The debate over cultural preservation has been making headlines in Hong Kong in recent times with the opening of revamped heritage sites like Tai Kwun, the Mills, and PMQ. Now, a Hong Kong based non-profit organisation is setting out to spread the appreciation for heritage by empowering people to uncover authentic local stories across Asia with the iDiscover neighbourhood guide app. We catch up with founder, Ester van Steekelenburg, and project manager, Stephanie Cheung, at theDesk co-working space in Sai Wan.
A Call for Change
After close to two decades in the architecture and urban planning sectors, van Steekelenburg felt a frustration with the lack of attention paid to old neighbourhoods. The accumulation of work travels to developing cities in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and Myanmar led her to develop a significant awareness of the alarming rate of old neighbourhoods and historical buildings disappearing across Asia.
In 2010, the Dutch-born entrepreneur set out on her own to establish the social enterprise, Urban Discovery. As an urban planning consultant, the company’s core mission is to help NGOs, local governments, cultural institutions, and property developers in Asian cities to better capitalise on their heritage assets.
Strangely enough, van Steekelenburg noticed that while preserving a neighbourhood’s heritage is a key performance indicator for urban planning, many developers do very little to achieve it because they become so reliant on rigid work formats. The iDiscover app and map was launched in 2014 as a platform to fully focus on showcasing heritage in new, innovative ways.
A Millennial’s Desire for Social Change
Project manager Stephanie, a Hong Kong-born and raised millennial, was in search of a deeper purpose after completing her business degree. Priding herself as someone deeply rooted in local culture, Stephanie’s enthusiasm for hidden cultures in Hong Kong grew during her university studies. While most fresh graduates go on to venture into lucrative careers in finance and banking, Stephanie decided to pursue her passion for urban culture and planning.
The New Urban Phenomenon
The message has been made loud and clear: heritage and preservation are worth the investment. The recent opening of the Tai Kwun Heritage and Arts Centre is a step in the right direction. The former 300,000 square-foot Central Police Station compound in Hong Kong’s Old Town Central took almost a decade to transform, and cost $3.8 billion to be revitalised by the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
According to a recent report by the South China Morning Post, about 80 percent of ageing structures that are eligible for protection by the Government are privately held by owners. This means that these old structures are not protected under the legal safeguards against demolition or alteration. Private owners have free reign to decide whether to cash in on the value of scarce land here in Hong Kong.
Despite that, Ester has observed a new wave of thinking among these private owners. “The new phenomenon is that the second generation of Asian tycoon families is perhaps more conscious about their heritage disappearing. They realise that not every hotel lobby needs to be made of marble and that an office can look like this. This gives them a bit more appreciation for old buildings and the types of stories they have to tell.”
Stopping the Wrecking Ball the Right Way
As much as Hong Kong thrives as a cosmopolitan hub, the city falls short behind its Asian counterparts in terms of holistic and sustainable city planning. Ester praises Taiwan and Japan’s long history of appreciation for heritage and meticulous city planning, as though it’s in their blood to do so. Hong Kong’s economic rival, Singapore, made sure that historical architecture positioned along main streets is preserved, while redevelopment behind these buildings is kept within a certain height restriction.
“Even in Singapore, they perhaps realised the importance of architectural preservation a bit too late”, she says. “Nevertheless, what the country has done since then has been very impressive. I think Hong Kong can learn a lot from this in terms of preserving heritage.”
Revitalising Heritage, One Neighbourhood at a Time
The core mission of iDiscover strikes a similar chord with theDesk’s ethos of building an inclusive community. Unlike most travel apps which are based upon reviews by visitors, the app strives to bring the power back to locals. With more self-empowered solo travellers in the world, there is a growing demand for authentic local experiences.
Ester and her team have, most recently, gone to great lengths to cover Sai Ying Pun’s authentic neighbourhood stories through exhibitions and portraits of locals. In July, they partnered with Sai Ying Pun community group, Magic Lanes, to launch the SYP Neighbourhood Museum, a two-week pop-up exhibition held along Sheung Fung Lane.
Not only does iDiscover offer an app-based neighbourhood guide, it also provides colourful foldable maps illustrated by local artist, Carmen Ng, which feature 26 sites that highlight local cultural heritage, handpicked by locals.
iDiscover is set to organise more museums across Hong Kong neighbourhoods and an interactive website comprising videos, songs, poems, and articles. It is impressive how the team has also managed to extend the project to other heritage-rich cities such as Yangon, Bali, Macau, and Manila.
The Collaborative Economy
Being a small company, Ester prides her team as effective collaborators that thrive both in the new economy and the new format of work. Choosing to settle into theDesk Sai Wan co-working space was a perfect fit for the business.
“We consider ourselves a freelance force. There’s also a sense of sustainability – every conversation made in a tight-knit community like theDesk leads to something special. When we were in search of a workspace, it was crucial for us to understand what the co-working company and tenants were like. We were impressed and genuinely interested in theDesk’s community because we felt potential synergy for a chance to collaborate in our mission to keep the heritage alive.”
Coming up next for iDiscover is the launch of its Causeway Bay map, which coincidentally is the other culturally-rich district where theDesk spaces are based. We can’t help but think that having iDiscover in our community is a match made in heaven.