Last stand to save an ancient village

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 November, 2002, 12:00am

Residents of Hong Kong's oldest walled village will take to the streets to save their homes from a developer's bulldozer.

Angry villagers from Nga Tsin Wai - which has almost 700 years of history - will make a determined last stand against the plan to raze 12th-century architecture for modern high-rises.

But they fear time and the government are not on their side.

'We have been talking to the government for the past 10 years. We have met officials four times, but nothing has happened,' said village head Ng Kau.

About 70 per cent of the property in the 12th century fortified village in Kowloon City has been bought and promptly torn down by developer Cheung Kong (Holdings).

In August, the Buildings Department approved Cheung Kong's plans to build three commercial and residential buildings on the site where the ancient village now stands.

Locals have repeatedly urged the government to list the village as a heritage site.

Their representatives petitioned Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands Michael Suen Ming-yeung two weeks ago. Legislator Chan Yuen-han said they would stage another protest soon.

'It's fruitless and frustrating. The developer tears down every building that falls into its hands, while the government has no plan for preservation. We are disappointed and we are going to take to the streets to protest,' said Ms Chan.

With most of the buildings already dismantled, many government officials believe the village is not worth protecting.

Mr Ng, 75, said: '[The developers] said they would level the whole village, even if the government decided to turn it into a tourism site, because our houses are too dilapidated. They could buy old buildings on the mainland and move them brick by brick to here.' But even that fate, Mr Ng said, was preferable to seeing the site covered in tower blocks.

'All 28 generations of my ancestors lived here,' he said.

'When there were wars and dynasty changes, they would leave to hide somewhere else for a while.

'But they always returned. These are my roots. I want my offspring to come and see it.

'Look at these old buildings. They used to be very solid, because they were all linked together. But as the developer tears down one here and one there, they are now like my loose teeth.'

Wong Wah-sang, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong's Department of Architecture, said Nga Tsin Wai village still had a lot to offer.

'Heritage preservation is not just about hardware. It is also about protecting old cultural practices and ways of living. Many old cultural festivals, such as the Tai Ping Ching Chiu, are already lost on the mainland but can still be found here,' said Professor Wong, who is also the chairman of the heritage body Urban Watch.

'To preserve this old culture and ways of living will give Hong Kong a unique character. You don't become a world city by building high-rises. You need to find your cultural identity,' he said.

In April, the Green Hong Kong organisation and Ms Chan proposed building a cultural and heritage zone in Kowloon City, including a Chinese-styled covered walkway between Nga Tsin Wai village and the Kowloon walled city.

The Hong Kong Japanese Tour Operators' Association last year urged the government to preserve old sites, singling out Nga Tsin Wai village for protection.

But so far the government has failed to respond.

A spokeswoman for the Leisure and Cultural Services department said the Antiquities and Monuments Office supported the idea of preserving Nga Chi Wai village. But she said it could not do it alone.

Heritage protection has been in the media spotlight because of a row over the proposed demolition of 88-year-old Kom Tong Hall by its owner, the Mormon Church.

Assistant Director of Leisure and Cultural Services Tony Ma Kai-loong and Home Affairs Bureau chief curator Susanna Siu Kai-kuen on Thursday said the government would formulate a new system to protect Hong Kong's heritage sites. She said the new system may be ready as soon as next year.