Never again

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 March, 2007, 12:00am

Heritage awareness is more often than not driven by shock. The realisation that a beloved place is no more prompts the united cry for action - 'never again'. Cities the world over have had such moments. It happened in London in 1962, with the demolition of the Victorian-era Euston Station Arch to make way for a new station. New York saw it with the removal of the iconic Pennsylvania Station to make way for Madison Square Garden in 1964. A Montreal landmark, the art deco Van Horne Mansion, was torn down by a developer in 1973.

Hong Kong has lost a large number of treasures over the decades, but its heritage wake-up call apparently came with the demolition of the Star Ferry pier in Central, in December. If the experience of other cities is any guide, though, the fight to save our past is not over yet.

Our government likes to point out that Hong Kong is a modern city and, yes, it certainly is - mainly because the past has been so well obliterated. Blame a government interested in money first, and in enriching the lives of its residents in a meaningful way, last.

I was raised in such a place. From the time that deeply conservative politician Joh Bjelke-Petersen became premier of the north Australian state of Queensland in 1968, business and development always came first. As the nation's third most economically developed state, catching up to the more populous and wealthy New South Wales and Victoria was the name of the political game.

Land, rather than what was on it, became central to his strategy. Consequently, one by one across Queensland, glorious buildings on prime ground for development fell to wreckers' balls. In their place went apartment blocks, office complexes, factories, plantations and mines. Every Australian city or town has a landmark, perhaps several, that locals jealously call their own. There were two such places in the Queensland capital, Brisbane, in the late 1970s - the Bellevue Hotel and the Cloudland Ballroom - and both were on prime ground for redevelopment.

The Bellevue, completed in 1890, was the epitome of ornate colonial architecture. Politicians made it their home away from home, the well-to-do in town met there, romances started in its dining rooms and well-heeled visitors checked into its rooms. When word spread in 1979 that it was up for demolition, protesters gathered; so the wrecking crews moved in at night, pulling it down regardless. The Cloudland met a similar fate three years later. Completed in 1940, the entertainment venue had a commanding position on a hill overlooking the city. It could be seen from far and wide because of its distinctive, almost 18-metre-high, parabolic roof arch. Thousands of dances and pop concerts were held there and it was also a venue for school exams. Urban legend had it that one-third of Brisbane's population was conceived in its car park. Nonetheless, calls for its preservation were swept aside by wreckers as they moved in, again under cover of darkness.

Only with Bjelke-Petersen's political demise in 1987 was there room to discuss a preservation law. Legislation was finally passed in 1992, and more than 2,000 buildings, monuments and places across the state of 4 million people now have heritage protection. By contrast, there are just 81 protected sites in Hong Kong, dotted among our 7 million people.

There is nothing unusual about Queensland's laws. They were adapted, like most western heritage legislation, from statutes laid out by the International Council on Monuments and Sites, a non-governmental organisation. Anyone can put forward a place for listing in the state's heritage register; if the case for preservation is worthy and the vetting procedure is passed, it gets legal protection.

The Star Ferry debacle has sparked heritage consciousness in Hong Kong. Adopting robust rules is not difficult. But our new-found desire to create an inheritance for future generations meets resistance in the Bjelke-Petersen mentality of our government.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor