25 October 2010

On Memory

It's always tempting to lay your eyes on Central in the morning. A trip to the Starbucks coffee may offer us the best scenario for sight-seeing. In any morning on the weekdays, we may be in solemn awe of the landscape of Central being carpeted by a flock of black suits, rushing into Starbucks Coffee so they may rejuvenate themselves for a long day of work. The endorsement of Central values cannot be more obvious. The adoption of the American middle class lifestyle hints at a refusal of local values, which hardly warrants a restaurant of local flavour anything beyond ordinary pedestrian appraisal.

If drinking Starbucks Coffee is a vital ingredient for Central values, it is perhaps because a paper or plastic cup that carries a familiar green logo suggests a vision of more international tone. Rather than straying into a local restaurant for a ham and egg sandwich along with a cup of coffee blended in a style of local flavour, a cup of Starbucks may actually align us with an upper level in the pyramid of social hierarchy. Small wonder why Hong Kong is an international city.

However much Starbucks coffee we may drink, what is interesting is the fact that our desire for a cup of Starbucks stems not from our tendency to cherish work values, but, rather, from our romantic fantasy to centre our values rooted in a traditional American middle class routine. Behind the Starbucks drinking ritual hardly suggests our effort to reconcile the kind of happiness typical of the bourgeois outlook with financial necessity, rendering the surface more superficial than it seems. A sip of Starbucks in the morning may offer solutions for our fallible souls, for it carries the correct dosage of our missing virtues that are only deemed discoverable in the West.

This is, perhaps, precisely the reason why such scenario provokes a feeling of distance. But everywhere is like this in Hong Kong nowadays. While many may acknowledge the notion of historical value, but hardly there is anyone who offers sympathy for sentimental value. We may learn how our society and identity are formed by the past and traditions in order to acquire a sense of belonging and community. Our government may venture to do away the Tsim Sha Tsui Bus Stop and deprecate anything of sentimental value, yet too seldom they realise the merits of most buildings in Hong Kong lie not in their historical value, but, rather, sentimental value. Having breakfast at a restaurant of local flavour may not summon back a range of old yet valuable traditions, but the fact that being sat there might invite us to attend to a collection of life-enhancing thoughts in order to acquire a sense of the self.

What originally furnishes our sense of belonging and community is not merely architectural styles that offer aesthetic relief which reminds us of the past, it is also the resemblance of style and taste that triggers our bondage to what we may call a Proustian moment. Promoting ourselves to remember something often leads to an undesirable result. It often requires the charity of a friend's patience for us to utter the bits and pieces that seem to stretch too far to recall at all. True memory is different. It can only be experienced only accidentally and occasionally. Instead of being forced on us by another intrusive question of a friend, our memories might have only been returned to us only by an incidental encounter of a similarly constructed fried rice six years later in a restaurant.

The key to harbour our sense of belonging is whether that particular restaurant or this particular street can grant us access to certain emotional textures that only memory can attend us to. The problem of Hong Kong is that the landscape and what constitutes its soul fluctuate too much. Only through memory, our origin of birth may not be muddied up to a point where soul-searching is impossible.

Both physical and metal landscape of Hong Kong fails to recover a distinctive sense of community, belonging, and continuity. It deprives us of an essential medium to express our need for communication and commemoration, an attachment which can only be registered through memory, which only our will can transubstantiate through a material medium. Not until too long, we may no longer be able to tell others who we actually are nor we can remind ourselves of it.


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