbox approach to street debate. Casually congregating groups engage in animated discussions about the issues and ideals of the protests; it is dynamic, good-natured and humorous — and occasionally violent. The streets of Mong Kok are renowned triad territory with attendant nefarious activity, and are a lighting-rod mixture of hot tempers for and against the students’ continuing protests.
Friendships, love affairs and camaraderie have developed along these roads. And in this city where pragmatism, survival and prosperity have always trumped idealism, the time to simply sit to think or read a book in the middle of Hong Kong’s most frantic roads allows any precious possibility.