Worshippers of change

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 April, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 April, 1994, 12:00am

ELDERLY Christian Edith couldn't believe her eyes when she saw the construction model of her soon-to-be-redeveloped church. ''It doesn't look like a church at all,'' says the woman who has been attending the triangular Chinese Methodist Church in Wan Chai since the 50s.

''Of course, I'll miss the old one. I have been going there for more than 30 years,'' says another church member in reaction to the demolition plan.

Both know, whatever their feelings, the fate of their church has been sealed. After a two-year delay, the red-brick building - a Wan Chai landmark - has confirmed its demolition date, despite pleas by the Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB) to have it preserved.

The 58-year-old church will be knocked down in July, and chances are high that more churches will follow suit.

A 23-storey modern church-office complex is to be built in its place, in a joint project with major developer New World.

''In an urban city like Hong Kong, it's difficult to have churches like St John's Cathedral (on Garden Road) or traditional churches like those in Christmas cards,'' admits AAB chairman David Lung.

The Wan Chai Methodist Church has to be rebuilt, says its minister, Reverend Lo Lung-kwong, because of the dire need for space.

''All of those with commitments to our church know how constrained our work is due to limited space,'' he says.

Maintaining the Chinese Renaissance-style church on the corner of Hennessy and Johnston roads is also costly, he adds.

The Rev Lo decided to bring about a change four years ago, two years after he became minister at the church. Backed by the majority of his congregation, he took charge of the redevelopment project and sought the help of developers.

''We wanted a building that would meet our future needs. We didn't want it to be demolished again in 50 years. At the same time, we didn't want the extra space to lie there unused,'' he said.

This gave rise to the concept of a church-office high-rise, an idea his congregation accepted. But it took more than two years before the redevelopment deal was finalised.

During the negotiations, calls were made by concerned individuals for the preservation of the church which is classified as a Grade III listed building by the AAB. They proved futile. The Town Planning Board accepted the request for redevelopment, on condition that some of the original characteristics be incorporated into the new building.

The Rev Lo signed an agreement with New World last month. Under it, the company will shoulder the entire construction cost of the complex which will have a total gross area of 78,000 sq ft (up from the present 18,000 sq ft). In return, it will enjoy a 20-year management right over 13 floors.

''There are enough provisions in Hong Kong laws to guard against improper use of office premises,'' the Rev Lo believes, apparently pleased that a deal has finally been struck. ''In Hong Kong, 90 per cent of the churches are sited either in a residentialor commercial building,'' he adds.

New World can only rent out the office space and has agreed to seek the Wan Chai church's approval on rental to religious organisations.

The Rev Lo believes these arrangements will be good both for the church and its image.

''It'll fit in with the model of a city church,'' claims the staunch lobbyist for Hong Kong people's right of abode in Britain a few years back. ''There will be conference and other public facilities within our church. It will be a church that is not only open on Sundays, but seven days a week.'' By late 1996, a spacious library and bookshop will be set up on the ground floor to serve the public, with common elevators linking the 10-storey church with the offices above.

The Wan Chai church project may be the most ambitious of all church projects, but other churches are not forsaking opportunities to expand with the help of developers.

Doug McLearie, chairman of the redevelopment committee at the English Methodist Church, said its Chinese counterpart's latest plan has ''awakened interest in all churches in Hong Kong to do the same thing.'' His is already looking at the ''implications of redevelopment plans''.

A spokesman for the Catholic Diocese Centre was not available for comment.

Meanwhile, the Church of Christ in China in Mongkok is presently negotiating with developers interested in this prime area. Approval for redevelopment has come from the Town Planning Board.

Minister-in-charge Daniel Hui says the site will primarily be used for social service and as church facilities, but they will also consider renting out or even selling some of the future space.

A centre for the elderly and a nursery will be included in the planned 19-storey building at 56 Bute Street.

''Things are still at a preliminary stage. We are not sure about the date of demolition. It could be sometime around November next year,'' said the Rev Hui.

What's almost certain is that the 65-year-old church will be replaced by a much taller, modern establishment.

The Rev Hui, who has been with the Mongkok church for 11 years, sees the pending demolition in a positive light. ''A building is a dead object, no matter how old it is, or how beautiful it looks.

''After it's rebuilt, we'll have a much bigger place for worship.'' Some other churches are also looking out for the right sort of opportunities for redevelopment.

The Tsim Sha Tsui Baptist Church is one example. Despite various offers, it has been clinging to its Cameron Road site.

A principle strictly observed by the church has turned potential partners away. ''We will only redevelop our church with our own money and run it ourselves. This way members will then have a sense of responsibility for it. If it was a 28-storey building,we would only rent four floors out,'' stresses the Rev Stephen Liu.

The most likely option for developers is indeed to trade another site in the neighbourhood area for the present one, says the Rev Liu. But he adds it is difficult to find a suitable alternative spot.

What complicates the matter is the split in opinions within the church. ''Some have doubts about our own financial ability,'' he says.

Finding space is an urgent need for the International Baptist Church, whose international congregation meet at different rented places for Sunday services.

One location is the auditorium of the Hong Kong Council of Social Services on Hennessy Road. About 600 members of the church go there every Sunday, but not for much longer. They have been asked to meet elsewhere because the Chinese Methodist Church will have to use those premises while its building is being rebuilt.

''We will have to move even though we have been using the place for a long time,'' says associate pastor Danny Muego.

''Please let us know if you know of any place that we can rent for services,'' he says ruefully.

A rare case where a property developer can hardly help.