Asian Revitalization: Adaptive Reuse in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore

Matthijs de Boer

Many urban geographers or other travellers (especially from the West) who have visited one or more of this publication’s titular cities will have marvelled at the seemingly futuristic cityscapes on display. One can, for instance, merely be in a state of awe-inspired enthusiasm when crossing Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour by ferry, when peering out over Shanghai atop its World Financial Center’s observation deck, or when strolling through Singapore’s Jewel Changi Airport shopping mall with its magnificent indoor waterfall.

As much as the future of these cities lies in the skyscrapers and shopping malls that outline them, the authors in Asian Revitalization detail how it is increasingly also the past that helps shape that future. And while the publication focuses on Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore, it could be suggested that certain cases, as well as the lessons that can be drawn from them, can be representative of the wider (East) Asian context, including cities such as Bangkok, Hanoi, Manilla, Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo. Indeed, these examples could perhaps even serve as an inspiration to the entire urbanized world.

Making an example of adaptive reuse

In a region in which the economy has skyrocketed in recent decades and space is often scarce, there has been a longstanding sentiment of ‘deconstructing the old’ and ‘building the new, preferably upwards.’ The frequent critique that modern architecture lacks traditional atmosphere and liveliness was pushed aside; sparkling skyscrapers and shopping malls mushroomed. While these projects constitute some of the most famous and recognizable attempts of Asian cities to facilitate the future, there is a rising tide that brings in a focus on reusing the old for future purposes as well, particularly in the current climate of sustainability.

Asian Revitalization offers not only an extensive introduction into the practice of adaptive reuse, which is highly useful for any person with even the slightest (academic) interest in urban geography and Asia in particular. In doing so, it also lays bare certain specific objections to and objectives of the practice. That is, the publication illustrates particularly well how temporal and spatial factors or circumstances can influence the implementation of any action, policy, or strategy aimed at effectuating the adaptive reuse of any building in the urban environment. The book presents a myriad of case studies with a wide variety of functional heritages, from Hong Kong to Shanghai to Singapore.

The case studies have varying histories and purposes (e.g., commercial, industrial, military, and residential), and they come from three urban Asian locations that have developed at separate moments in time, at different speeds, and under a myriad of governmental circumstances. By selecting such diverse sites, Asian Revitalization does itself a major favor in legitimizing its content and conclusions. At the very least, the publication can be of value to those interested or active in the wider and rather heterogenous context of urban East/Southeast Asia. However, the attention to detail regarding the effects of this rather large variety of factors – be it time, pace, politics, etc. ­– found in its many contributions, only adds to its possible wider significance.


Where the level of detail and selection of case studies undeniably increase the validity and significance of the publication, there is room for commentary, too, notably regarding a small number of seemingly insufficiently scrutinized assumptions or preferences. For instance, while acknowledging the need for financial viability in order for a project to succeed, there is an obvious tendency toward denouncing what is considered a too blatant ‘commercialization’ of a property. There is a pervasive sense that, for instance, a building with heritage value being reused as a supermarket can hardly be called a successful example of conservation. Such notions illustrate the publication’s preference for a cultural or social purpose in adaptive reuse, disregarding its earlier notion that it is generally better to prevent a building of heritage value being razed to the ground. This apparent contradiction could actually undermine the premise of the publication’s call for wider acknowledgement of adaptive reuse as both an aim and a policy tool.

Another example regards the assumption that the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation serve as a propellent of and validation for adaptive reuse projects. It is a debatable claim, as one could rightfully argue that those in charge of creating policy concerned with adaptive reuse – or those involved in its implementation – are motivated not so much by the possibility of receiving an award for their efforts. Rather, it could perhaps be that the success of certain projects actually validates said awards.


Asian Revitalization is a profoundly useful publication for those in search of a thorough understanding of modern urban challenges regarding adaptive reuse, specifically in an (East) Asian context. The publication could be read simply as an introduction or serve as the backbone of further studies, particularly when one scrutinizes its very minor pitfalls.