Atlas Victoria

Eunice Seng’s Resistant City: Histories, Maps and the Architecture of Development Reviewed

書評《Resistant City: Histories, Maps and the Architecture of Development》— 維城輿圖

Patrick Cheng-Chun Hwang 黃聖鈞


The main battle in imperialism is over land, of course; but when it came to who owned the land, who had the right to settle and work on it, who won it back, and who now plans its future – these issues were reflected, contested, and even for a time decided in narrative.
Edward Said

Said, Edward (1978) Orientalism, New York: Vintage.

For a city whose precise identity has long been a source of fascination, Eunice Seng’s latest book tells the story of the archipelago city of Victoria like a Cubist painting. It offers a multifaceted gaze of the city’s contested history through the lenses of maps, films, and architecture. With occasional cameo appearances of technology, utopia, and the codified rules that govern its skyline and subtopia operation.

The book is peppered with quotes from Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, but unlike Dung Kai-Cheung’s work, which shuffles between history, theory, and fiction, Seng’s portraiture of Victoria is still in the process of making. Besides offering the answer to what-is, Resistant City: Histories, Maps and the Architecture of Development also provides several how-tos in the book’s final chapter, Manuals: Resistance in Praxis’, authored by colleagues and students of Seng’s. Probing beneath the surface of the canvas, what supports the work seems to be a position grounded in this very contested moment that we are witnessing and living in.

Michel de Certeau wrote in The Practice of the Everyday that the itinerary is distinguished from the map. While the itinerary refers to the individual movements made through walking the city streets as a pedestrian, the map assumes the role of a totalising and singular view. The reader assumes the role of the pedestrian, a flâneur – the idle, urban stroller; one who pauses almost as much as she moves wandering through the alleyways, composite buildings and towers of Victoria.

In “Maps: Territories of Contestation”, we are shepherded through 16 episodes of maps narrating the maritime, trade, military, border, reclamation, development and infrastructural histories of Hong Kong. Here we are reminded of the subjectivity and exclusivity embodied in the nature of map-making. The act of rendering the invisible visible comes with an implication that is beyond the geological or geographic, but rather is political and economical. As Seng asserts, “Maps are compelling ways to convey cartographic information but they are also distortions of the reality they claim to represent. Insofar as they are used for reference and navigation, they can easily be used as a political and ideological instrument”. In Noirs: The City, the Woman and Other Spaces, mid-century Hong Kong movies such as ‘Black Rose’ (Hak Mui Gwai, 1965), ‘Elevator Girl’ (Din Tai Neui Long, 1965), ‘The Forsaken Love’ (Ching Cheun Mui Gwai, 1968), and ‘The Arch’ (Dung Fu Yan, 1970) are explored for their evocative relationship and connection to Hong Kong’s recent history in domesticity, gender, and modernisation during the turbulent period of the 1960s. A time remembered for its ideological contestation between the populist and the communist. The chapter concludes by highlighting the issues of the built-heritage. The disappearance of the cinema architecture which coincides with the fall of the Hong Kong film industry.

In ‘Towers: Technologies, Jardine House and Metropolitan Visions’ and ‘Composites: The City in a Building’, Seng examines two prototypical topologies born from the confined urban context and darlings to the city’s developers: the tall and the hybrid – the archetypes that exemplify the zeitgeist of the place. These chapters paint a picture of universal optimism that comes with the notion of ‘building the tallest’ on the one hand and dissecting the hybrid buildings of Chungking Mansion, Kiu Kwan Mansion as the ultimate ‘Downtown Athletic Club’, vis-a-vis Delirious New York, but also as the bastion of the rebel insurgents, on the other.

The book has six chapters sandwiched between a prologue and an epilogue, with a short addendum, ‘Excursus: Mapping Toilet Architecture’, cataloging 85 public toilets in the Fragrant Harbour. Its chapters feature a rich set of texts, drawings, illustrations, photos, diagrams, and manga-style pen and ink sketches. The writing is mainly reminiscent of typical academic journals, but occasional narrative surprises adopt prose akin to a spy thriller, “A few weeks later, the raids of leftist stronghold Kiu Kwan Mansion and Metropole Building began at 6:40 am on 4 August. Police cordoned off Kings Road and Tong Shui Road nearby. Police landed on the rooftop of Kiu Kwan Mansion in helicopters from a British aircraft carrier.”

The book is by no means a comprehensive history of Hong Kong. In a Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze argues that ‘nomad space is occupying without being counted; while striated space is counted in order to be occupied’. Seng’s Hong Kong takes place in the city, the counted space, supported by the powerful conglomerate formed by its financial incentive system and disciplinary mechanisms. The nomad space, a.k.a. its country parks, which accounts for more than 30% of Hong Kong’s territory, exist outside this wonderful book. They are a contested territory waiting to be exploited.

Writers survey the territory they wish to describe; they stitch together seemingly disconnected elements in order to produce a narrative. Their elements may include fragments of the other stories of people, places, images, rituals and buildings derived from observations and research. The writing of this book began at the time of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, while the manuscript was completed three months before last year’s proposed Anti-Extradition Law was announced. The book’s arrival, in the midst of contestation, could not be more timely. Seng’s underlying narrative argues for a space of contemplation for architecture’s and urbanism’s creative potential to support an equitable and inclusive society.


Patrick Cheng-Chun Hwang is a father, son, husband and teacher of architecture. He is also a licensed architect in the United States.


Book Cover Image (Credit: Eunice Seng)