Community at odds over future of historic buildings

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 July, 2006, 12:00am

A battle is looming over the best way to preserve the heritage status of a cluster of eye-catching historic buildings in Wan Chai.

A coalition of residents, local politicians, social workers and artists has unveiled a proposal to counter a $100 million plan by the Urban Renewal Authority and Housing Society to transform the Blue House near the junction of Queen's Road East and Stone Nullah Lane into a tourist attraction based on the theme of tea and medicine.

The four-storey Blue House - built in the early 1920s - sits with other blocks known as the Yellow and Orange houses.

One of the main points of contention is the authority's plan to move out all the residents currently living there.

The counterproposal - called 'Living in the Living Museum' - suggests the regeneration project should not alter the existing use of the three houses because it is the best way to preserve the area's original character.

They also believe that if there are to be commercial activities, they should be run by social enterprises. One of their suggestions is a bed and breakfast that allows residents to take part in the management of the building.

The Living Museum proposal suggests residents who want to stay be allowed to do so instead of being forced to move out, as has been the case in all previous urban renewal projects. A museum devoted to the history of the houses and Wan Chai is among suggestions made in the counterproposal.

Under the authority's and the society's plans, the Blue House and Yellow House will be refurbished. The houses will accommodate tea houses and Chinese medicine clinics. The Orange House would be demolished and turned into open space for outdoor performances.

A housing society spokeswoman said: 'The tea and Chinese medicine theme comes from the history of the buildings and the neighbourhood.' The Blue House site used to be a hospital in the 19th century. It was possibly the first hospital in Wan Chai to provide Chinese medicine services to local Chinese. The neighbourhood also has a history of involvement in the tea trade.

Under the proposal, none of the 30 families would be allowed to stay in the houses. As most of them are tenants, they would be able to move into public housing as long as they are permanent residents of Hong Kong.

Patsy Cheung Man-wah, a cultural critic, disagreed with the approach the authority and the society took.

'I hope the authorities will be cautious in handling the project. When it was announced, the lives of the residents and the activities were changed forever. The Urban Renewal Authority should be more careful the next time it wants to have a heritage conservation programme.

'Why go in and disturb their lives? Even without any cultural programme, the place itself is a living cultural museum. All the authorities need to do is to renovate the houses to make them safe and more comfortable for the residents.'

Ms Cheng is one of 49 artists and cultural critics who signed an open letter to the authority and the society in which they demanded residents be given a choice between staying and moving out.

The signatories said they would not use the facilities the project provides if the authorities forced the residents to move out.