The wrong attitude to 'progress'

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 January, 2007, 12:00am


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To be great, a city must have a past and a future: they give the place its character and identity. Yet, with all that it possesses, Hong Kong seems suspended in the short-term present, with its unique history rapidly slipping into oblivion and its future as hazy as its air.

Hong Kong's history is unique. Nowhere else does one see east meet west the way it does here. Nowhere else does one find the same cultural complexity - and the potential for development into something unprecedented.

Hong Kong has every incentive to pursue its own destiny as a great city, and one that is great to live in. It is, therefore, all the more frustrating that it seems to be going nowhere.

The fundamental problem is that the government clings to a hopelessly out-of-date idea of development as a continuous building programme on every available inch of saleable land. There is no merit in these characterless, identical and vulgar malls and commercial or residential blocks. It is doubtful whether yet another six-lane highway is the solution to traffic jams.

This outdated attitude is reflected in the way development and conservation have become polarised here in Hong Kong.

In other parts of the world, people and governments have long taken on board the need for both: for development to be conservation-conscious, and for conservation to recognise the need for economic viability. They have drawn up procedures, rules and regulations to help them achieve development that does not do violence to nature or heritage, or to the original character of the place.

Underlying the government's attitude towards development is, no doubt, the old magical formula of public finance. The colonial government discovered land sales as a source of revenue. Our current administration finds it hard to come up with a substitute.

This practice inevitably means that land is developed for maximum profit in the shortest time. It is such development that conflicts with conservation.

This approach puts land under either the complete control of the government, or of big developers with the government's consent. Ordinary people are powerless. They see their environment robbed of peace and quiet; of what view it once had; of breathable air. They see their familiar streets disappearing, and they can do nothing about it.

They are helpless to protect the harbour, the Star Ferry clock tower and Queen's Pier. It's only natural that there comes a point when, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, up with this they will not put.

People have a sense of being threatened, and rightly so. One does not have to be particularly cynical to view the demolition of marks of the old Hong Kong as a deliberate programme of cleansing the city of its colonial past.

To hack away that colonial past is to hack away the city's most historically valuable landmarks. The government does not only demolish: it desecrates valuable buildings and sites through clumsy 'renovation', 'restoration' or 'relocation'. In the process, it steadily turns every genuine article into a fake.

Conservation is not sentimental or extravagant: it is what gives unmistakable character and interest to a truly memorable city. It is therefore good for the economy and for the pride and morale of residents.

To achieve this, the government must cast off its outmoded attitude, adopt a positive policy for conser- vation, give district and residents' organisations a real say and reform the town-planning procedure.

Developers will continue to make money, but at least Hong Kong will start to become the great city that it should be.

Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee is a legislator representing the legal profession