Wanted: a new approach to heritage

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

Like thousands of people, I took my children to the Star Ferry a few weeks ago to take photos and have one last ride across the harbour from the old pier location.

Why did I do it? I suppose it was because the place had memories for me. Also, I wanted my children to be able to look back one day and say: 'I remember when the coastline was here.'

I am not an expert on architecture, but I think most people would accept that the old pier was a boring-looking building - certainly not beautiful. At less than 50 years old, it didn't even count as a historical building. But I had some emotional feelings about it, and so did many other people.

I was quite surprised, though, when protesters started to hold overnight vigils and tried to stop the demolition from going ahead. Is the building really that important? A lot of people - not just activists who went on vigils, but people from all walks of life - seem to think so.

The old Star Ferry pier is highlighting a couple of issues that will not go away, and need to be addressed. First, there is the general problem of opposition that the government faces when it does almost anything. To our officials, this can be really frustrating. To them, it seems that some people are constantly looking for an excuse to obstruct the government or criticise it.

To me, this is not about personalities. Our senior officials are very smart people, and they are dedicated to the well-being of Hong Kong. But I think the same can be said about many of our activists and critics. So this is not a question of good guys and bad guys.

The problem is the structure. As we all know, our political system limits participation and does not give our top officials a popular mandate. In practice, this means angry letters in the newspapers (from conservationists, for example) and defensive comments from officials in the Legislative Council.

Second, there are the specific problems we have with planning, land use, urban development and related issues. As the government has pointed out over and over, the plans for the old Star Ferry pier go back years. Elected politicians and other members of the community had the opportunity to provide input from as early as 1999.

From our officials' point of view, the recent protests against demolishing the pier are totally unreasonable because everything was decided and signed off some time ago.

It is simply not practical to halt or amend large-scale projects right at the last minute. And, at every stage throughout the process, the bureaucrats stuck to all the correct consultations and other procedures.

Our officials are right to point this out. But, at this stage, I feel I have to stand back a bit and look at this argument alongside the public protests.

The 'correct' planning and consultation procedures also resulted in the controversies over the failure to preserve the 600-year-old Nga Tsin Wai walled village in Kowloon, Wedding Card Street in Wan Chai and the old marine police headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui.

So, who is right and who is wrong? In my view, both sides of this debate are right. Our officials are right because they are, as they say, using the 'correct' procedures.

In other words, they are following the established legal requirements and complying with administrative guidelines. But the growing public opinion in favour of protecting our heritage, environment and quality of life is also right.

Now, a third group is joining the debate. Our construction and engineering sectors will argue strongly that their industries, with high unemployment rates, also deserve a say.

To me, it is the procedures that need to be changed. They reflect a time when the public did not expect to provide much input into government decision-making, and economic development was the overriding priority.

But things have changed. We seriously need new procedures that give the community clear choices and reflect modern priorities.

Bernard Chan is an executive councillor and a legislator representing the insurance functional constituency