A losing battle

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 January, 2007, 12:00am

By the time the deadline passed for developers to register their interest in bidding on a Queen's Road East project last month, 19 of the city's top developers had lodged an expression of interest.

The Urban Renewal Authority expects the 4,070-sq ft site at the junction of Stone Nullah Lane and Queen's Road East to provide at least 50 residential units and 5,307 sq ft of retail space. The expression of interest is a normal step before the authority shortlists and invites developers to submit tenders to bid for redevelopment projects.

Unlike the redevelopment of the nearby Lee Tung Street, nicknamed Wedding Card Street, the authority bought the property rights for the vacant lot from the original landlords without much controversy. The expression of interest and the subsequent tender process is an ordinary and necessary exercise to turn the site into another commercial and residential high rise in Wan Chai.

But the exercise sealed the fate of the 70-year-old Bauhaus-style Wan Chai Market, which sits across the road from the vacant site, and shattered any hope of saving the historic indoor market from demolition.

The market looks set to join a growing list of heritage sites being sacrificed to make way for development. Widespread public protests could not save the latest casualty, the Star Ferry Pier, leading to ongoing criticism of the government's heritage policies. Now an increasingly vocal group, which includes historians, architects and community leaders, is calling for changes to the way Hong Kong authorities decide which buildings deserve to be protected.

Constructed in 1937, the Wan Chai Market building is believed to be one of only two well-preserved markets in the Bauhaus style left in the world. The other one is in Phnom Penh.

Conservationists, although aware of the latest threat to the three-storey building, did not press the government or the authority to discuss a plan for preserving the building. Ada Wong Ying-kay, Wan Chai District Council's chairwoman, who has battled to save the market building, said activists had been occupied with the fight to preserve other heritage sites.

'We have too many heritage [sites] to save,' she said. 'Last week was the Central Police Station. This week is the Star Ferry pier and next week everyone's attention goes to there. Not many people can spare themselves to save the Wan Chai Market. Next week, we will have to save something else.'

Historians believe the market building's value extends beyond its architectural merit. It is one of the few war relics left in Hong Kong. According to Tony Banham, an amateur historian specialising in Hong Kong's military history, the market was at the frontline of fighting for up to 10 hours as troops defended Central from falling into Japanese hands.

The Land Development Corporation, the authority's predecessor, sold the market building to Chinese Estates Holdings in the late 1990s for redevelopment. Architects and district politicians began a campaign two years ago to save the market building from demolition. But the campaign went nowhere as the government and the authority argued the site was already in private hands. Attempts to have the Antiquities and Monuments Office give the building legal protection against demolition also failed.

A breakthrough appeared to come late last month when a senior executive of Chinese Estates Holdings said the company would discuss preserving the market building if the government and the authority approached them. He said the redevelopment of the Wan Chai Market was a joint venture with the authority, and the developer alone could not make a decision.

If a land swap with the Wan Chai Market owners was to take place, sources said the vacant Queen's Road East site, for which developers were invited to lodge expressions of interest last month, was the best option based on proximity, size and value of the site and readiness for construction.

But the authority failed to take any action to save the historic building, stressing the developer had not approached it to discuss the issue. The Lands Department, which is responsible for lands issues, and the Home Affairs Bureau that oversees heritage preservation, also said the developer had not approached them.

Betty Ho Siu-fong, chairwoman of the Conservancy Association, said the market building could have been saved if the city had legislation covering the transfer of development rights. The concept means owners would be granted the rights of other sites in return for relinquishing rights to a heritage zone.

'Without transfer of development rights, it is very difficult to conserve heritage in private hands. Of course, the Star Ferry Pier told us that heritage is not safe even when they are government properties,' she said.

The Wan Chai Market building is only one of the many heritage sites destined to be removed to make way for development. Central Market, built in 1938, did not have conservation value and the building is now ready to be auctioned off to become another office tower. Authorities said the building's structure had already been damaged, largely by the Mid-Levels escalator. Although conservationists, including the Hong Kong Institute of Architects, managed to press the Antiquities Advisory Board to re-examine the heritage value of the Central Market, the board decided behind closed doors that the market building did not have high conservation value, legitimising demolition.

The architects also lost the campaign to save Wedding Card Street, which was known for its printing shops selling wedding cards and accessories.

That battle began in 2004, shortly after the Urban Renewal Authority announced it had started buying properties from the landlord. The authority refused to give up the redevelopment plan, and failed to include the affected residents and merchants in the future planning of the street.

Early this month, the only traditional Chinese walled village in the metropolitan area, the 800-year-old Nag Tsin Wai - celebrated what might be its last Ta Chui festival. Despite historians insisting on its importance and preservation, a plan to redevelop the walled village was announced in 1993. Again, the walled village failed to win the heart of the antiquities board. Only the clan hall and the Tin Hau Temple will remain intact.

The latest battle between conservationists and the government over preservation and development is the Yau Ma Tei Police Station. Part of the historic building could be demolished and the nearby jade market - a tourist drawcard - forced to move to make way for the proposed Central Kowloon Route. The government submitted the funding proposal to build the road to the Legislative Council three days after it demolished the old Star Ferry pier's clock tower. Lawmakers rejected the proposal.

Ms Ho, who is also a town planner, said many of Hong Kong's heritage sites were government buildings, temples, churches, schools and clan halls. 'Many buildings the community regards as heritage are, in the government's eyes, not worthy of preservation. The Antiquities Advisory Board has a set of criteria on choosing monuments but they have never made the criterion public.'

She hopes the government's delayed conservation policy will include transfer of development rights, architectural value and historic value. She said the policy should also include intangible elements such as a site's social value and the role it plays in our collective memory.

Ms Ho also called on the antiquities board to publicise its grading criterion on what constitutes a monument, open its meetings and publicise all discussion documents.

Only some of the board's discussions are open to the public and the board does not publicise the agenda of its closed meetings.

An antiquities board spokeswoman said board members decided whether to publicise grading criterion and open meetings to the public on a case-by-case basis. 'Some cases may be too sensitive to let the public know,' she said.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen last week offered conservationists reason for hope, announcing that the public would be consulted to a greater extent next month about the government's heritage conservation policy.

Mr Tsang said he had asked the Home Affairs Bureau, which did a public consultation on heritage policy two years ago, to discuss the policy again.

'Heritage conservation and urban development are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The crux of the issue is to strike a proper balance and reach a consensus, so that society can achieve balanced development,' he said.

Reaching a consensus may be the ideal solution but district councillor Ms Wong sees a sizeable gap between those on either side of the argument. She describes it as a cultural clash between young people searching for a new identity and officials hanging onto a colonial ideology.

People who came from the colonial era had little respect for history but the younger generation was changing this way of thinking, Ms Wong said.

'More and more educated young people have started searching for their identity in recent years. This group of young people started Hong Kong's de-colonialisation.'

Anthony Cheung Ping-leung, an executive councillor and political science professor at City University, also believes Hong Kong is yet to complete the process of decolonisation.

'The reality is things have changed since the handover 10 years ago. The result is a need to find a local identity. More and more people have an attachment to collective memory and places of significance in the post-war era,' Professor Cheung said.

'It is not so much a longing for the colonial times, but a longing for the era of growth and freedom.'