Heritage preservation on the right track, at last

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 April, 2008, 12:00am

Officials seem to have learned their lesson when it comes to preserving Hong Kong's past. The Urban Renewal Authority's new approach to historic sites which hinges on compulsory acquisition and helping to finance the sprucing up of old buildings reverses policies that have led to the disappearance of our heritage.

The chairman of the authority, Barry Cheung Chun-yuen, in revealing the strategy yesterday, rightly pointed out that it was 'a most ambitious initiative'. Focusing on shophouses built before the second world war, it ensures that those deemed worthy of preservation are kept in good order through the co-operation of owners. Financial assistance will be given where necessary, but if owners are not agreeable, the building will be taken over and renovated by the authority.

A total of 48 Cantonese-style shophouses have been identified and categorised under three levels of preservation. The top grouping is the test case of the approach; they are the ones targeted for preservation at any cost. Every effort will be made to restore the others to their former glory and where necessary, to buy them. After restoration, they will be rented out for appropriate uses.

Internationally recognised guidelines have been used in categorising the buildings. What can be achieved is on show on Johnston Road at the Woo Cheong Pawn Shop, a handsomely restored structure that gives a rare glimpse into our past.

The strategy is a well thought-out one that finally puts the URA on the right track. That it took the lesson of so much of our heritage being smashed to rubble by wreckers' balls and a community hankering for its lost past is unfortunate. By broadening the approach to other sites, what remains can be saved. But the URA and government have to remain dedicated to the cause.