- October 7, 2020
A field may not be just another rectangular lawn with uniform green grass. The very representation of constantly regulated nature is itself an artifice regulated by a legacy of British colonial urbanism.1 The monsoon region is reeling from colonial and post-colonial entanglements with contemporary modes of imperialism, and is riddled with political counterpoints of mark-making in our lands.2 This essay explores the two methods of exploring the field as a site of performative power, through varying degrees of clarity of legal regulation, distinctness of spatial exercises, and site choice.
To reflect on the mark-making in our world, I am reminded of the colonial field in commonwealth states that demonstrates power, governance, and nation-building. The establishment of the site of Dataran Merdeka is no different. Constructed in the 1880s, it was established on the Gombak and Klang rivers’ confluence, which brought trade and livelihoods to the Chinese Straits settlers of the mud valley that we know today.3 The space became a node between the local Chinese, Malay, and the British Colonials and a recreation and sports field for country club goers.4 The buildings surrounding what was then named Padang supported and maintained the interface between the surrounding communities.5 Alongside the establishment of surveillance, hybrid architectural styles, and establishment of power, the overlay of by-laws also began to govern the actions on the Padang. These by-laws over the years have included:
Simply reading the list of by-laws which were implemented between the 1880s and today (at different points and under different legislations), this exercise in creating binaries of actions is reflected by the artifice that is what we now know as Dataran Merdeka – a pristine, rectangular field of manicured 3-inch tall grass.7 The plurality of Hong Kong identity juxtaposes this. The city has been consistently said to sit in a “borrowed time, borrowed space,” as currently it is labeled as a Special Administrative Region (S.A.R.) – “one country, two systems” until the deadline of 2047, so 50 years of in-between space.8 The act of creating a balance between the two systems is continuously contested by the political unrest that has permeated the city since September 28, 2014.9 Rocco Yim’s recently constructed new government headquarters, and the colloquially named “Civic Park,” can visualize envision this constant identity battle.
On the ten year anniversary of the establishment of the S.A.R., Rocco Yim is about to unveil the new special administrative region government headquarters’ design at Tamar’s site. Tamar, which in colonial Hong Kong was used as a metonymy for the Government of Hong Kong, is located on a reclaimed site. 10 Yim spoke of implementing a Civic Park and of the design concept of “Openness – Door Always Open.”11 The glass curtain wall, the orthogonal doorway form, with one volume of the “doorframe” aligning slightly obtuse, drinking in Victoria Harbour, the fondly labeled “Civic Square” carpets from the vast void revealing Admiralty Centre to the cordoned off Central Military Dock for the People’s Liberation Army just a few doors down, all the way to the Central Ferry Pier.12 The rectilinear square is no more than a sloping park for picnics, art installations, and for the public to present any form of action.
The space is governed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), which implements simplistic signs like “no running” or “no cycling” in a futile attempt to govern recreation and sports on the field. What permeates the boundaries of the field is not governed by only the explicit signs, but the implicit temporal occupation of space by amorphous tear gas canisters, or the bodies of armed policemen and their hardened plastic shields fending off the protestors voicing, occupying, and performing their right to action. The “rights to the city” are now uncertain as unstable ideologies have saturated the divided city – the right to protest is slipping farther away from the citizens’ grasp.13 The only explicit sign that remains is the unfurled purple banner, which now reads, “This is a police warning. You are displaying flags or banners / chanting slogans / or conducting yourselves with intent such as secession or subversion, which constitute offences under the ‘HKSAR National Security Law’ You may be arrested and prosecuted.”14 A temporary establishment of explicit banners momentarily hardens the edges of the field.
Having lived between Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, I have noticed hoarding and “water horses” are currently boarding up the boundaries of Dataran Merdeka.15
This has an uncanny similarity to the government reinforcements of Hong Kong. Both fields are performative acts of power by tying their spatial delineations.
Kuala Lumpur retains a pristine green field, a marvel of modernity, an artifice of the 23 by-laws. Hong Kong envisions a public space to be used by all, but geopolitical ties begin to challenge the role of protest within these 50 years of the in-between which will end in 2047.