Urban landscapes, power relations, and social ideologies: A critical toponymy of Hong Kong

By Katherine Li

This post summarises the underlying rationale of my dissertation, which explores the interaction among urban landscapes, power relations, and social ideologies. Using a toponymic approach, the research focuses on Hong Kong as a case study and critically examine how the names and naming of streets reflect the power struggle of two political regimes.

Landscape is a collective term for the everyday surroundings that we, human beings, are situated within. With this intimate connection, landscape is constantly being shaped by our thoughts and values and, in turn, can be seen to reinforce our social systems of belief. In other words, landscape both reflects and affects what we think. Landscape is, thus, regarded in the field of historical-cultural geography as a depository and representation of cultural meanings, as well as a mirror and manifestation of social ideologies, whether past, present or future.

Urban landscapes is continuously created and modified by the socially dominant and/or politically powerful classes, with the consequence it become a symbolic scape reflective of the differential power relations at work within a society. A reading of urban landscapes hence reveals the cultural values of these agents in power. Think about the city you are living in – the buildings, monuments, public squares, parks, roads, and the names of places – which actor(s) have the power to make decisions about them? Is it the government, private economic interests, the working class, or local communities? And have these actors remained constant over time or have they changed? What messages are conveyed to society in the structuring of the urban and the process of landscaping? Have these urban spaces reappropriated by other factor(s), such as squatting and graffiti, which bring new meanings to spaces? Is such reappropriation temporally viable or does in succumb to the power of the elites and the prevailing dominance of a capitalist economy?

The equestrian statue of King William III located at Queen Square, Bristol

The construction of urban landscapes has long been manipulated by political regimes as an instrument to establish value systems in people – the planning and organisation of cityscape, the erection of public statues and establishment of memorial sites, and the design of urban architectures are all tools for various political objectives. They are used for the proclamation of power, the preservation and erasure of collective memories, and the moulding of citizens’ national identities. In other words, landscapes and landscaping are capable of asserting power and demonstrating political ideologies. The equestrian statue of King William III, erected in 1736 and situated at Queen Square in Bristol, is a local example of a landscape asserting the power and dominance of the crown. The central location of the public square in Bristol’s city centre, the radiating pattern of the square’s pathways, and the centrality of the statue where all pathways radiate from, all serve to glorify the power of the king and signify the city’s loyalty to the kingdom.

The radiating pattern of Queen Square, with the King William III statue centrally located

Street naming is one of the most significant and direct ways in which ideologies are symbolised and conveyed by powerful agents. Just as public monuments and statues are crucial to the commemoration of historical events, and figures or the central location of government buildings is essential for symbolising power, street and place names, which fabricate our daily landscape, are also utilised by political regimes to reinforce their ideologies. Street names are essentially short texts often voicing concise meanings explicit to society. Thus, streets are not only given individual names for the purpose of direction, this naming also affixes identities and meanings to a spatially defined place. A classic example can be found in Germany, where hundreds of streets and public squares were (re-)named after Adolf Hitler during the Third Reich, but were instantly removed after the fall of the Nazi regime.

The significance of landscape as symbolic representation, particularly that of street names, has been well studied in Western contexts, such as in the U.S., Ireland, and Germany, where the powerful role of landscape in achieving political goals have been emphasised.  However, no such study has been conducted in Hong Kong, the city in which I was born and raised. The two contrasting political regimes – the century-and-a-half British colonial rule, and post-colonial local governance after the city was returned to China in 1997 – Hong Kong has lived through in contemporary times has produced an intriguing landscape history, begging  the question “how do Hong Kong’s street names reflect the ideologies and power struggles of these two political regimes?” It is this question my research projects seeks to answer.

To engage with this question, I intend to explore how the names and the act of naming and re-naming the streets of Hong Kong was politically controlled by the British and the Chinese forces respectively, and how the city’s politicised spaces reflect the values of the agents in power. More specifically, my research will focus on four aspects of street-naming in Hong Kong:

  1. Power relations: Who had the power in determining Hong Kong’s street names? How does street-naming reveal power relations and social ideologies?
  2. Methods of street naming: How were the streets of Hong Kong named under the colonial and post-colonial authorities? What were the procedures and methods taken by the respective governments?
  3. Mentalities and political aims: What were the rationales behind street naming? What messages were the political regimes attempting to convey to the public through street names? What political aims were they seeking to achieve?
  4. Comparison: How were the ways in which the British government manipulated street-naming, as a political tool for representing ideologies and reinforcing national identity, different or similar to that of the Hong Kong government? Does this signify a transformation of social ideology throughout history?
A selection of well known streets in Hong Kong – can you identify which were named by the British and Honk Kong government respectively?

My dissertation consequently takes the form of a critical toponymy of Hong Kong. Toponymy, the study of place names, is a common methodology used by researchers in the subject of landscape interpretation. Utilising this approach, urban landscapes are read as ‘texts’ awaiting understanding and interpretation. Toponymy, then, strives to uncover the broader socio-cultural meanings attached to places by political powers through a close reading of these texts. In my study, the street names and the exercise of naming streets in the context of Hong Kong will also be deemed as texts of social actions. Through an interpretation of the city’s street names and their origins, I hope to reveal interesting stories about historical power struggle and socio-cultural value systems under various political regimes. I plan to categorise Hong Kong’s street names according to the nature (e.g. historical events/figures, British/Chinese place names, directional, functional, conceptual, etc.), and examine closely the origins of these names. From reading the Hong Kong street-scape as a text, I hope to provide an analysis arguing despite the different methods each government animated in the naming of streets, the British government and the Chinese government were mobilised by a similar mentality and a comparable underlying rational: both regimes manipulated street naming as a political measure to assert power. Through giving names to streets, both the British and Chinse governments endeavoured to foster their own ideologies, and to establish a national image and identity for the citizens of Hong Kong.


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