Blue House residents want say in revamp

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 August, 2009, 12:00am

Occupants of the historic Blue House cluster of buildings in Wan Chai want a say in selecting who will take over their properties.

The second phase of a heritage revitalisation scheme started taking applications from NGOs yesterday. Earlier this year six government-owned historic buildings were rented out as social enterprises.

The latest scheme covers the cluster and four other historic sites.

The Development Bureau has suggested the Blue House cluster in Stone Nullah Lane be an education or visitor centre, or recreation and welfare facility. The commissioner for heritage, Jack Chan Jick-chi, said it would be the first revitalisation project that kept its residents as well as the structure.

'The people are an important element of the history. We will require in the rental contract the NGO to charge a reasonable rent level to the tenants who stay,' he said.

The successful NGO would initially have to freeze rents, Mr Chan said, but after operations had started adjustments could be made every two or three years according to the consumer price index. It would also have to arrange interim housing nearby.

Sixteen occupants of the Blue House cluster, in six flats and four shops, have opted to stay. They include a 40-year-old bone-setting shop. Rents range from HK$600 to HK$13,000 a month.

Eleven residents have still to decide whether to stay or move out. Others have received compensation and moved to public housing.

Mr Chan said residents would not vet applications, but the government had listened to their views during meetings and their needs would be considered by the vetting committee.

Lee Kwok-leung, who has lived in the Blue House for 35 years and is a member of the residents' liaison group, said while it was good news that rents would be frozen, residents wanted a say in vetting applications.

'We are concerned the project will become too commercialised. We definitely don't want the place to become an expensive restaurant like The Pawn,' the 60-year-old said, referring to the former pawn shop in Johnston Road that was revitalised by the Urban Renewal Authority.

One idea is to set up an organic vegetable garden on the rooftop. Mr Lee said he would be happy to help out there and also share his stories of old Wan Chai with visitors.

Mr Lee said residents did not like the blue colour that had made the building famous because it reminded them of Chinese funerals. 'We want a lighter blue.'

The buildings have deteriorated and need strengthening. They were built in the 1920s and are typical of tenements that housed the lower class Chinese community in the early 20th century. The Blue House also accommodated an English school before the second world war.

St James' Settlement, the most active service organisation in the area, would make an application, said service-in-charge officer Lawrence Lam Kwok-wai. The buildings would continue to accommodate a folk gallery and a second-hand goods shop that the society is running. There might also be some small restaurants or shops, he said. 'All in all we want the place to be a window to introduce tourists to Wan Chai.'

His society would invite tenants to take part by sharing their anecdotes and serving as guides on Wan Chai history. The organisation is seeking partnerships with the business and arts community.

Mr Lam's proposal also involves keeping some vacated flats as exhibition rooms for visitors.

NGOs will have four months to prepare applications. Information will be provided to applicants detailing the structure of the building to cut down on the cost of hiring surveyors.