kevin sinclair's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 December, 2003, 12:00am

Government engineers have again been studying the Hong Kong Stadium, worrying yet again at the intransigent problem of how to make efficient use of a costly white elephant.

The upshot of efforts by the Architectural Services Department and the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department is precisely the same as similar studies in 1995 and 1997. Nothing can be done. The well-designed, highly functional sporting facility stands largely forlorn and forgotten at the head of the So Kon Po valley.

It was meant to be the lynchpin for mass entertainment and athletic events. Its location, coupled with basic design faults - it's like a giant megaphone hurling decibels at surrounding luxury housing - means it can't be used to stage noisy night concerts.

So for 90 per cent of the year, the stadium stands unused and unloved. What a tragedy. The latest bid to try to drag realistic value from this hefty $850 million investment has again ended in impasse; the situation is beyond repair. The inquiry explored workable measures that would allow boisterous concerts while keeping noise within statutory limits. It was predictably fruitless.

The only option is to put a roof over the entire structure, which has been ruled out because of technical difficulties and crippling costs. Officials are struggling to work with show promoters to put on musical events that don't breach the noise laws.

But it's a doomed ambition.

Set in a natural amphitheatre, sound from the stadium echoes up bowl-like hills to reverberate against the windows of swank housing on nearby ridges. Residents howl against night concerts leading to the ban on noisy shows. It prompted the famously nonsensical suggestion from members of the old urban council that fans don gloves to mute the sound of clapping. (Incidentally, how come seven million of us have to put up with incessant jackhammering, dogs barking and the roar of traffic, and a privileged minority is guarded by officious watchdogs with noise-monitoring equipment whenever a rocker twangs a guitar at the stadium? How come the rest of us don't have public servants checking noise at our homes?)

Blame petty politics for the stadium ending up as a glittering financial white elephant. Back in the late 1980s when the Rugby Sevens was fast emerging as a major global sporting event, the Jockey Club came up with $850 million to rebuild the old open football ground as a modern multi-purpose facility. Jealous mini-politicos on the urban council fought a bitter campaign to ensure they maintained control.

'We've always been in charge of sports grounds,' was the plaintive cry. 'It's not fair to take that from us.'

Unfortunately, they got their wish. The government gave ground. The result is a stadium that is dandy for sporting events a couple of times a year - notably the Rugby Sevens and the visiting Real Madrid team last summer - but which is useless for just about anything else.

Originally, there were visions of a lively venue for concerts, pop festivals and other entertainment that would pour cash into the kitty. From the start, that idea was doomed. To technically naive people such as myself, it seems simple and obvious to throw a lightweight sound-deadening retractable fabric cover over the gap in the roof.

Alas, it's impractical. Experts tell me this has been considered but rejected as either an engineering or fiscal impossibility.

Leisure and Cultural Services Department deputy director Alan Siu Yu-bun said structural studies showed a retractable roof was not on. The government is now examining how to build a new stadium on the old Kai Tak airport site. In the name of sanity, I pray they have learned a lesson. Surely, the sensible thing is to look at successful multi-use sporting and entertainment venues abroad and then call an international competition to ensure we get something that works. The managing director of Dragages et Travaux Publics (HK), Luc Messier, said anything was possible if enough money was thrown at it. 'It would cost a lot of money to put a roof, any sort of roof, onto the existing stadium,' he said. 'It wouldn't be worth it.'

Alex Chan Siu-kun, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Engineers, says a retractable roof might be technically feasible but would involve total reconstruction of the existing steel frame, costing up to $170 million. The sorry situation remains unchanged. The lesson is simple - keep politicians well away from planning infrastructure. Leave it to professionals. Imagine if the So Kon Po calamity is translated on a massive scale to the huge developments in West Kowloon and the Kai Tak site.