War relics disappearing under the weight of neglect, historians warn

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 November, 2002, 12:00am


Dozens of Hong Kong's war relics are disappearing through neglect or because they are not protected by law.

Historians say that in the past four months at least two military relics have been torn down - one of them a pillbox southeast of Kong Sin Wan Tsuen in Pok Fu Lam, pulled down by construction workers to make way for a new road to the Cyberport site.

According to the Antiquities and Monuments Office, there are more than 120 recorded historical military buildings and structures spanning the period from the Qing Dynasty to World War II.

Although 97 of them have been graded by the Antiquities Advisory Board, only five have been declared monuments and are protected under the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance.

Local historian Ko Tim-keung, who specialises in research into war relics, says the exact number of such remains or the rate of their destruction is unknown because many of them have been destroyed by developers or passers-by over the years.

'Many of these relics are still to be uncovered,' Mr Ko said, 'These sites have much significance in helping people understand local military history. Sadly, they are not being properly protected.'

Various military facilities such as batteries, redoubts (small forts), pillboxes, observation posts and bunkers were built in Hong Kong after the British arrived in 1841, especially to protect Victoria Harbour.

The defences were put to the test during the Japanese invasion in December 1941, which ended with the fall of Hong Kong on Christmas Day, just 18 days into the battle.

Witnesses from those days are now thin on the ground and many relics have been hidden by the thick undergrowth.

A trip to a military compound built by the British during the early 20th century on Devil's Peak behind Lei Yue Mun last week illustrated the problem.

Dug into the hillside and buried by dense vegetation, war relics such as gun emplacements, magazines, batteries and a communications centre are all but invisible to everyone but enthusiasts willing to explore the rough terrain.

On the summit is a fort built by the British in 1914 with a trench leading to it. The structure includes a kitchen, shelters and a communications room. Though an historically valuable site, it has neither been declared a monument nor developed into a country park or heritage trail.

Because of a lack of detailed information on such war relics, enthusiasts often need to resort to old maps and photos for their expedition.

Few would know that such large-scale military compounds still exist in Hong Kong, except for those war-game lovers who use the sites - and leave behind plenty of plastic bullets.

Mr Ko said it was important to protect Devil's Peak because it was the last piece of Kowloon's natural coastline. 'It may be difficult for the government to preserve relics in urban areas because of land ownership problems, but why is it so hard to protect those on government land?' he asked.

Other threatened sites include Mount Davis, Wong Nai Chung Gap and the Sai Wan battery.

Professor Lawrence Lai Wai-chung, of the Department of Real Estate and Construction at the University of Hong Kong, who recently conducted research into Devil's Peak, said: 'When constructing some roads or staircases in these areas the relevant parties should carry out surveys beforehand, otherwise the relics will be destroyed.'

But critics don't place all the blame for the situation on the monuments office, which they say lacks the resources and authority to tackle the problem.

To strengthen efforts in heritage conservation, the Culture and Heritage Commission suggested the monument's office functions should be transferred to the Housing, Planning and Lands Bureau.

Historians and archaeologists generally support the idea, though some remain cautious.

While emphasising the importance of gauging the public's view on the issue, the chairman of the Antiquities Advisory Board, Professor David Lung Ping-yee, said: 'In any city, when you talk about protection [of relics] it is a land matter. The bureau may have more power to deal with land matters, though I am worried they may not have enough expertise in preservation.'

William Meacham, an archaeologist and honorary research fellow of the University of Hong Kong's Centre of Asian Studies, believed it might be a good move, but said the monuments office needed a 'complete overhaul of its existing policies and manpower'.

The monuments office did not comment on the proposal.

Editorial - Page 8