A living network that promotes and supports the small businesses and community initiatives that are crucial to the well-being of our neighborhoods.
Our neighborhoods are under threat.
Many of the small independent businesses that shape and give identities to our neighborhoods have been pushed out to make way for chain stores or shopping malls.
Gentrification is eradicating neighborhoods around the world. But the phenomenon is particularly acute in Hong Kong, where the government’s land and development policies favor dense clusters of residential and retail development over a relatively small area. This may sound efficient in principle, but in practice the policy favors large developers who can amass the resources needed to complete projects of such a scale. Replicate this across a cityscape and we are left with what I call the “Mall-ification” of Hong Kong.
Mall-ification occurs when neighborhoods are cleared in the name of “renewal”; the choice for individual shop-owners or restaurant proprietors is to move into a large scale development or move out. This is not just a commercial issue. Individual proprietors don’t just provide services; they give character to the community and help sustain it over time in a way that corporations treating square footage do not.
These few large conglomerates that lie behind most of the shopping malls in Hong Kong have used their control over commerce – as well as links with government – to encroach upon multiple areas of our lives. They literally own the majority of Hong Kong: from the apartment you live in, to the electricity and internet broadband service you use at home; from the bus company that takes you to work, to selling you the electronics, shampoo, and groceries that you use everyday, etc. They monopolize major sectors of the economy, and oppose any change to their privileged position on the basis that it will mean higher prices for all. In reality, they destroy our cityscape and push out small businesses while limiting consumers’ choices. So as we move around Hong Kong, we see the same malls, filled with the same chain shops, creating a homogeneous and monotonous cityscape.
But the problem we are facing is not just about where you buy your groceries. On a human level, mall-ification also eats away at the social relationships that are embedded within a neighborhood’s network. There is a world of difference between the interactions in a small business and those in a chain store. In one, the shop-owner actually cares about the consumer and his or her needs; by contrast relationships in a chain store are utilitarian – the employee just wants the day to be over and the consumer sometimes isn’t even aware that the cashier is a person too. Whichever side you are on, you know the feeling.
This disconnection is not good for us who consider Hong Kong our home. But ironically – and in response to those who say that we need the mega malls to attract visitors – it’s not good for tourism in the long-term either. Shopping malls are a cash heavy but short-lived way to feed the visitors. Why? Because as soon as they’ve found the next hot shopping destination, they’ll have no reason to come back.
France consistently lands as the world’s most-visited country year after year because it has blended culture, style, and commerce into a unique offering that endures over time. Hong Kong should try to be building its own unique mix – something like culture, cityscape, and commerce – as the heart of its tourism offering.
This is less the task of the government than it might seem. Land policy, development aims, and government spending are important. Indeed, they are indispensable for sustainable vibrant cities. But we should also recognize that change comes from top down and from bottom up. In the absence of progressive government policy, Neighborhoodworm is about the bottom up: we must do everything we can to support small businesses, spread the word about them, make them stronger and increase the chances that they will survive.
This is our community. Let’s make sure it stays that way.