Mansion saga highlights cracks in heritage policy
In a perfect world, the owners of properties with historic connections to the community would be socially responsible and go out of their way to preserve what they have for future generations. Unfortunately, despite the burgeoning awareness of the value of heritage in recent years, the worth of the land on which such buildings stand continues to ultimately rule the day.
That is shown in the decision by the owner of the colonial-era Pok Fu Lam mansion, Jessville, to consider departing from previous assurances given to the government that the building would be preserved as part of any development. There can be no better advertisement for heritage policy to be firmly grounded in law.
Jessville's owner has since 2004 wanted to knock the building down for residential housing. A year ago, amid fresh demolition moves, the Antiquities Authority stepped in and declared the building a temporary monument. This assessment was based on a Home Affairs Bureau report that described it as 'a rare surviving example' of Italian Renaissance architecture. Its original owner was called a leading representative of the local Chinese elite. But 10 months later, another government report found the mansion to be not so remarkable nor its one-time owner so important. Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said that while permanent monument status had been denied, the owner had promised to preserve the mansion.
Less than three months later, that pledge is in danger of proving hollow; the owner says the promise to preserve the mansion was made on the basis it would be given monument status. If the mansion comes under threat of demolition again, authorities will face the dilemma of whether they should intervene.
As embarrassing as it may seem for the government to do so - after the U-turn on the heritage value of the site - such intervention would be necessary. Regardless of monument status, every effort has to be made to convince the owner to preserve the mansion. Failing that, authorities should step in again. Ultimately, though, a better defined and more effective grading system must be enacted. Only in this way can a sense of heritage be properly built in Hong Kong.