Under the spectacle: viewing trash in the streets of Central, Hong Kong
There is something about trash.1 Like in any big city, in Hong Kong – specifically in areas that are both commercial districts and densely populated locales – it is produced at a constant pace. And while much of this city’s discards first land in the streets, generally (perhaps paradoxically) – as space is limited – the government’s attitude in dealing with it orders instant collection and concurrent ‘hiding’ in dumpsites. That is, ‘[t]o help keep Hong Kong tidy’ (Food and Environmental Hygiene Department 2014), a large and visible workforce is sent out, daily, to deal with whatever people trash, from leftover take-home meals to complete furniture items. Subsequent to this apparent efficiency, just over half of the territory’s total municipal solid waste is still landfilled (Environment Bureau 2013: 10). This corresponds with what Gay Hawkins (2007: 348) calls the imaginary of tidy cities, where the hiding of trash is vital to ‘the maintenance of distinctly modern classifications and boundaries and distinctly modern ways of being’. Seemingly ‘naturally’, the government has equipped itself to cater for what David Boarder Giles (2014: 98) has labelled the ‘bulimia of late capitalism’. Capitalism – especially its late variant – has, like the imaginary of tidiness and order, a large ‘visual suspense’. While some mention a shift ‘from the economy of material production to an economy of signs and symbols’ (Lash and Urry 1994, in Ma 2008: 64), and others understand visuality to have become ‘one of the prime motivators of consumption’ (Mirzoeff 2002; Mitchell 1994 in Ma 2008: 64-5), under late-twentieth century capitalism a preoccupation with ‘surface appearances’ is simultaneously said to inhibit ‘a deeper understanding of underlying material forces’, which can be seen to be ‘symptomatic of false consciousness, alienation, and the workings of the market’ (Zurier 2006: 7). Regardless, the buying and selling of things, as well as the things themselves, are spectacularized to great effect, in consumer society. And Hong Kong being one of the world’s global cities, its flows of goods, money, and people – in addition to the modern urban landscape that lodges these flows – have contributed to the drafting of a spectacle of speed and flash (McDonogh and Wong 2005: xiv). The bulimic effects of Hong Kong’s flows, however – even though these effects can be seen to force a spectacle of their own – have been largely left out of the picture. While what could be called a ‘spectacle of trash’ is never entirely
ignored, as any big city is imagined to have some grunge – especially Hong Kong – overall, in the narratives and images of Hong Kong as global city, the flows of trash it nurtures are ‘hidden’, or at least are not given the attention the city’s other flows receive. The consequences of the rather rapid rendering invisible of trash in Hong Kong, are, together with the scale of it, an important issue. That is, if nothing changes, the landfills will reach full capacity by 2019 (Environment Bureau 2013: 7). And despite the proposal of the Blueprint for Sustainable Use of Resources 2013-2022 (Environment Bureau 2013) – including various suggestions and policy and legislation changes for waste reduction at the source, and plans for the enhancement of waste-related infrastructures – trash will not simply disappear. As Gay Hawkins (2007: 350) states, ‘[a]ll cities, no matter how efficient their waste management, cannot hide the excesses of consumption’. And, in Hong Kong – its densely populated, urban and distinctively vertical side, that is (as Hong Kong is a territory that also contains remote islands, rural areas and country parks which I will not focus on in this chapter) – these excesses particularly reveal themselves at the level of the streets. From a wider view of excesses and spectacle, on which I elaborate in the first part of this chapter, I move to the streets of one of Hong Kong’s most iconic places of commerce and flow: Central. In places such as Central, order and hygiene are desired conditions of the modern urban landscape, advancing a ‘smooth running of things’ (Žižek 2006: 17, in Moore 2012: 781) towards a spectacle of flows. Yet, trash is regardless, unavoidably and at times uncomfortably present in such landscapes. As Hawkins (2006: vii) notes, trash exists not only at the ‘ugly, shit end of capitalism’, but also in ‘paradise’, exposing all ‘yearning for purity as doomed to failure’. While I do not intend to argue for a spectacle of trash, in this chapter I look at how trash is present in a place of presumed tidiness, and what it can say about its context of global flows. I articulate in an ethnographic account of perspectives of the everyday in the streets – specifically those of one of the area’s trash collectors, Shandong Lou2 – a (visually inclined) story, however fragmented, of a different and underexposed side of Hong Kong’s central business district.