Hong Kong’s heritage crusaders: making cultural impact with iDiscover

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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. iDiscover, a neighbourhood guide mobile application, sets out to spread the appreciation for heritage by empowering people to uncover authentic local stories across Asia all within the palm of their hands.

What was originally a passion project has now made waves across cities in Asia. The newsDesk caught up with theDesk Sai Wan members, iDiscover’s founder Ester van Steekelenburg and project manager Stephanie Cheung, to find out more about how they are revitalising the concept of heritage through innovative platforms.

Meet the iDiscover team: Project Manager Tiffany Tang, Founder Ester van Steekelenburg, Project Manager Stephanie Cheung.

A call for change

After close to two decades in the corporate field of architecture and urban planning, 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.

Hence in 2010, the Dutch-born entrepreneur struck out on her own by establishing 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.

“I think that it’s really more of a question of how to make the right contribution with your skill set and experience. I never had the ambition to start a company, it was more of finding a way to create meaningful impact. When we see heritage and identity disappearing before our eyes: we can do two things: stand by the side and complain or try to do something about it.”

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.

Thus, iDiscover App&Map kickstarted in 2014 as a platform to fully focus on showcase heritage front and centre 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 graduating from her business degree.

Priding herself as someone deeply rooted to the 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 the finance and banking, Stephanie decided to pursue her passion for urban culture and planning.

“I don’t think that the education system has put enough emphasis on the culture and identity. But it was only in the recent years that people started to be more aware thanks to social media. It has allowed my generation to begin contemplating on what defines the ‘Hong Kong identity’.”

The new urban phenomenon

Opened in June 2018, Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Art is a convergence of old and new.

It’s been made loud and clear that preserving heritage is worth the investment. The recent opening of Tai Kwun Heritage and Arts is a step towards the right direction.

The former 300,000 sq.ft. central police station compound in Hong Kong’s Old Town Central took almost a decade of and cost HK$3.8 billion to be revitalised by the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

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According to a recent report by South China Morning Post, about 80 percent of ageing structures eligible for protection by the government is privately held by owners.

This means these old structures are not protected under the legal safeguards against demolition or alteration. Private owners have the free reigns to decide whether to cash in on the profitable value of these scarce lands here in Hong Kong.

Despite that, Ester has observed a new wave of thinking amongst these private owners.

“The new phenomenon is that the second generation of Asian tycoon families is perhaps, more conscious about their heritage disappearing. They realize that not every hotel lobby needs to be made of marble and that an office can look like this. This thereby gives them a bit more appreciation for the 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 their Asian counterparts in terms of holistic and sustainable city planning.

Ester sang praises of Taiwan and Japan’s long history on their appreciation for heritage and meticulous city planning, as though it is in their blood to do so.

Hong Kong’s economic rival, Singapore, made sure historical architectures positioned along main streets are preserved while redevelopment behind them are kept to a certain height restriction.

“Even in Singapore, perhaps they realised the importance of architectural preservation a bit too late. 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.”

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Revitalising heritage a neighbourhood at a time

iDiscover‘s core mission strikes a similar chord with theDesk’s ethos on building an inclusive community. Unlike most travel apps based upon reviews by visitors, the app strives to bring the power back to the locals. With more self-empowered solo travellers, there is a growing demand for authentic local experiences.

iDiscover’s Sai Ying Pun Neighbourhood Museum held in July.

Ester and her team most recently gone great lengths to cover Sai Ying Pun’s authentic neighbourhood stories using exhibitions and portraits of locals. Earlier 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.

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Not only did iDiscover create an app-based neighbourhood guide, they also produced colourful foldable maps illustrated by local artist Carmen Ng, featuring 26 sites highlighting local cultural heritage that were handpicked by the locals.

iDiscover is set out to organise more neighbourhood museums across Hong Kong neighbourhoods and an interactive website comprising of videos, songs, poems, and articles. It is impressive how their team has even managed to set presence concurrently in other heritage-rich cities such as Yangon, Bali, Macau and Manila.

iDiscover’s Sai Ying Pun Neighbourhood Museum held in July had the local community involved in sharing their stories.

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 heritage alive.”

Coming up next for iDiscover will be the launch of their 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.

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