Coherent strategy on heritage grading needed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2008, 12:00am

The ability to argue both sides is a virtue for lawyers; it is, however, considered indecisive, contradictory or even unprincipled when exercised by government bureaucrats. A case in point is the colonial mansion Jessville, in Pok Fu Lam. In April, the Home Affairs Bureau described the 77-year-old property as 'a rare surviving example' of Italian Renaissance architecture, and 'the epitome' of building technology and style at the time. Its original owner, William Ngar Tse Thomas Tam, was called a leading representative of the local Chinese elite in the mid-20th century. The bureau then declared it a proposed monument, with potential to be given monument status permanently.

Ten months later, the government's position - presented this time by the revamped Development Bureau - was completely revised. The mansion is now judged not so rare after all, its architecture and workmanship unremarkable, and Tam was really a long-forgotten figure from a different era. In both cases, expert opinions were sought from the Antiquities and Monuments Office, and they were endorsed by the Antiquities Advisory Board.

In its defence, the Development Bureau said experts and officials were unable to inspect the site before declaring it a proposed monument. It has, in the intervening months, obtained the co-operation of the owner, who has allowed the house to be inspected and given reassurances that it will be preserved as a clubhouse for a future residential development nearby. If the owner keeps his promise, this could be a positive outcome.

Be that as it may, the bureau's justification is inadequate. Tam's historical importance can be determined without an inspection of the building, so can the value of its architectural style. The impression the government's changed stance gives is that it is largely driven by the climate of public opinion rather than an objective grading system. The paper that strongly urged preservation was presented at a time when the community was galvanised after the demolition of the Star Ferry pier and the furore over Queen's Pier. Now, it is relatively quiet. The assurances given by the owner that the building would not be demolished are also likely to have played a part in the government's change of stance.

But the assessment of a site's heritage status should not be affected by such factors. Jessville and a string of other incidents have shown there is a need for a more transparent grading system. To the government's credit, it is moving in the right direction in many areas of heritage preservation. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has pledged to pursue a more coherent strategy. More welfare groups are encouraged - under a revamped programme announced on Friday - to run services in historical buildings with extra funding and expert support for their upkeep. A commissioner for heritage will be appointed to co-ordinate policy and plan for long-term commitments to protect significant structures.

There are signs that the government is finally committed to making Hong Kong a heritage-friendly city. But a vital element in its strategy must be a grading system for preservation that is up to international standards and subject to public scrutiny.