Storey of my life

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 March, 2008, 12:00am

It's a pity no one photographed the 1930s-style clawfoot bath swinging in the wind as a giant crane hoisted it towards a second-storey window. But moving in the cast iron tub was the least of James Shipton's problems when he set out to restore an old colonial-style building in Tai Hang to its former glory.

The Australian banker has always had an affinity for heritage buildings. 'Melbourne is one of the great repositories of Victorian architecture, and I grew up in a wonderful 1880s house, surrounded by heritage features such as century-old wooded floorboards, 16-foot ceilings, original brass beds and rambling verandahs,' he says.

In relocating for his work, Shipton has also lived in a pre-war shophouse in Singapore, an old teak house in Thailand and previously rented West Point Bungalow, a heritage building on Conduit Road.

But two years ago he decided to restore a heritage home of his own rather than rent, and searched Hong Kong island for property.

'I used to spend weekends walking around with a little map, making notes of all the old buildings and all the old apartment blocks that I would find,' says the 37-year-old who first came to Hong Kong in 1993 to undertake postgraduate studies in law at the University of Hong Kong. 'I would walk in to the local real estate agents and try and get the heritage of the different buildings.'

Shipton's search led him to a 1906 house on School Street in Tai Hang, the first in the village to include a western-style toilet. Its owners, the Chung family, used to run a building business in Tai Hang but had resettled in Sydney, and struck a deal to sell him the 31/2-storey house.

The banker won't say how much he paid, but estate agents say equivalent standalone buildings recently sold for about HK$18 million. In the 18 months since then, Shipton has had a lot of fun sourcing antique fittings from Mumbai, Bangkok and other cities around the region, and learned how much time and attention to detail such restoration work requires.

However, Shipton had to clear several hurdles before getting to the bricks and mortar. Few banks were prepared to offer mortgage for a property that is more than 45 years old - even if he was working

for a global banking and securities giant. Secondly, he was hobbled by building regulations that he describes as inflexible.

Shipton did the rounds of the banks and found just one prepared to provide financing: Standard Chartered. 'Mortgaging and getting finance for properties that are over 40 or 50 years old is a nightmare,' he says. 'I was amazed that only one financial institution was interested in a property such as this.'

With old buildings, most banks in Hong Kong have a hard rule of no finance and that's a real problem, he says. Buying a heritage building involves significant capital and few people have ready cash.

Legal problems with the title of older properties exacerbated his financing woes. 'Many title documents were lost in the second world war. In my case the Occupation Permit was never issued since the building predated the relevant legislation,' he says. 'Explaining this to banks was difficult since rigid internal rules will not allow a mortgage without this particular document - a classic example of form over substance.'

The irony, he says, is the same financial institutions that rejected him here were falling over themselves to offer loans when he considered buying a historic shophouse in Singapore.

Shipton is occupying a home nearby until his new house is ready. But getting the old building up to code without affecting its historical integrity has been a challenge. 'More flexibility and discretion needs to be applied in projects like this,' he says.

He was fortunate to recruit C.M. Lee, an architect who has restored several old buildings, including The Pawn on Johnston Road, Wan Chai. Even so, Lee says local fire safety regulations and other building standards are too rigid.

'In Hong Kong there is no flexibility. When we build a high rise like the International Finance Centre or residential towers, we are using the same rules as when we restore a 31/2-storey historical building. That sounds quite unreasonable, but there it is,' he says.

The convener of conservation group Heritage Hong Kong, Margaret Brooke, says different rules are needed to preserve such structures.

'There is no code appropriate to old buildings. All are expected to meet 2008 standards and this risks destroying much of the heritage value which the owner is trying to conserve. Safety, particularly fire safety, is key, but there are ways of achieving this without damaging the fabric, especially in a private house.'

That's why Heritage Hong Kong is pressing for a special building code for pre-war buildings, she says.

However, a Buildings Department spokeswoman rejects the criticism of 'one size fits all' rules. 'In general, fire safety requirements for a three-storey house and a large building such as IFC II are substantially different,' she says.

There are three ordinances covering fire and other safety regulations in buildings and 'in processing submissions for alteration and addition works in historic buildings, the department adopts a flexible and pragmatic approach in applying current building standards'. Alternative measures compatible with preserving heritage qualities may be accepted if they can achieve the same level of standards, she says.

After clearing the paperwork, Shipton met another hurdle when he became a little gung-ho in getting the restoration done. Hiring contractors unaccustomed to historic buildings, he was horrified when he walked in one morning to see workmen drill into antique hexagonal tiles.

It was only when the banker linked up with Lee that the meticulous work really began. The house still retains the board across the front door that used to serve as protection against flooding, but plaster in the kitchen has been chipped to back to reveal the original granite wall.

The teak staircase and wooden floors in his house are particular points of pride. 'Look at these bumps,' says Shipton, pointing to the floor. 'I know I'll stub my toes on them, but just think if those floorboards could talk.'

He has replaced the downstairs toilet with a reproduction from the same era but hopes to persuade

the Chung family to donate to a suitable organisation a Buildings Department certificate acknowledging the original fitting as first European toilet in the village. 'It's just a wonderfully amusing part of history.'

Shipton had 'tremendous fun' sourcing lights, bathroom fittings, door knobs and locks all over the world. But he has learned to buy more, not less. Some of the old light switches that he bought don't fit electrical guidelines and can't be used safely. And several of the beautiful iron railings from an old Shanghai house that he shipped back were broken during the journey. The Chungs also left him some 1930s Shanghai-style furniture, including an old sewing machine. 'I'm not very good at sewing,' he says. 'But it'll still take pride of place.'

While many properties are decaying or face destruction by developers, the Development Bureau says it's considering offering incentives for private owners to restore historic buildings in addition to a scheme subsidising the maintenance of graded structures.

Shipton, however, suggests Hong Kong should consider adopting a local system of heritage awards. 'Singapore has had such a scheme for years and it has encouraged the preservation and restoration of living heritage buildings.'