Historic housing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 July, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 July, 2002, 12:00am

In a city renowned for having no remorse about pulling down old buildings to make way for gleaming skyscrapers, it is a pleasant surprise to learn that the Housing Department is planning to preserve some of Hong Kong's oldest public housing blocks in Shekkipmei Estate.

The department has even asked its staff to come up with innovative ideas to put the old blocks to good use so they will become a living relic of the past. One concept calls for turning two blocks into an international youth hostel and offices for housing-related groups. A third block, to be turned into a museum, will be partially demolished to expose its interiors. Other related works in the surrounding areas will transform the heritage blocks into a new attraction for the district.

If more organisations can emulate the Housing Department by putting some thought into what to do with our heritage, Hong Kong will stop becoming a city in which history's physical remnants can hardly survive. Old-timers and former residents back for visits will have something tangible with which to refresh their memories of this metropolis whose skyline changes at such a rapid rate.

Architecturally, the six-storey H-shaped blocks, with hundreds of cramped, non-self-contained units, external balcony access and schools on the rooftops, may have very little to offer. But in the aftermath of the 1953 squatter fire, they provided much-needed shelter for tens of thousands of people who lost their wooden huts in the inferno.

Living conditions in the one-room apartments, lacking kitchens or bathrooms, were far from ideal, but that did not prevent many of their tenants from launching into prosperous careers. Their struggle was part of Hong Kong's success story.

Over the past five decades, Hong Kong's public housing programme has undergone many changes. Estates from different times all have their own distinctive styles. One by one, as they are due for redevelopment, it would be a good idea for planners to put on their thinking caps before bringing in the wreckers' ball.

With sufficient forethought, an historic tour of public housing estates could be in the making.