Let's preserve buildings and communities

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 December, 2006, 12:00am

There is no dispute that the Blue House in Wan Chai is a building worth preserving for its historical and architectural significance. There are arguments, however, as to whether the residents of the government-owned structure should be forced out to make way for plans to turn the area into a cultural and museum district.

As such, the Blue House and its neighbourhood are a test case for a matter that cities around the world have grappled with - the idea of a living heritage site rather than a mummified one. Overwhelmingly, they have realised that conserving heritage is not only about preservation of a building but also the community it serves and have opted for keeping the whole intact.

No such culture exists in Hong Kong; the government has little power to prevent the owners of structures considered worthy of preservation from demolishing them to make way for buildings with greater economic potential. What has been preserved are outposts of our past - single buildings dotted across the city most often turned into museums and devoid of life after closing hours.

Macau has taken the approach so often adopted in developed nations - to legislate for at least the facades of valuable buildings to be preserved so the streetscape can be maintained. The result is a picturesque reliving of the former Portuguese colony's past in a 21st century setting that is as much a recognition of roots as a tourist magnet. The streets of Central were once lined with similarly impressive colonial buildings, but the rush for high-rent-yielding space, coupled with a disregard for the past, has meant that all but a few remain. With foresight, the district could have been a tourist-drawing monument to our development.

A modest opportunity to make amends for that abuse of our heritage exists in the quiet area off Queen's Road East in Stone Nullah Lane, where the Blue House is located. But as in Macau and elsewhere, it must not be stripped of the life that made it what it is in favour of the sterile museum environment that the government has planned. While this recognises the importance of buildings considered worthy of preservation, it ignores the people who are the life and soul of the district. Without the tight-knit community, it becomes a draw for visitors when open, but a lifeless shell to be avoided after hours. This is despite the Blue House, for one, having a vibrant history. Thousands of people, many newly arrived immigrants, have lived there over the decades. A hospital and schools have been located on its floors. To force out those still living there in favour of a museum would be to disregard what has made the Blue House what it is.

The building and neighbouring structures are in disrepair and need renovation, and authorities seem dedicated to doing this in a manner sensitive to history. A meeting yesterday also appears to indicate a willingness to listen to the appeals from residents who want to stay.

For the sake of our future approach to preserving what little architectural history remains, authorities should accede to their wishes, giving them alternative accommodation during the renovation process, putting a small museum on the ground or first floor and keeping housing on the upper storeys.