Leadership, and a miracle, needed to save mansion

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 June, 2004, 12:00am

The bid to save the mansion at 45 Stubbs Road from demolition might look unrealistic at the moment, but so did the efforts to save Kam Tong Hall in Mid-Levels - until the government stepped in and negotiated with its owners.

Tenders for the one-of-a-kind Stubbs Road property close tomorrow, and if it is to be preserved at all, there will have to be a similar kind of effort from our officials.

The property, sitting on a prime site, could easily fetch hundreds of millions of dollars in the current climate, where developers' land banks have run low and prime sites are scarce.

The Conservancy Association, even with its campaign to raise funds from the public, will be able to offer only a fraction of that.

The association's bid is a symbolic gesture that so accurately reflects the kind of bind in which Hong Kong finds itself with regard to historic architecture. Buildings past a certain age are valued at almost nothing, while the land they sit on is the focus of interest.

The Antiquities and Monuments Office has seen fit to throw its net of protection over a small number of buildings and sites, while a generally weak preservation policy offers little protection to everything else. When it is revealed that buildings such as the Stubbs Road mansion or the Bauhaus-style Wan Chai Market may fall to the bulldozers, there is little the community can do about it other than protest in the face of the economic imperatives.

There are alternatives, but finding them will require more active leadership from the government, and not just a passive approach to heritage preservation.

Keeping what is left of unique, socially significant and architecturally important sites will not come free.

It has to be expected that owners will want to be compensated for giving up potentially higher returns, through land swaps or otherwise. But the public should be given the choice - and judging by the public outcry, they may think there are some buildings worth making the sacrifice for.

It is encouraging that both the Wan Chai District Council, which has jurisdiction over 45 Stubbs Road, and the Antiquities Advisory Board plan to take the matter up. The latter has hinted it will move to declare the site a potential monument, giving it at least one year's protection from demolition.

The deal that saved Kam Tong Hall is an excellent example of how the goals of preservation, cultural tourism and fiscal expediency can dovetail quite nicely. The government gained the perfect site for a long-planned museum dedicated to Sun Yat-sen, while also preserving one of the first Mid-Levels residences owned by a Chinese family.

A similar miracle could happen at Stubbs Road, if the official will exists. Following on that, there will be a need for serious consideration of how to close the loopholes that allow such buildings to be destroyed unless there is loud protest from the community.