Twenty-three By-laws and Multi-colored Banners


A field: to seed, or not to seed

Volume 6, Issue 03
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:

  1. No farming on the padang.
  2. No homes and shelters on the padang.
  3. No Malays on the padang.
  4. No Chinese on the padang.
  5. No animals on the padang.
  6. No walking, stepping or standing on the grass of the padang.
  7. No traditional games can be played on the padang.
  8. No lying down or sleeping on the padang.
  9. No eating, drinking or smoking of tobacco on the padang.
  10. No fires on the padang.
  11. No putting up of tents on the padang.
  12. No demonstrations, assemblies, meetings or gatherings without a permit on the padang.
  13. No protesting in yellow on the green lawn of the padang.
  14. No climbing the hundred metre flagpole on the padang.
  15. No loitering between 1 am and 6 am on the padang.
  16. No women and dogs allowed in this section on the padang.
  17. No public displays of affection on the public space of the padang.6

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.

  1. Lai Chee Kien, “Maidan to Padang: Reinventions of Urban Fields in Malaysia and Singapore,” in Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 21, no. 2 (2010): 55–70. ↩︎
  2. Chee Kien, “Maidan to Padang,” 55–70. ↩︎
  3. Chee Kien, 55–70. ↩︎
  4. Chee Kien, 55–70. ↩︎
  5. “Padang” means “field” in Bahasa Malaysia, the language of Malaysia. Such a space is also colloquially called Padang by most communities. ↩︎
  6. Extracted from Mark Teh, “Artists@Random: Stories about the Burmese Piano, Colonial Field & Playing with Chance,” Sunway College, Kuala Lumpur, 2019. ↩︎
  7. The 23 by-laws have since crystalised, in 1996. They now include:

    Whilst in the Dataran Merdeka a person shall not:
    1. Eat any food, drink or smoke any cigarette, cigar or any tobacco;
    2. Cut, remove, damage, pluck any leaf, branch, flower or seed of any plant or tree;
    3. Cut, uproot, dig, remove or damage any plant , tree or grass;
    4. Excavate or remove any earth;
    5. Climb any tree or structure;
    6. Dirty, deface, make alteration to, displace, or damage any structure;
    7. Nail, tie, bind, chain, draw, scribble, paint, spray, mark, inscribe, display, place, or hang anything on any tree, plant or structure;
    8. Walk over, step or stand on any grass, planting bed or shrubbery;
    9. Enter or climb the hundred meter flag pole;
    10. Ride, drive, pull or push any vehicle whether mechanically propelled or otherwise or slide with a skate.
    11. Contaminate or pollute the water in any fountain;
    12. Deface or remove any notice displaced by the Commissioner;
    13. Spit, urinate or defecate;
    14. Displace, make any alteration to, remove, deface or tamper with anything displayed, exhibited, affixed, hung, placed, constructed or set up by the Commissioner;
    15. Erect any tent, booth„ shed or other structure;
    16. Drop, throw, deposit, place or leave anything whatsoever;
    17. Kindle any fire or any fireworks or crackers;
    18. Lie down or sleep in any part of Dataran Merdeka; or
    19. Allow any animal which is under his control to enter or remain in any part of Dataran Merdeka.
    20. Use any indecent or offensive language or heave in any disorderly or indecent manner in the Dataran Merdeka.
    21. Remain in Dataran Merdeka between 1 am and 6 am.
    22. Hawk in any part of the Dataran Merdeka.
    23. Hold any public address, demonstration, assembly, meeting, gathering or any other activity in the Dataran Merdeka without a permit from the Commissioner. From Kuala Lumpur City Council, Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur, By-Laws 1992, 1992.
  8. Dung Kai-Cheung, Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, trans. Dung Kai-cheung, Anders Hansson, and Bonnie S. McDougall (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).When the Umbrella Revolution allegedly began. ↩︎
  9. When the Umbrella Revolution allegedly began. ↩︎
  10. The site was reclaimed in 1924, as a typhoon shelter and dock, and once again in 2004 after which for four years it was used as an event space until 2008, when renovation for the Legislative Council Complex (Legco) began. ↩︎
  11. “HKSAR Government Headquarters / Rocco Design Architects,” ArchDaily. ↩︎
  12. The official name is Tamar Park. Including the buildings it is collectively known as the HKSAR Government Headquarters. ↩︎
  13. Henry Lefebvre, “The Right to the City,” in Writings on Cities, trans. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (New Jersey: Wiley, 1996). ↩︎
  14. Kelly Ho, “Hongkongers waving independence flags or chanting slogans risk arrest under national security law-report,”Hong Kong Free Press, July 1, 2020, ↩︎
  15. This is a colloquial term in Cantonese 「水馬」 used by protestors in Hong Kong to describe water-filled barriers. ↩︎

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Volume 6, Issue 03
October 7, 2020