Speculative Urbanism: Modernist Planning and Housing Practices in Colonial Hong Kong, 1912-1939

Department: Landscape Architecture
Research Centre: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities Initiative
Active Dates: January 2015 – July 2017

Project title: Speculative Urbanism: Modernist Planning and Housing Practices in Colonial Hong Kong, 1912-1939

Principal Investigator:
Dr. Cecilia L. Chu, Division of Landscape Architecture

Funding body: Research Grants Council’s Early Career Scheme (ECS) Award

Abstract

This research traces the history of modernist planning and speculative housing practices in colonial Hong Kong between 1912 and 1939. It aims to explore three central but under-examined aspects of colonial urban development in the period: the advent of modernist planning practices that were closely entwined with early segregation policies in Hong Kong and other British colonies; the adaptation of official narratives by local developers in large-scale housing projects; and the emergence of a distinct urban milieu in which a growing number of the propertied class sought to claim a stake in the evolving colonial society amidst ongoing modernization and economic growth.

The ultimate goal of this project is to identify the interwar years as a significant historical moment in which a particular mode of speculative development and urban “governmentality” became consolidated in Hong Kong. A careful study of the transnational flow of knowledge and its uneven translation into specific projects will offer critical insights on how conceptions of race, class and property ownership became key elements in the shaping of the urban milieu and emergent sense of Hong Kong identity. It will also show how discourses and policies established in the colonial past have remained powerful frameworks for urban change in the post-colonial present.

Objectives

  • To reposition the early 20th century as a significant moment where emergent ideas of planning, housing and urban reform were debated and implemented in Hong Kong.
  • To illustrate the multifarious networks that connected Hong Kong with other regions, and by doing so challenge the previous “diffusionist,” “derivative” models of urban development and longstanding conceptions of “centers” and “peripheries” in urban studies.
  • To address the significance of property relations facilitated by colonial capitalism and to provide a more nuanced understanding of the relations between the government and the “governed” under colonial rule.
  • To enable more critical revaluations of urban development and governance in the post-WWII period.
  • To make the case that historical research is an essential component for pedagogies of planning and policy practices.

Outputs

  • “The Garden Cities of Hong Kong.” A conference paper presented at the Association of American Geographers, 2015.
  • “Housing as Social Experiment: Rethinking the Legacy of Modernist Planning Outside Europe, 1900-1950.” A conference panel organized for the Association of American Geographers, 2015.
  • “Shaping New Playscapes: The Emergence of Modernist Recreational Spaces in Hong Kong, 1920-1945.” An article for a proposed special journal issue, “Asia at Play: The Emergence of Modernist Recreational Landscapes, 1900-1970.”
  • “Mapping Hong Kong Architecture.” A series of exhibitions organized by Docomomo Hong Kong Chapter between 2013-2016.

Anticipated impact

  • This project will make a significant contribution to the scholarship of international planning history and to the urban history of Hong Kong. The new historical perspectives offer by this work will enable more critical evaluations of urban development in Hong Kong in the post-WWII period and the present.
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UNIVERSITY OF HONG KONG
FACULTY OF ARCHITECTURE