By Nick Webber
I don’t think it would be going out on a limb to suggest that last year’s move to the new Centennial Campus was met by most School of English postgraduates with a fair amount of skepticism. We’d all become used to the Main Building’s prison-issue desks, the dust, the mosquito-eating lizards, the exam-period hubbub, the gamelan a-ding dongs, the sunlit balconies, the palms, birds and insects. And we’d become accustomed, also, to the history of the place, to the ways in which the building spoke a different language to the rest of Hong Kong’s architecture, and to the ways in which this different language communicated with the people of Hong Kong, who flocked (and, presumably, continue to flock) to the location for wedding photos and nightmare-vision-of-the-future cosplay vapidity.
In comparison to the historically sedimented and culturally significant Main Building, then, our move to the Centennial Campus felt like we were walking headlong into the dystopian, replicant world of Blade Runner. Strange and unwieldy verbs like “hotdesking” were suddenly being deployed, “access cards” were distributed, Voight-Kampff tests were (probably) administered. Air for breathing was to be circulated only through vents; there would be no windows which were not hermetically sealed; all space was to be shared; emotional response was to be mediated via mood organs; unruly behaviour would result in being forcibly “retired” … You know the score.
As it turned out, of course, most of our fears were unfounded—hardly anyone failed the replicant test, for example—but this didn’t detract from the eerily still and staid atmosphere our new home possessed. Our shared office space looked like it had been designed by a jaded IKEA intern who’d somehow got hold of a pencil case a few sheets of scrap paper. And the space was climate controlled by a vengeful Inuit—the same guy, I think, who’s in charge of air-conditioning duties in Hong Kong cinemas, 7-11s and shopping malls. Fortunately, though, so as to liven up proceedings, someone had thought to release a couple of rats and some air- and waterborne disease spores, so it wasn’t all doom and gloom.
Before long, however, all these teething problems were sorted out, cleaned up or (humanely) exterminated, and we began to settle into our new abode and make it feel like home. Plants were bought to green the place up a bit, books were stacked about the windowsills, strange paraphernalia appeared, and that pseudo-showroom-sheek became suitably scuffed and grubby. It also turns out, very positively, that the verb “to hotdesk” roughly translates as “to have a personal desk where all your stuff is”—a reality confirmed when one of our number, in a moment of territorial defiance akin to a fed-up housecat tipping over its food bowl, broke ranks with the rest of the desks in order to face the window. All very Ché Guevara.
So, in truth, perhaps little has really changed. We go on reading and writing, moaning and stressing, much like we ever did; it’s just that we now do it that bit higher up in the air, that bit further from the library, and that bit more communally than we once did. And whilst our new office is very unlikely to be the historical and community landmark that our old home both was and is, we have at least layered on a few narratives, histories and myths of our own, just
so as to make a start on a brand new chapter of postgraduate life in the School of English at HKU.