Heritage issue obscured in magistracy row

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 February, 2009, 12:00am

With a growing awareness of heritage conservation in Hong Kong, a joint scheme involving the government and private sector aimed at revitalising historic buildings should have been welcomed by all.

The government would no longer have to come up with ideas to enliven historic buildings left disused for years. Aside from the cost of keeping the buildings in good shape, officials also face political fallout for leaving the buildings unused.

Meanwhile, education and arts bodies, and the like, from the private sector could increase community participation by taking up the task of preserving the historic sites.

Society would gain from a string of initiatives, which would preserve the 'collective memory' of the historic buildings even as they were given new functions in line with the goals of the community.

If development officials were fearful of any political fallout from the scheme, it would have been the risk of again hitting a raw nerve regarding so-called government-business collusion. In light of the depth of negative feelings about property developers, any move to grant big businesses the right to manage historic buildings risks causing a stir.

It's no wonder, then, that development officials had identified the leasing of the former Tai O Police Station to a non-governmental organisation - set up by property developer Sino Land - as one of two projects in the first part of the revitalisation scheme that could trigger controversy.

The other was the North Kowloon Magistracy, which was leased to a US arts college, instead of a Cantonese opera group and a youth association.

Well before the announcement last week of the first batch of historic buildings to find new operators, it had become clear that the magistracy project would be far more contentious. Chinese Artists Association chairwoman Liza Wang Ming-chun has claimed that the awarding of the tenancy of the building to the Savannah College of Art and Design was fixed. She lambasted officials and the scheme's advisory committee for a lack of understanding about Cantonese opera. The government had only paid lip service to the development of the traditional art form, she said.

Cultural critics have accused the government of favouritism towards a foreign group at the expense of a local applicant. They are sceptical about the background and quality of arts education provided by the US college. Some argue that the government has a duty to help stop the decline of Cantonese opera.

Advisory committee chairman Bernard Chan revealed, on a radio programme on Sunday, that they had faced enormous pressure to award the project to the local group. Undaunted, he said: 'It is not like whoever has a louder voice wins.'

Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said they needed to make the right decision and disregard external pressure, adding that she would bear the political responsibility.

The fact that the tender row has become a contest between a foreign arts group and a local arts association; western creative arts versus traditional Chinese opera, has overshadowed the original, primary objective of the scheme: architectural conservation.

To use this case as a test of the government's commitment to the development of Cantonese opera and, by extension, local arts and culture will only confuse the public discussion. Worse, it will make the debate emotional and needlessly complicated.

As the tendering process for the second batch of historic buildings begins, officials should reiterate the basics of the scheme, including its objectives, and the rules and criteria for selecting the winners.

This will help keep any political fallout to a minimum and make sure that everyone ends up a winner through breathing new life into historic buildings.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.