Creating a new lease on life for historic tenement

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 May, 2012, 12:00am


Conservationists are keen to keep a historic tenement in Wan Chai alive with cultural and social activities for residents and visitors before the building is renovated next year.

Almost two years after the landmark Blue House and its neighbouring Yellow and Orange houses were handed to three non-profit organisations - St James' Settlement, Community Cultural Concern and Heritage Hong Kong Foundation - to set up a social enterprise, funding for the project has been secured.

A ceremony next month will kick off the renovations. Work on Orange House and Yellow House will start this year, and on Blue House, the oldest, next year.

With a donation of HK$3 million from HSBC and the help of a dozen volunteers, the organisations plan a series of activities to keep up life in Blue House before it is vacated next year.

The activities would also create local job and business opportunities, Community Cultural Concern's Mirana May Szeto said.

'We don't want to waste the time used for renovation. All we're doing is to experiment with different ways to achieve a self-sustaining business model and bottom-up community building,' Szeto said. 'I feel that our experience can serve as a reference for other districts.'

In coming months, a chef will run a cookery class to train residents and volunteers wanting to help in a future restaurant in Blue House. In a workshop, residents who know how to use sewing machines - typically women who worked in the clothing industry during the 1970s - will work with designers to make clothes for a fashion show. The place will also be used as a tutorial centre to teach South Asian children written Chinese.

This heritage revitalisation project, described as 'keeping the house together with the people', is unique. Eight resident households, including some who have lived there for decades, have opted to stay on.

After the renovation, the vacant units in the three tenements, built between the 1920s and the 1950s, will house diverse uses, including a folk gallery, a dessert shop, a vegetarian restaurant, two shops and flats leased to artists and craft workers.

Him Lo, curator of a temporary folk museum in Blue House, said the activities would not intrude into tenants' lives and they were free to decide whether to join in.

'We understand that residents living in the Blue House compound may not like too much publicity. Some work long hours, and they may not have too much time for meetings,' Lo, a soccer player-turned- artist, said.

The first monthly evening concert, with free admission, was held last week, featuring traditional Chinese music. Lo said quiet music would be chosen for later concerts to create an intimate atmosphere for the old neighbourhood and avoid scaring residents away.

Madam Huen, an elderly woman on the second floor of Blue House known as 'Sister Four' to her neighbours, has lived in the compound for decades. She said she welcomed the concert and other programmes. But her granddaughter from Guangdong was less interested, because 'many neighbours are old', and hoped to move to a public rental flat.