Actions take the shine off heritage pledge

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 June, 2009, 12:00am

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong is celebrating its 60th anniversary this month and, quite appropriately, there has been a stream of luncheon speakers focusing on historical themes. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen did his bit last week with a talk on 'The Future of the Past', or how Hong Kong is preserving its heritage.

This was not an overtly political topic and many members of the board - as well as the audience - approached the event in a light-hearted manner. In fact, Mr Tsang commented on the fact that three other people at his table were sporting bow ties.

He conceded that the government had, in the past, not done enough to preserve Hong Kong's heritage, allowing old buildings and icons - such as the Star Ferry terminal - to be razed to make way for newer, bigger and taller buildings. But that, he said, was the past.

Now, he said, 'this government has ushered in a new era for Hong Kong as far as protecting our built heritage is concerned'. He pointed to the FCC building itself - a former Dairy Farm building used for storing blocks of ice - as an example of a historic structure being preserved while serving modern functions.

This is all well and good. But even while Mr Tsang was talking about preserving our built heritage, we saw something going on a stone's throw away - in Theatre Lane - that reflected a total lack of awareness of heritage preservation.

Heritage, after all, is not just buildings. People here, as well as tourists, want to see something that reflects the history of the place and how people used to live and, to some extent, still do.

They don't want a cold, soulless, sterile city, disinfected every other hour. They want a city with a heart.

But, as Mr Tsang was speaking, five individuals - very much part of our heritage - faced eviction from the Theatre Lane area, where they have made a living for decades polishing the shoes of passers-by.

Their crime, it appears, was the performance of such services without a so-called 'bootblack' licence. They were also accused of obstructing the road. But Theatre Lane is closed to traffic, and the street is very wide. There is no obstruction to speak of.

The main charge, that they were polishing shoes without a licence, is even stranger. It turns out that the government decided, back in the 1970s, to stop issuing such licences. So how can it prosecute anyone for not possessing them?

This is a catch-22 situation and yet, over the years, the government periodically prosecuted these elderly people for trying to eke out a living by providing a service that is clearly appreciated. And magistrates would fine them HK$800 or HK$1,000 at a time - no small sum when all they made from a shoeshine was HK$20 - recently raised to HK$25.

At a time when the economy is doing badly and the government is trying all kinds of ways to create jobs, why would one branch - the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department - decide to take away the livelihood of these people, who were not doing any harm? How heartless can the government be?

Fortunately, some politicians have taken an interest in this issue, and now the department is saying that if the Central and Western District Council approves, then perhaps it will reverse the 30-year policy of not issuing licences. It would be interesting to find out why the government decided to stop issuing them. Did it think that the presence of these people was somehow inconsistent with the image of a modern Hong Kong?

In fact, the presence of 'bootblacks' and peddlers adds colour to Central. Glass and steel buildings can be seen in any major city but, when tourists come to Hong Kong, they want to see something special. These shoe polishers should not be allowed to go the way of rickshaw pullers - that is, as long as they want to work.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.