Published: 03:29, February 5, 2024 | Updated: 12:58, February 5, 2024
Build it right for locals, and visitors will come
By Christine Loh

The chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is understandably calling for action to “invigorate the economy and improve people’s livelihoods”. Local businesses continue to worry about residents going across the boundary for shopping and eating. At the same time, they are concerned that fewer Chinese mainland residents and foreign tourists are visiting Hong Kong.

The foundation of Hong Kong’s uniqueness lies in its lifestyle, culture and heritage, which should be celebrated on a day-to-day basis, plus the continuous innovation of its people — this is why residents love their city. It is also what provides an enduring attraction for visitors.

Putting the interests of tourists over that of locals is a mistake. Visitors want to visit places locals patronize to savor the authentic local culture. Innovating for residents will create a spillover for tourism, not the other way around.

Lower prices across the boundary are an issue, but softening property prices in Hong Kong is part of the reset, and lower rents will inspire innovation, not to mention help the job market.

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The mainland has become an economy that offers choice, scale, and value.

Hong Kong has a blend of exciting ingredients with which to refashion itself. Every city should play to its strengths, and ours is a mixed bag of our past and present. What can we do with ours to surprise and dazzle visitors, which also serves to remind residents why they want to live in Hong Kong?

It is no longer about eating and shopping till you drop. We need to refresh what is available for residents to spend locally and for visitors to want to come here.

A fundamental endowment of subtropical Hong Kong is its phenomenal natural environment. Nature has inherent value and offers all sorts of benefits, ranging from recreational and sporting activities to better physical and emotional health; they are attractive to visitors — all of which have economic and financial values.

Are we making the most of what we have?

The rugged MacLehose Trail is an excellent example of what Hong Kong can do with its natural heritage. The route was once used as a military training exercise for the elite Brigade of Gurkhas. The Trailwalker race along its length launched in 1981 and is now one of the world’s leading annual team endurance challenges that raises money for charity.

Another example is the annual New World Harbour Race. Just how cool it is to swim across Victoria Harbour! More challenging is the new Make Waves for Hong Kong relay swim around the island to raise money for the charity Splash Foundation, which addresses swim illiteracy.

Teaching people to swim is a great idea. Splash Foundation was created to teach Hong Kong’s foreign domestic helpers to swim. With imagination, Hong Kong could be a swimming hub for the broader neighborhood, and the swim around the island could be refashioned into an international race.

These types of events, including yachting and dragon boat racing, use the natural stage of the city to create unforgettable experiences unique to Hong Kong. Can Hong Kong reflect on the opportunities to develop more international-class events that locals and visitors would enjoy?

The foundation of Hong Kong’s heritage is southern Chinese. Its British colonial history from 1842 to 1997 laid the ground for its common law system and administrative practices. The city’s commercial and financial flair is rooted in channeling the entrepreneurial activities between East and West, which can be expanded to serve the emerging economies of the fast-expanding Global South.

These cultural aspects are all worth investing in. Opera may seem too niche. Nevertheless, the Xiqu Centre for Chinese opera and traditional theater is a good addition. The range of opera activities in the city includes the nonprofit Opera Hong Kong, which hosts regular, highly creative performances for all ages. Notably, the shows give professional singers more chances to perform — which is vital for keeping artists in Hong Kong. A great city attracts and retains all kinds of talents.

Locals love photography. WYNG Foundation has supported various photography projects and significant awards, including one on photographing coastal trails. Photography has the potential to become much bigger to attract both locals and visitors to make images of Hong Kong and elsewhere, and there could be partnerships with arts events, such as Art Basel Hong Kong.

It’s not widely known that Hong Kong people enjoy both Western and Chinese music. While not all schools offer music lessons, many kids take private classes to learn how to play an instrument. Many famous people, including politicians, government officials and business professionals, sing, play music and jam.

Hong Kong people dance. There are ballrooms and Latin-style studios around town. Private clubs also have dance nights for members. Many movers and shakers are dance enthusiasts.

One of these days, innovators will find ways to tap into the energy of Hong Kong people to create events and businesses that enrich life in the city. They may all seem niche, but what a town has to offer is made up of all kinds of things, big and small.

What Hong Kong needs to do is to give innovators and entrepreneurs opportunities to generate and offer activities. Add these things to our great food and beverage choices — sprinkle relaxing nooks and crannies for people to gather convivially — and you have what great cities all have in common.

Our city has yet to take its final physical shape within its natural topographical and biodiversity endowment. The massive Northern Metropolis development offers Hong Kong the rare opportunity to design a large portion of the New Territories that is aesthetically pleasing.

Why is this important? Because our immediate neighbor, Shenzhen, has done an excellent job with urban planning and design. With the hundreds of billions of Hong Kong dollars the city will spend on the Northern Metropolis, it behooves our government to ensure the aesthetics are world-class, framed by our unbeatable natural endowment.

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How are our officials ensuring the development design meets a high international design standard?

The exercise isn’t about spending more money but prioritizing design with functionality, efficiency and taste. Hong Kong has many built environment professionals who would love to be given briefs to work within budgets but innovate simultaneously.

Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong has a strong serving of what may be described as international sensibilities regarding what is considered sophisticated, elegant, stylish, cool or hip. This is the strength of innovators in the private sector.

The government would do well by seeking out new energies in the city — looking for new wines and not continuing to pour old wine into the same bottles. For example, it is doubtful we need another shopping mall filled with the same stuff. Ask those who have ideas, not those who have run out of them.

The author is the chief development strategist of the Institute for the Environment, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and a visiting scholar at the Los Angeles-based UCLA Anderson School of Management.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.