Building blocks

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 March, 2010, 12:00am

Thanks to Echoes of the Rainbow, which won the Crystal Bear at last month's Berlin International Film Festival, Wing Lee Street has been saved from the bulldozers. Preserving the tenements means that many people (me included) are happy that we get to keep a part of the city's precious history. The street's rescue from destruction is almost poetic: a neglected Sheung Wan alley, the only remaining window into Hong Kong life in the 1950s, doomed for demolition; then brought back to life by a film no one wanted to finance - until the government's Film Development Fund gave it its seed money. The government financed its own awakening and righted its wrong.

And yet, in what should have been a shining moment for the government - and especially for Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor - the government failed to win over its audience. Wing Lee Street is just another chapter in the government's 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' saga.

For critics like political scientist Ma Ngok, of Chinese University, saving Wing Lee Street was just a 'public relations stunt'. Yet it did not make the passing of the Land (Compulsory Sale for Redevelopment) Bill any easier. And it definitely did not please tenants like Shum Sui-heung, who felt as if she had fallen from 'heaven to hell' - since preserving the tenements dashed her hopes of relocating to public housing. And as for owners seeking higher compensation, forget it. Such is reality: what may be good for some will inevitably mean something bad for others.

The passing of the controversial bill will make it easier for tenants and landlords of old and run-down buildings elsewhere to be relocated or compensated. The new law lowers the threshold for forcing the sale of old buildings from approval by 90 per cent of flat owners to 80 per cent - good for some and bad for others.

Lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee was at the forefront in opposing the lowering of the threshold. Her full-page advertisement - referring to the biblical prophet Nathan's parable of the poor fellow's ewe lamb being unjustly taken from him to favour the rich man - was dramatic, but was met by an equally scathing rebuttal by a disgruntled 'group of old-property owners'. Both sides have compelling arguments. Some owners think they will benefit by selling early to property developers. Those who hold out for a better price will have less power to decide the fate of the rest. For those who don't want to move, it's not a happy ending. As for the government, it is again a case of damned if you do and damned if you don't: it can never win. Push the bill through and be accused of favouring developers; do nothing and be accused of incompetence.

So perhaps, if the government were to turn to the holy scriptures, as did Ip, then the story of King Solomon's judgment would yield interesting results. King Solomon, as you'll recall, proposed cutting a live baby in two, giving half to each of the two women claiming to be its mother. In Hong Kong's case, 'killing' the issue could mean taking away a property's value altogether: owners who failed to maintain their properties would simply be stripped of them. My guess is that run-down properties would be fixed up in no time. 'Evil' property developers would be denied the ewe lamb. And no one would win at the expense of another.

But alas, we do not live in the good old biblical days. Most of us could not stomach stratagems for added drama when things desperately need to be done and changes made. Since the Ma Tau Wai Road building collapse, it is clear that owners who do not keep their properties safe must be punished, building safety standards must be upheld, and the role of the Urban Renewal Authority must be realigned to protect lives, properties and heritage.

For the government, lowering the redevelopment threshold must be a prelude to several other measures: taking down irresponsible owners, greedy developers and unsafe buildings. The journey will no doubt be painful, with stiff opposition at every step. But, as Echoes of the Rainbow tried to show Hongkongers, you have to keep plodding ahead even when times get rough.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA