Ho Tung villa highlights lack of heritage strategy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 January, 2011, 12:00am

Ho Tung Gardens villa on The Peak has exceptional historical and heritage value. So it is good that the government has stepped in to head off its imminent demolition. But there is a sense of deja vu about its late reprieve from the wrecker's ball after building approval for redevelopment was granted. This is a reminder that we still lack a coherent policy for preserving heritage.

The Antiquities Advisory Board listed the property as a grade one historic site. This cleared the way for the government to declare it a proposed historic monument and freeze a HK$3 billion redevelopment plan by existing owner Ho Min-kwan, the granddaughter of late tycoon Sir Robert Ho Tung.

It is not as simple as it looks. Many Hong Kong heritage sites are in private hands and the rights of property ownership must be respected. Ho Tung Gardens is a case in point. Officials negotiated in vain with Ho and her representatives for months over an offer of incentives to preserve the heritage and to assist maintenance work. Last month, the Buildings Department, which is not responsible for heritage issues, approved plans for 11 blocks of four-storey houses.

The freeze will last 12 months. Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor says she will revive talks with the owner. Failing agreement, the government is legally empowered to declare the site a formal monument - and the owner has a right to claim financial loss. Other options include a land swap and a transfer of the plot ratio to another site. Buying the site for public ownership is a last option. This approach mirrors the rescue of the King Yin Lei mansion in Stubbs Road with a site swap after demolition had begun - just one other example of how the lack of a coherent strategy means officials can find themselves having to step in at the last minute to quell a public outcry.

The government deserves credit for improving heritage protection with a more transparent grading system under which all interested parties are consulted. As a result, gradings have been proposed for about 1,500 heritage buildings across the city. But only those listed as grade one are afforded the ultimate protection of being declared a proposed historic monument. Otherwise, the government can only negotiate and the owners can dispose of their buildings as they see fit. Instead of relying on the last-minute government rescues, the city needs a comprehensive strategy for preserving heritage that clarifies the question of how to compensate owners. Perhaps it is time to set up an independent trust with the expertise and resources to implement it. Such a body, which would also have an education function, should aim at becoming at least partly self-funding from property income and public support, including donations from our increasingly philanthropic tycoons.

Ho Tung Gardens - a residence built for his wife by a legendary business and community leader, and a distinctive Hong Kong example of the Chinese renaissance style - is truly exceptional. So was Ho Tung, known to locals as the 'grand old man of Hong Kong'. The basis of his enormous personal fortune was his start as a comprador - the Chinese-speaking middlemen who acted as agents for British and other foreign merchants and took a percentage cut from both sides. Often they became richer and more powerful than the businessmen they were paid to serve.

Such heritage is part of Hong Kong's unique history as part of China. Future generations should be able to look back on the post-handover years as a time when we safeguarded it for posterity.