Be Water, as in Liquid Public Space

Learning from Hong Kong’s 2019 Protests

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Urban infrastructure and handmade signs: functions and meanings of public space transformed by guerrilla signs. (Photo by Jeff Hou)
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Lennon Walls transform ordinary spaces in Hong Kong into sites of everyday resistance. (Photo: Jeff Hou)

Media X Public Space

In this day and age where our sense of reality is mediated and augmented by a growing variety of online media, what constitutes public space is also shifting (or liquefying). In essence, spaces and events that can be documented or live-streamed for public consumption became public through the public view. The collective space of telecommunication and consumption becomes a public space. In Hong Kong and elsewhere, Hannah Arendt’s (1958) concept of public space in relation to appearance and visibility appears to be ever more relevant, as public space is increasingly defined by what is visible rather than the actual parameters of space and ownership.

Malls X Public Space

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The Level 3 Atrium at the New Town Plaza in Sha Tin. (Photo by Jeff Hou)

Affect X Public Space

During the months of ongoing protests in Hong Kong, public space is not just a space for demonstration and protest. It is also a space of care and affect. Examples include passengers leaving change money for protesters at MTR stations (so that they would not risk being tracked by using transit cards) and pre-paid drinks and food left at the convenience stores also for protesters. Other examples include the actions of those who volunteered to clean up, deliver supplies, offer food, give protesters rides home or to safe places, or to simply distract the police so that protesters could escape. Like the spontaneous gatherings in commercial spaces mentioned above, these acts of generosity transcend the boundaries that previously divide the society.

Violence X Public Space

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Photos of mob attack and police brutality posted on a sky bridge. (Photo by Jeff Hou)
Pictures of LegCo break-in juxtaposed with comments on a Lennon Wall at the University of Hong Kong.
Pictures of LegCo break-in juxtaposed with comments on a Lennon Wall at the University of Hong Kong.
Pictures of LegCo break-in juxtaposed with comments from both sides of the movement on a Lennon Wall at the University of Hong Kong. (Photo by Jeff Hou)

People X Public Space

In a city known for its hyper-density and land scarcity, it is especially remarkable that the protest movement in Hong Kong could occur without the kind of central, monumental public space normally associated with large-scale demonstrations and assemblies. In 2012, at a panel discussion in New York City to reflect on the Occupy Wall Street protest, a member of the audience argued that there was no proper space in New York to stage protests. As a panelist, I answered, “why not the streets?” The person in the audience was not impressed. But taking to the streets was precisely what Hong Kongers did, and what made the movement powerful, in terms of how it became visible and how protests and disruptions could happen anywhere, at any time, in full public display.

Learning from the Liquid Public Space

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A sky bridge in Causeway Bay transformed by a Lennon Wall into a political space. (Photo by Jeff Hou)

References

Arendt, H. (1958). The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

I am a scholar-activist who explores bottom-up placemaking, public space and democracy, and civic urbanisms.

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