Mapping Places, Mapping Selves
What gives a place a soul? Is it the people who pass through it, whether for an hour or over a lifetime? The celebrations, the rituals, the community gatherings? The homes, shops, places where “history happened”? Is a place’s soul something that persists over time or transforms? And how do we capture and value it?
For three weeks, I explored these questions as part of a project with Centre for Community Cultural Development (CCCD), a grassroots organization in Hong Kong committed to empowering communities and individuals through the arts. My primary task was to research and pilot an alternative mapping project that CCCD aims to develop into a series of performances, tours, and exhibitions about the Sham Shui Po district, beginning this Fall. CCCD’s goal is to value and preserve the cultural memory of this rapidly changing district, while involving a diverse mix of people in the process.
I was asked to create two products: a “literary psychogeography” map layered with images, quotes, literary references, stories, research and associations; and a tour of the neighborhood integrating my findings. Because of my personal interest in issues of social justice, I was particularly keen to seek stories and information about the neighborhood’s past and contemporary struggles for justice. In the process of researching, I met fascinating people working in community arts, social work, education, and advocacy, and was struck by the diverse ways that “social justice” was defined and employed in different circumstances. For some, an approach to social justice meant collecting, sharing, and negotiating the neighborhood’s complex postcolonial histories. For others, it meant organizing disempowered communities to fight for housing, education, labor, and citizenship rights. For others still, it meant creating community cultural events in an attempt to combat the perceived sterilization of authentic cultural identity in Hong Kong.
Even though I was in an entirely new cultural and linguistic environment, I was consistently struck by the familiarity of the questions people were asking as they pursued these efforts. Through the Mashapaug Oral History project at Brown, I too have struggled with how to negotiate complicated histories of industrialization, displacement, and migration; and to share these stories in meaningful and respectful ways. During my practicum at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum this summer, I too was drawn to organizing as a tool for political and social empowerment. And I too have been fascinated and inspired by creative placemaking efforts in American cities like Providence that seek to establish a sense of “authentic” community and identity.
I appreciated learning how my colleagues in Hong Kong were negotiating similar questions within a different environment, and knew that the connections I was making would develop into a lens I would carry to my work in the US. Just as I was eager to learn how community cultural practitioners and organizers in Hong Kong negotiated these questions, my colleagues at CCCD were enthusiastic that I share my own experiences and perceptions of socially engaged work in the US. As one of my colleagues in Hong Kong noted, he could always do research on the Sham Shui Po neighborhood in books, but what made my involvement valuable was that I offered a different cultural and personal lens. As a result, I did my best to reciprocate my colleagues’ generosity by sharing my own perspectives and experiences through my map and tour. Knowing that ultimately they would join a collection of other subjective maps and tours helped me to feel more confident asserting my own: for while I could not alone capture the place-soul of Sham Shui Po, I could offer my lens to a collective understanding of it.
Doing meaningful public humanities work requires sensitivity to complex cultural, linguistic, and philosophical differences as well as similarities, and an awareness of the webs that connect local issues to global challenges. The surprising connections I experienced in Hong Kong led to a lens that emerges through and influences my work in the US, and will certainly continue to do so in ways I cannot yet anticipate.
Blogger Raina Fox, second-year MA candidate in Public Humanities, reflects on her summer and summer practicum in Hong Kong in the last installment of a two-part Hong Kong Exchanges blog series. For the past decade, the Center for Public Humanities at Brown and the Center for Community Culture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong have engaged in an intership exchange program that enables us to welcome CUHK students and send Brown students abroad for practicum credit. These are their stories.