Dragon Garden owner proposes public-use plan

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 November, 2009, 12:00am

The owner of Hong Kong's largest private garden, the 60-year-old Dragon Garden in Tsing Lung Tau, Tsuen Wan, plans to seek matching funds from the government to turn it into a rare, privately initiated conservation project for community use.

Cynthia Lee Hong-yee, whose uncle Dr Lee Shiu owns the garden, recently recruited a team of building and conservation professionals to study the feasibility of running the site as a self-sustaining 'literati garden', open to the public.

The team estimated that about HK$30 million would be needed to restore the eight hectare waterfront site on Castle Peak Road, including fixing three slopes, draining two streams and converting a swimming pool into an event venue and a changing room into a cafe.

A third of the site would be open to the public free, providing space for art events, picnics and exhibitions. Some buildings would be banquet and conference venues, generating income to fund the operation.

'It could serve as a cultural tourism site for Tsuen Wan District,' Cynthia Lee said.

She said her uncle was willing to shoulder part of the capital cost - provided the government would share it and supply a seed fund for initial operation.

He was also willing to put the site under the management of a charity trust, overseen by himself, officials and community representatives, with the public as the beneficiary. Any public funds would support only the garden operation.

His niece said the government had encouraged development-minded owners to preserve other sites by offering incentives, citing the examples of King Yin Lei mansion, Jessville mansion and the Anglican church Sheng Kung Hui.

Cynthia Lee said she would organise an open day, guided tours and a seminar to elicit public support in the next few months.

The grade-two Dragon Garden, built by late tycoon and philanthropist Lee Iu-cheung - Cynthia Lee's grandfather - in the 1950s, is the biggest private garden in the city. It features hundreds of species of flora, and ponds, footpaths, bridges and architecture imitating styles from different Chinese dynasties.

In 2006, her uncle saved the garden from a developer and became sole owner by buying out family members for HK$100 million.

He later offered to donate the garden to the government and started negotiations. Cynthia Lee said the process had gone nowhere because the options the government offered were undesirable.

A revitalisation scheme, under which the government would take over the site ownership and NGOs were invited to use it for a few years, was a short-term measure, she said.

A maintenance grant of HK$1 million, available from another scheme for private heritage, was inadequate for the huge site, she said.

A third option, which was to let the Leisure and Cultural Services Department own and manage the site, was not promising because of concerns about bureaucracy.

A Development Bureau spokeswoman said it had not received a formal proposal from the owner on the matching funds idea, and was still waiting for a response on the options the government proposed.

Professor Ng Cho-nam, a member of the Antiquities Advisory Board, said the matching fund idea and the management trust could set an interesting model for privately owned heritage.

'But how trustees are appointed is a problem the owner needs to address,' he said. 'Given public funding is involved, the owner has to make sure the appointment is fair and independent, and the place will not end up privatised.'