Thumbs up for exterior restoration
Two years after being defaced by the owner in an apparent attempt to sidestep any obstacles to its demolition, the historic King Yin Lei mansion in Stubbs Road has regained most of its original appearance - from the outside at least.
After a two-year restoration, the ripped-off roof of the 1930s Chinese Renaissance-style Mid-Levels building has been replaced with new ceramic tiles, holes in the brick walls have been repaired and animal decorations on the roof ridges have been reproduced.
The King Yin Lei inscriptions at the entrance - chiselled off by workers on the owner's orders - have also been restored. Only window decorations remain to be completed.
The work so far has won a thumbs-up from academics specialising in historical Chinese architecture. 'I can't find any flaws,' Henry Lo Ka-yu, who researches Chinese architectural heritage at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said.
'The decorations on the ridges look almost the same as the original,' he said. 'The work shows care in reproducing the detail features, which in Chinese architecture are the elements that tell the Chinese worldview and religious beliefs.'
The director of Hong Kong University's architectural conservation programme, Dr Lee Ho-yin, agreed, saying the work had returned the 1930s Chinese Renaissance-style flavour to the mansion.
The work, overseen by Guangzhou University on commission from the government, is designed to restore 80 per cent of the original appearance by the time it is finished at the end of next year.
But the badly damaged interior remains a challenge as the work will go on without about 100 wooden doors, window frames and screens a contractor hired by the owner to deface the building kept for himself. He offered them in an online auction in June but the government refused to buy them back after failing to persuade the contractor to donate them.
The government will produce a documentary film detailing the restoration. Before work is complete, it will invite proposals from businesses to turn the mansion into a tourist spot.
The defacement in 2007 initially escaped the government's attention as there were no structural changes, for which an application to the Buildings Department would have been necessary, and it did not act until a green group publicised the damage.
The building was declared a provisional monument, halting the work. That status was confirmed last year after negotiations with the owner, who was granted an adjacent site to build five detached houses in exchange for the mansion. As part of the deal, the undisclosed cost of restoration is being met by the owner.
Criticised for the late action, Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor admitted that some officers were 'not sensitive enough' and had ignored a letter in which an architect acting for a previous owner offered to preserve the building. That owner, getting no response, sold it to an unidentified person.
While officials often cite the case as a success in heritage conservation, Antiquities Advisory Board member Dr Ng Cho-nam said it was unclear how far heritage policy development had been advanced. 'So far there's not much evidence that the government will follow the same mode to preserve privately owned heritage.'
The government would try to give preservation incentives to owners of heritage buildings, 'but under what circumstances will there be a land exchange, or a transfer of lost development rights, these are unclear and there's no mechanism to refer to'.
The number of roof tiles required to restore the roof of the King Yin Lei mansion: 50,000