Stephan Feuchwang, leader of Urbachina’s work package 5 “Urban development, traditions and modern lifestyles” organised a workshop at the London School of Economics and Political Science on 25 and 26 September. During the workshop, the researchers from this team (Zhang Hui, Luo Pan, Wang Xiaoxia, Jude Howell, Paula Morais, and Renate Krieg) shared their findings for discussion and comparison not only with each other, but also with our two scientific advisers who have vast research experience in urban life and planning in China, Dan Abramson and David Bray, and with a number of others who have conducted research on urban life and governance in China and other parts of the world, including Europe.
The task of this work package on ‘urban development, traditions and modern lifestyles’ has been to investigate how new municipal institutions interact with residents, who bring to their urban relocation ways of organising themselves and improvise new ones. The focal topics were urban government, self-government and social sustainability.
Field research was conducted between March 2012 and April 2014 in the four cities selected by the UrbaChina consortium: the two large cities of Shanghai and Chongqing, and the two medium sized cities of Kunming and Huangshan. It is the most extensive systematic research on urban communities, as well as the most recent to date. One of the main results has been the deconstruction of the very conception of community, as a policy concept and an instrument of governance.
Despite its modernity and the demographic pressures it endures, Hong Kong has preserved some aspects of its traditional villages. Urbanisation and land development have not completely wiped the villages from the New Territories, which have been carefully preserved by the government with a view to conserving their heritage and promoting tourism. In a recent article, three scholars from the University of Hong Kong and Tsinghua University have examined the impact of urbanisation and modernity on Lung Yeuk Tau, a village in the New Territories1. This village was once predominantly occupied by the Weitou Chinese, members of the Tang clan. Hakka Chinese have lived in the area for many decades as well, and are also considered “indigenous people”. Since the 1970’s and the development of the New Territories, a new population group has moved to Lung Yeuk Tau: in the wake of the handover to China, Chinese migrants from the Mainland have also settled there because of the relatively lower real estate prices. Although the Tang people are no longer the only inhabitants of the village, they still maintain their traditions, even if these have undergone modern alterations.
The authors note in their observations and interviews that traditions have been modified by urbanisation, but modernity has also emphasized and preserved the Tang cultural heritage.
Jaya, Li and Zhuang note three main factors of change:
Once a poor rural area, this village has experienced an increasing standard of living. Fields, sold or rented to the government, have been transformed into urban areas. Inhabitants have seen their social status upgraded. As a result, some of their traditions have been abandoned. For example, the Tang clan members now prefer to buy traditional meals instead of preparing them together, and this affects their sense of community.
A second aspect of modernity is the growing role of women in the community. Whereas women were mostly excluded from traditional practices and rituals before the 1990’s, they are now taking part in certain festivals. According to the authors, this is a result of the growing power of women in Hong Kong. Although the Tang clan is a very male-dominated community, the village is not isolated enough to be unaffected by the rise of feminism in urban Hong Kong.
Another factor of transformation is the growing intervention of the State in the community. The Hong Kong authorities have been interested in preserving local Tang clan traditions in order to promote them as tourist attractions. The government funded the renovation of the Tang clan’s ancestral hall, but in exchange it had to be opened to (non-Tang) visitors.
The authors feel that the opening of temples to the public enshrines local culture and preserves traditions. They also argue that the government’s promotion of local culture unifies traditions and influences perceptions of Tang clan history: what is published on tourist posters is assimilated by local inhabitants. This contributes to the construction of the Tang community.
The authors also mention the special rights granted to the “indigenous people” of the New Territories. Inhabitants whose ancestors lived in the New Territories villages before British rule in 1898 have special representatives. This particular feature is examined in detail in this article, and its importance in identity preservation cannot be denied.
Hong Kong rural society has undergone important transformations over the last forty years. Local culture has also evolved. Traditions are not static and are adapted to their new urban environment.
We need to look at the role of tradition in urban societies. In the case of Lung Yeuk Tau, it can be argued that traditions are important not only for the purpose of promoting tourism but also in order to preserve a sense of community. What has happened in Hong Kong is occurring on a larger scale throughout China as a result of intense urbanisation. What will become of the individual characteristics of each village? Their preservation may be necessary in order to help locals adapt to societal changes as their rural world disappears.
Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE – Nottingham Trent University)