Brian Wong EJ Insight

On the Jumbo ship's sinking

There has been a plethora of hot takes over the closure – and subsequent, more recent, sinking – of the Jumbo Floating Restaurant. The floating restaurant had once been Hong Kong's hallmark tourist attraction on Island South – the latter the nexus of redevelopment and renovation efforts under the eponymous urban renewal project introduced by the SAR government. Such hot takes have ranged from lamentations over the raft's discontinuation – and subsequent sinking; to poorly disguised attempts at politicising the incident as an ostensible metonymy for the city's similarly oriented trajectory. Still, there exist more anodyne takes – more than one could feasibly count – concerning the fundamental negligence and dereliction of duties when it comes to the preservation of cultural artefacts, such as Jumbo.

Truth betold, I find such hot takes deeply uninspiring. As a friend of mine pointed out on Twitter, it would be fundamentally ill-informed to posit that the floating restaurant had been frequently visited by Hongkongers in the run-up to its closure. And as for the political imagery and analogies drawn between the restaurant and the city – well, look, one can read into historical and contemporary events whatever they want; the rumours of Hong Kong's demise have been greatly exaggerated, to paraphrase Sherlock. The city lives on, just yet – albeit certainly changed, and radically different.

What is more germane, however, constitutes the way we think about and do cultural preservation in the city. Several questions come to mind here. First, what precisely are the metrics that we employ in determining if particular sites are worthy of preservation? Is it the publicity value, the attractiveness-qua-scenic-attraction and qua-tourist-spot, or the nebulously defined and determined cultural and historical value that the relevant authorities harp frequently on, yet have struggled to carve out precise and up-to-speed yardsticks for? It strikes me that much of the discourse concerning the Jumbo restaurant had sought to berate the government for not taking Hong Kong's history seriously – yet fundamentally, surely the questions to be asked are, how did we get here; how did we end up with structural negligence and erasure of momentous facets of our city's vibrant history, be it during the colonial or non-colonial eras? These are questions that merit far more of our attention than the unidimensional flagellating of the administration, which – don't get me wrong – tends to sell and do much better in popular discourse.

More fundamentally, why must – and does – it take a media brouhaha before we turn our attention to pieces or sites of cultural importance that had hitherto neglected? We spend most of our time bashing the government, but what of civil society and the public at large? Surely, the efforts of non-governmental organisations and charities who have assiduously devoted themselves to cultural preservation, must be recognised, and credited, for ensuring that many other sites of vital historical importance and meaning are not obliterated and bulldozed in making way for the city's exciting nascent developments.Yet many of these initiatives and non-profits have succeeded not because of public awareness and attention – but despite the lack thereof. With increasingly stringent standards governing media discourse, one would have fair grounds to think that the room for media outlets to engage in critical and constructive commentary concerning artefact and cultural preservation policies would only be further constricted. This is why civil society mobilisation through more creative, community-oriented, and bottom-up means – in order to commemorate the past that had made our city the flourishing cosmopolitan hub it is – must and ought to be encouraged. When confronted with adversities, we must adapt, and act in a results-oriented manner. After all, that's what makes this city tick, surely. Such is the way of life.

Moreover, what does cultural preservation even mean? Does it mean lavishing a bizarrely large sum of money on ineffectual projects that culminate at both gentrification and denaturing of sites of significance? Must it be equated with gaudy and kitsch efforts at rendering 'contemporary' locations and vessels that would best stay the way they were, in their original colours? We spend much time parroting the need to 'preserve culture', but we don't spend nearly as much time reflecting upon how culture can and should be allowed to organically evolve, in ways that consolidate and conjoin the past and present. Wholesale renovation of historical sites may well be uncalled-for, but few would want to visit a dilapidated, run-down, and fundamentally hazardous site – be it a sinking (now sunk) ship, or otherwise. Hence it is between necessary reforms and updates, and the retention of the original ethos and colours of sites, that we must balance prudently and emphatically. The above three questions, in my view, are worthy of far more attention than the mundane, gleeful reactions to the Jumbo's death.






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