Time to move on to other heritage issues

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2007, 12:00am

Debate over whether Queen's Pier should be preserved rather than dismantled to make way for a road misses the point about heritage; we should be keeping for the sake of collective memory and future generations the aspects of society worth saving, not anything and everything.

As symbolic as the pier has become for some conservation groups, they should move their focus to more worthwhile heritage issues. The Antiquities and Monuments Office has graded 496 such sites according to perceived importance and the government should be dedicating itself to formulating a general preservation policy in consultation with the community.

Before the adjacent Star Ferry pier was demolished, a case could have been made for Queen's Pier's preservation. It certainly fits the category of collective memory, being where those recently married at the nearby City Hall registry office often had photographs taken and the point from which many a weekend boating trip in the harbour and beyond departed from and returned to. Historically, from the time of being built in 1953, it was the traditional first landing point for arriving British colonial governors - just as previous Queen's piers had been prior to harbour reclamation.

As a structure worth preserving, though, it now has little value with the Star Ferry pier and buildings gone and plans well progressed to redevelop the area with a shopping mall and road. This makes government proposals that it should be moved out of context, metal railing by metal railing, stone by stone, to another location - as happened with Murray House - a moot point. With collective memory, the setting is important, not the specific location itself.

Herein lies the crux of the heritage discussion: that authorities do not properly understand the criteria for what should be kept and how it should be preserved. That is why a proper consultation process is important.

Rows over the actions of the government's Urban Renewal Authority in putting development ahead of preservation highlight the problem. It plans to tear down Wan Chai's Lee Tung Street, nicknamed Wedding Card Street, and part of the 140-year-old outdoor market in Peel, Graham and Gage streets in Central. These are not single structures, as the Antiquities and Monuments Office lists, but neighbourhoods with a distinct character. There are dozens of other examples - and the harbourfront embracing Star Ferry and Queen's piers was among them.

Further revealing an insensitivity to heritage, the authority wants to replace the tenement buildings in Wedding Card Street and the open-air market in Central with replica buildings. The same strategy was used with building the new Star Ferry pier; a mock early 20th century design that fools nobody as to its age, while telling visitors of our apparent lack of feeling for the past.

This may well have been the case in Hong Kong's pre-1997 days, when society was more transient. But generations have now realised this city's potential and are putting roots down, wanting this to be their permanent home. With this change comes a sense of belonging and the need to preserve that which is near and dear - buildings, places and culture chief among them.

Prior to the Star Ferry debacle, Queen's Pier was among such memories, but a lack of government forethought has changed that. It is too late to save the site and we must now move on - with the lesson that has been learned central to formulating a robust preservation policy.