Swift action must follow new strategy on heritage

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 January, 2007, 12:00am

The government's answer to critics of its approach towards preserving Hong Kong's past will be unveiled today with the announcement of the new-look Antiquities Advisory Board and new proposals for public consultation on heritage conservation.

While these measures are, in part, aimed at appeasing the anger sparked by the demolition of the Star Ferry pier in Central, the government should not think that the matter will quietly go away.

Instead, as the discontent over the decision to remove without consultation yet another of our dwindling number of longstanding landmarks reveals, a better method than the piecemeal policy in place is needed - and quickly. The regrettable attitude of the past three decades in which heritage sites were preserved on a case-by-case basis - assuming there were public concerns raised in time - can no longer apply.

Promises that places of importance would be saved marked the coming into effect of the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance and establishment of the Antiquities Advisory Board and Antiquities and Monuments Office in 1976. Evidence of their combined ineffectiveness is all around: The charm and memories of bygone eras have been torn down and replaced by modern buildings, shopping malls and roads.

One reason is that the government has no control over privately-owned buildings. Although it has declared 78 buildings, rock carvings, forts and archaeological sites as monuments - providing a measure of legal protection - more than 400 other structures put up before the second world war remain vulnerable.

There have been times when the government has not seemed to appreciate the need to protect Hong Kong's past. Kom Tong Hall, the Mid-Levels colonial mansion that was bought in the nick of time from its owners and is now the city's first museum to modern China's founding father, Sun Yat-sen, is the exception rather than the rule. A string of other sites have been destroyed, ranging from the Walled City in Kowloon to the Tiger Balm Gardens in Tai Hang.

With the disappearance of each memory, Hong Kong has matured. There is more to progress as a society than replacing the old with the new. Quality of life is as much about having a perspective on how we have arrived at where we are and being mindful of how that was achieved, as it is about modern amenities.

That was what the protests at the Star Ferry pier and adjoining Queen's Pier were about and the call was loud and clear: This must not happen again. Nor can it be allowed to, now that the matter has been so passionately debated and demands for action so unequivocally stated.

The decision to enlarge and revise the membership of the city's top body advising the government on conservation of important buildings and sites, the Antiquities Advisory Board, is a welcome step. So, too, is the beginning of another round of discussions to toughen the weak system that fails to protect the places that are important to this city. The revelation that officials are considering the establishment of a heritage trust to preserve sites shows that a fresh approach is being considered, and that is good.

These steps move Hong Kong in the right direction, but we are still waiting for the new policy on preservation to be put in place. Time is fast running out for the dwindling number of sites that remain, among them the Wan Chai and Central markets. With the consultation process already three years old, the time for defining which aspects of our cultural heritage should be preserved and how this can be done is long overdue.

As the vigils and outbursts of emotion at the Star Ferry pier last year showed, further delays should not be countenanced. Cities the world over have kept their past intact, so there is no shortage of approaches that could also be applied here.

The case of the Star Ferry pier has been the impetus for action. The proposals for a new strategy should set Hong Kong on the right track - and they need to be swiftly followed up with action.