Opinion

BUREAUCRATIC NAMES DISHONOUR OUR SENSE OF PLACE

OP-ED By GUEST WRITER William Hopkin

Engineering journal Civil Engineering called Hong Kong’s newest tunnel “outstanding” – but its given name is more suited to an auditor’s filing cabinet than a colossal city structure

Today traffic starts rolling through the latest addition to Hong Kong’s newest strategic road network, the Tuen Mun-Chek Lap Kok Link Northern Connection.

The centrepiece of the link is a HK$18.2bn, 5km undersea tunnel, created by the world’s largest boring machine battling huge groundwater pressure. And what has the government decided to name this outstanding feat of engineering? The Tuen Mun-Chek Lap Kok Tunnel.

Besides being a misnomer – the tunnel doesn’t even reach Chek Lap Kok, instead making landfall on the anonymous Hong Kong Port artificial island of the also-unimaginatively named Hong Kong–Zhuhai-–Macau Bridge – this mouthful of a label reflects a systemic lack of vision and imagination in Hong Kong’s sclerotic Civil Service. Never mind that it uses six words where two to three would suffice; to the bureaucrats who name them, transport infrastructures are not landmarks that shape people’s environment, but assets to be labelled in the grey language of the auditor and the filing cabinet.

The Central–Wan Chai Bypass Tunnel is awkwardly named for places it avoids

The dead hand of the soulless bureaucrat can be found across the territory. While road tunnels on land tend to have taken their names from the historical names of the mountains they penetrate – Tate’s Cairn, Sha Tin Heights – or the locations they access – Aberdeen, Tseung Kwan O – the other major tunnel to open in recent years was the Central–Wan Chai Bypass Tunnel, whose cumbersome name rather depressingly only invokes the places it avoids.

If the junior official in the Highways Department had spent two minutes with a map, he would have found that the tunnel crosses the Urmston Road, the major shipping channel between Hong Kong’s anchorages and the northern part of the Pearl River Estuary. Another two minutes on Wikipedia would have revealed that this stretch of water was named after Sir James Brabazon Urmston, a China chief of the British East India Company. Understandably reluctant to invoke the memory of a perfidious colonialist since Hong Kong’s return to the motherland, the official could have turned instead to the poetic sense of his compatriots, who called it Long Ku (literally Dragon Drum) Channel.

As an engineer, I have always been conscious that we shape the world around us. Names have meaning: they form our shared experience quite as much as the physical asset itself. That it never even occurred to government officials that Long Ku Tunnel might be a better name than Tuen Mun-Chek Lap Kok Tunnel is merely a symptom of this fundamental flaw. They do not understand the people and the society they profess to serve, and the government systematically fails its citizens as a result.

William Hopkin is a senior engineer in Hong Kong.

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