Antiquities board can't admit last old building is long gone

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am


At Thursday's meeting an [Antiquities Advisory Board] member raised a new piece of historical information about the [west] wing, showing a 1969 news article that recorded that the first indoor 'trendy dance party' was held in there. Such parties were organised by the government after the 1967 riots in an effort to let angry young people vent their energy.

SCMP, June 20

You know the black and white picture books of old Hong Kong that are so prominent in bookstores. I think one reason that so many people buy them is the charm of those turn-of-the-century buildings along the Central waterfront.

It's almost as if a Victorian pastry chef had been given a new career as an architect and concocted a stonework feast of colonnades, gables, arches, pillars, decorative window frames and twirly whirls wherever you look.

But it might as well have been pre-dynastic Egypt for all that's left of it now. The remnants are a rebuilt Murray House in Stanley and the facade of part of the Sai Ying Pun Community Complex. I watched my favourite, the old Hong Kong Club building, torn down in 1981. The excuse was that the wooden foundations had rotted, or maybe it was the roof. A resolution to preserve the building was in any case firmly rejected at a members meeting.

You'd think that someone might at least have tried to recreate these fascinating confections. A visit to Macau will show that it can be done easily enough these days. Old Venice, old China, a lotus bloom, a giant dog faeces to greet you as you approach on the ferry, all it requires is a different shaping of ferroconcrete and some inventive paintwork.

But no, in Hong Kong, it has been expunged. We have washed our hands of that piece of our history.

And this leaves that peculiar collection of underemployed architects and unemployable dreamers, the Antiquities Advisory Board, with a dilemma. If we have already graded all the obvious temples and village houses and Hong Kong has nothing more worth saving, what do we tell the government to save?

The board's answer: everything.

This nonsense swung into high pitch several years ago when the government decided to save King Yin Lei, a 1930s home on Stubbs Road designed by an English architect steeped in Hollywood notions of Chinese movie sets. Pretty? Yes, it is. Historical? Don't make me laugh. But they fixed it up and now it lies empty again.

Then it was Ho Tung Gardens on The Peak, an ugly squat block renowned for being the home of the first Chinese man to live on The Peak except that he was Eurasian and he didn't live there.

Oh well, let's try another angle then. We'll say it was Chinese Renaissance architecture. Yes, and so is everything built on this coast between 1900 and 1949. Architects talk greater nonsense even than estate agents. Fortunately, it now seems the public purse may be spared the waste of billions of dollars to buy this monstrosity.

But we have another one in play, the west wing, an utterly unremarkable government office block constructed in the 1960s, and here the antiquities board has really had to paddle hard to come up with reasons for calling it a historical building. A trendy dance party was held there. How silly must things get.

Let's face it. There is nothing left. We tore it all down. If we must spend money to preserve a few buildings then let's turn the oldest remaining public housing blocks at Shek Kip Mei into museums and let visitors have an authentic whiff of the central lavatory facilities. That would be history for you.

I would like to see a show of hands on one question about the west wing. How many of you who object to its demolition do so only because you would not like to see a taller building on the site? I thought so. Here is an idea for you. Why not make your home in the Gobi Desert where nothing of even two storeys is anywhere in sight.

I am all for preserving Hong Kong's heritage and we do indeed have a wonderful heritage that we can still preserve in all its splendour. I refer, of course, to our magnificent country parks.

Let's keep them safe from all encroachments of illegal development, let's keep the walking paths maintained and let's dispense with this notion that heritage means only buildings that are about to be torn down.