Slum homes may be preserved for posterity

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 January, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 January, 1996, 12:00am

AT least one of the territory's thousands of squalid temporary housing units should be preserved as an historic monument, says the civil servant in charge of heritage.

Alex Yip Cho-hung, executive secretary of the Antiquities and Monuments Office, admits some people might regard the plan as 'crazy' - particularly those living in such units, which have no toilets and are frequently rat-infested.

But he said the tens of thousands of people who grew up in such units should be able to show their children and grandchildren how they used to live.

The Government is planning to demolish all temporary housing areas, most before 1997.

The office is also changing its definition of a 'historic building'.

Previously, the term applied only to buildings built before 1941, but after the survey of historic buildings to be undertaken this year it could be extended to the late 1950s or even later.

'It would be difficult to preserve [a temporary unit], but it would be good to have it as a historical building,' Mr Yip said.

The wooden units were the first major public housing programme in the territory.

They were built by the thousand to rehouse people made homeless by the massive 1953 fire in the Shekkipmei squatter area.

When Mr Yip last wrote to the Housing Authority to raise the issue 'they took the point . . . and then they explained the problem'.

The Housing Authority said that leaving one standing would cause problems for the modern estates built on the site after clearance.

'You can't deprive people when there are 200,000 people on the waiting list,' he said.

Jeff Cody, a lecturer and architectural historian at Chinese University, said the idea was 'very appropriate'.

'We can't say that buildings over 50 years old are history, and modern buildings aren't history,' he said.

The oldest of the 59 structures which were declared monuments under the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance is the exterior of the Tang Chi Ngong Building at the University of Hong Kong, which was started in 1929.

Mr Yip said the historical survey, funded with a grant of $4 million from the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, might identify other relatively recent buildings worthy of preservation.

A conference in June in Helsinki run by the International Council on Monuments and Sites recommended particular attention be given to preserving apparently 'modest' structures such as public housing and industrial buildings.

It also said a 25-year wait after construction should be 'sufficient time for historical perspective and scientific analysis'.

Mr Cody said that in 20 years, even the Hongkong Bank Building could be the focus of a dispute.

'For the first 10 or 20 years people think a building will always be there,' he said.

But there were many once-common building that were almost extinct such as the Wan Chai tenements only seen in Suzy Wong-era movies.

The earliest styles of temporary housing areas face the same fate.

The Government has pledged that by the end of this year all areas build before 1984 will be pulled down, meaning the earliest designs will have disappeared.

Even if it was not possible to preserve a unit, Mr Cody said it should be possible to erect one at least partly in the enlarged Hong Kong Museum of History to be built in Tsim Sha Tsui East.