West wing is part of our heritage

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2012, 12:00am


Hong Kong is not known for having a strong appetite for heritage conservation. But, thankfully, an awakening consciousness has taken root following the public outcry against the demolition of the iconic Star Ferry clock tower and Queen's Pier a few years ago. The recent strong reservations over the government's plan to pull down the west wing at its former headquarters on Lower Albert Road show more sensitivity is needed when redeveloping areas with heritage value.

It is troubling, therefore, to see outgoing development chief Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor so determined to flatten the old government office block. In a rare move, she announced the west wing would be demolished as planned, just hours before heritage experts were due to grade the building. Lam explained that the move was to relieve members of the Antiquities Advisory Board from 'political disturbance'. She brushed aside an 'alert' over the demolition plan issued by a body that advises the United Nations on world heritage.

Lam's firm approach may appear to many as an encouraging shift from the outgoing administration's indecisive ruling style. But a high-handed approach can backfire. There is a danger if officials defy public opposition and bulldoze their way through. Lam, widely tipped to be the future chief secretary, needs as much prudence as determination in pushing sensitive policies in future.

The latest controversy that saw the antiquities board chairman resign and three other members consider following suit is regrettable. Lam is undoubtedly a capable minister with a strong will to achieve. But her style also gives the impression that the government is disrespectful to the board's operation. Some critics went further, saying the pre-emptive approach has made a mockery of the heritage grading mechanism, whose decision is likely to affect people's views on the redevelopment project. It is difficult to see how Government Hill can preserve its historical and architectural integrity when it will be dwarfed by a new 32-storey commercial tower at one end. It is also unclear whether the additional concessions, such as the government retaining ownership of the new building, would ease opposition. But what is certain is that the west wing, the last of the three blocks built on the site, testifies to the evolution of the architectural styles found at the colonial seat of power. Given it is seemingly an inseparable part of the entire complex, there is a strong case to preserve as much as possible.

Pulling down an office block with arguably lower historical value is a quick and easy way to satisfy the city's appetite for redevelopment. But the development-at-all-cost mentality is increasingly questioned by the community. The government has yet to put a convincing case as to why the office block must be knocked down.