Skyscrapers are the limit for Hong Kong conservationist
Uppermost in Roger Ho Yao-sheng's mind as he walks up the escalator in Central is not the multitude of bars and restaurants in SoHo, but the historical significance of the area. It was the birthplace of the 1911 revolution, where Dr Sun Yat-sen and his followers mapped out plans to overthrow the Qing government, according to the long-time resident of the area.
The escalator is also featured in the opening chapter of Ho's new book, The Journey Between Old and Modern Central District, launched at the Hong Kong Book Fair, which ended on Monday. It marks another attempt by the conservation advocate to remind people of the rich heritage of the financial hub.
Having grown up in Lei Yuen Tung Street, now a popular shopping alley, Ho devotes himself to researching and lobbying for the preservation of historic sites, in the time he can spare from running his family's garment business.
Partly driven by childhood memories, he has focused his attention on Central, at the heart of what was formally known as the city of Victoria. It held the key to Hong Kong's transformation from a sleepy fishing port into an international financial centre. 'Various sites in the area should be kept because they represent a real Hong Kong of the past,' he says.
'My parents were street vendors selling clothes and we lived in a three-storey old building in Lei Yuen Tung Street. Only a couple of similar buildings remain there. At night, I remember, people often went fishing at the harbour front, where Jardine House is today.'
Ho wants to stop overdevelopment in the district. Pointing to a construction site through the window of a coffee shop on Hollywood Road, he says: 'What will go up will probably be another skyscraper with a glassy appearance and six floors of restaurants at the bottom.'
Ho, who also wrote Collective Memories of the Central Police Station, released last year, is fighting for the survival of the historic compound on Hollywood Road, comprising the former Central Police Station, magistrates' court and Victoria Prison, all built in the mid-19th century.
The site was earmarked for tourism-related restoration and development in 2003, but due to public objections the government has delayed putting it up for tender. 'The compound should be kept in its original state, and not turned into another shopping mall housed in an old building,' says Ho.
A recent poll of 1,851 visitors, conducted by the Central and Western District Council, the Conservancy Association and the Hong Kong Institute of Architects, showed that more than 90 per cent of respondents wanted it to become a public museum. Councillors have called on the government to introduce a new zoning category under the town planning mechanism to protect heritage.
Ho has lobbied the Central and Western District Council to turn the Hollywood Road neighbourhood - including 45 blocks of low-rise buildings built in the 1940s and 50s on Shing Wong Street - into a heritage zone.
The buildings have been earmarked for redevelopment by the Urban Renewal Authority, which is now in negotiation with residents. They'll fall into the hands of developers, Ho says, but he hopes at least a few will be retained and turned into a museum showing the way of life of the early residents. 'It's the largest cluster of Chinese buildings in Hong Kong, and you can still find old printing houses and the oldest silversmith in the territory living there,' he says.
Councillor Kam Nai-wai supports the idea of heritage zones. He also shares Ho's views that the Sun Yat-sen Historical Trail in the district, which takes visitors to 13 spots where Sun studied, or met with his fellow revolutionaries, serves little purpose. 'At each spot there is only a sign. Visitors have to resort to their own imagination,' he says.
'Instead, two heritage zones can be set up, one around Hollywood Road, and the other with the Western Market at the centre. But for that to happen, there needs to be preservation, road improvement works, better road signs and other support measures,' says Mr Kam, who cites Ladder Street as another 'relic' worth keeping.
The SoHo area could be turned into an artists' village, offering low-cost studios for artists whose works can be showcased along the escalator, says Ho. 'People's impression of Central is that it's got the IFC, Landmark, SoHo and Lan Kwai Fong. The government is lacking foresight. Bars and restaurants are everywhere. They may cease to be an attraction with mainland tourists in a few years, given that mainland cities are developing fast.
'Hong Kong needs to have its own unique offerings to be a world-class city; otherwise it will just be a city within China,' he says.
Ho cites Macau as a good example of how a city can preserve its historic landmarks, notably the 29 sites that were recently added to the Unesco's World Heritage list.
'There needs to be a balance in development, like it's important for a person to have a balanced diet to be healthy,' says Ho.