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Are artists gentrifiers, and why shouldn’t Sham Shui Po be the new Brooklyn?

Maurice Yip 葉鈞頌

This is a translation of my earlier piece, dated 12 August 2020, featured as the fourth and concluding article in the gentrification series in Ming Pao, a Chinese-language newspaper in Hong Kong

When I first saw ‘Sham Shui Po is the new Brooklyn’, I thought this slogan came from anti-gentrification groups. Unexpectedly, it’s an advertising slogan articulated by the artists and cultural businesses in Sham Shui Po, one of the poorest and most densely populated districts in Hong Kong

Ongoing debates are grappling with the recent transformation of Sham Shui Po, particularly Tai Nan Street, where cafés, boutiques and exhibition spaces started to replace the local stores. Stylish design and cultural experiences are commodified for hipsters. It is puzzling that, while the culture sector appreciates Sham Shui Po as a distinctive local heritage district, they want to transform this place into Brooklyn, a typical case of gentrification in New York.

Cities tend to make comparison and replicate others’ experiences. The controversial West Kowloon Cultural District is an example of copying-and-pasting cultural flagship projects. The government is often criticised about this. But Sham Shui Po’s transforming urban landscape reflects that the cultural businesses also share similar tendencies, though at different scales. 

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These businesses imagine that there is an appealing community life in Brooklyn, with cheap rent and dynamic subcultures. Picture this: while appreciating attractive street graffiti, you can eat street food and see kids playing in the neighbourhood happily. 

Yet, the reality of gentrified Brooklyn might shock these artists as it’s far from their fantasy. Local shops closed following rent increase, being displaced by galleries and cafés. White middle-class moved in, displacing black and brown people. 

A white woman in Brooklyn, a media studies professor, and a filmmaker, Kelly Anderson witnessed the gradual disappearance of her black and brown neighbours in the early 2000s, motivating her to produce ‘My Brooklyn’. With this documentary, she doubted whether her move to Brooklyn in the late 1980s had sowed the seeds of gentrification. She considers herself as part of the gentrifiers, the type of people that the gentrifying city wants to attract. But she is also a victim of gentrification facing displacement.

What is gentrification? 

Gentrification refers to the class remaking of urban space, often involving displacement. When urban activities which can generate economic value push up the potential ground rent of a place, widening the gap between the realised and the potential rents, investors will then be attracted to reorganise the urban space, as Neil Smith’s rent gap theory explains how gentrification happens. 

After decades of academic debates, displacement in different senses and class remaking remain central to the concept of gentrification. Yet, it’s no longer only concerned with demolishing and redeveloping residential space, but also the transformation of retail, tourism and cultural spaces. 

Some people say the cultural industry freshens the old Sham Shui Po. This kind of old district discourse is exactly how the Hong Kong government puts the label of urban decay on the target areas of redevelopment, implying the new is better than the old. It is an attempt to justify gentrification. Loretta Lees, Tom Slater and Elvin Wyly found that many governments tend to use terms such as renaissance, regeneration, sustainability, instead of gentrification. Hyun Bang Shin observed that the word ‘redevelopment’ is commonly used in Asia. The choice of these neutral, or even positive terms, is a deliberate political decision to divert public attention from the politics of gentrification.  

The applicability of this concept is a recurring topic in gentrification debates, to which Hong Kong academics also contribute. Wing-Shing Tang argues that the land relations shaped by Hong Kong’s historical geography have complicated redevelopment, which the word gentrification could hardly explain. Tai-Lok Lui points out that the different Chinese translations of ‘gentry’ are irrelevant to the living experience of Hong Kong. He emphasises analyses of local complexities. Regarding these views, Shin suggests that using this academic jargon by local societies is unnecessary if it couldn’t help ordinary people to beware of the problems of class and displacement. 

Victim or culprit? 

True, gentrification could be a result of government policies and developers’ investment. But, we often simplify gentrification and too easily attribute all the wrongs to the government and developers, as Jackie Kwok argues in ‘Production of Space in East Asian Cities’, while neglecting Neil Smith’s important question: who raised the potential ground rent for the investors to make profits? 

Gentrification scholars are always cautious when discussing the culture sector. Creativity reflects the human pursuit of aesthetics, and artistic practice essentially enriches our life. Arts and culture have an enormous use value. Artists have long been portrayed as gentrification victims, as being forced to live a precarious life. 

However, as the cultural industry has developed and the creative class has been formed, the culture sector defines and adds cultural values to commodify arts, creating significant economic value in cities, as Kwok observes. 

Andy Pratt discusses whether gentrification discussion should distinguish between the cultural producers and consumers. Cultural producers are artists and businesses who are committed to commodifying culture, and target consumers include hipsters. In the process of culture-led gentrification, as Seon Young Lee and Yoonai Han write, cultural producers play the gentrifier role from the very beginning, although wealthier groups would later displace them. The culture sector is both the culprit and victim, depending on what they actually have done. 

Cereal Killer Café in Tower Hamlets, London’s poorest district, ended its six-year life in early July due to the pandemic. Inside this low-rent premise, bowls of cereal were sold at high prices to visitors and tourists with purchasing power. The founders were criticised as ‘out-of-touch hipsters’. They defended that they devoted their life to run this independent small business, and if local people aren’t happy with gentrification, people should rather complain to conglomerates and big companies. Local people targeted the café as a symbol of gentrification in a 2015 anti-gentrification protest. An artist living there for nearly two decades reportedly reflected, ‘it’s our fault, artists like me go to these kind [sic] of areas, then the architects follow, the developers, the hipsters etc’. 

‘Do you think the local people would be able to afford £3.20 cereal?’
‘I don’t like the questions that you’re asking me.’

Faced with similar criticisms, Sham Shui Po’s stylish shops defended that they wanted to integrate with the local neighbourhood. If so, Brooklyn shouldn’t be their model. 

We shouldn’t follow the path of Brooklyn!

‘My Brooklyn’ presents the remaking of urban class structure. Low-income and marginalised black and brown people were evicted due to the growth of the cultural economy. This documentary portrays the faces of the most powerless and helpless vulnerable residents. 

Sham Shui Po’s stylish shops repeatedly emphasise their ability to strengthen the social fabric of the community. They even want to sell to the residents the so-called ‘neighbourhood coffee’ which suits their tastes and pockets. Unfortunately, in their discussion, there are only blurry faces of the local residents. While the store owners indulge in their unilateral place-making fantasy, I doubt if they could consciously look at the local people? Think about the households, new immigrants, and ethnic minorities living in the cramped tong-fongs and roof-top houses, and the homeless people who struggle to find shelters on the streets after the business hours of the disappearing textile shops. What are their daily needs? 

The cultural shops say they would turn down the potential investors who want to grab a share of the pie, but what if the investors approach the property owners to capture the rent gap directly? If we don’t want culture-led gentrification, researchers suggest, we should seriously reflect upon commodification. The concept of commons is introduced to detach the culture sector from the financialised property market. Some cities demonstrate preliminary experimental practices, but whether these could be realistic in our property-led Hong Kong remains a question. We should imagine the future based on what the present reality informs us. 

Although gentrification was coined to explain neighbourhood changes, recent debates tend to expand further. Lees, Shin and Ernesto Lopez-Morales proposed the concept of planetary gentrification, emphasising the multiple and complex processes of uneven geographical development. Gentrification involves urban politics and globalisation relating to the transnational flow of capital. 

Sham Shui Po is and should be Sham Shui Po, rather than Brooklyn. If the Urban Renewal Authority’s bulldozer is coming to Tai Nan Street, there isn’t much we can do under legal and political constraints. But at least, we shouldn’t add to the flames by transforming Sham Shui Po into Brooklyn, otherwise, it only helps justify redevelopment. We should pay attention to the neighbourhood changes, particularly the living spaces of the most vulnerable, urban politics and the global society. Shin’s research on South Korea found that in the context of global neoliberalisation and local democratisation, gentrification indirectly arouses the people’s attention to their rights to resist against eviction and strengthen freedom movements. In light of his finding, we may also think about how philosophically-inspired artistic practices can support resistance movements to fully utilise their real political potential.

Some background
The original Chinese version of this piece is the fourth and the concluding article of a gentrification series in Ming Pao. The other three articles include an opening discussion offered by a local cultural business owner (22 July), a historical account of Brooklyn documented by an academic stationed in New York (29 July), and a journalist’s interview with two geographers in Hong Kong, Mee-Kam Ng and Wing-Shing Tang (5 August). The target audience of this series is the general newspaper readers.

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