How our heritage is caught in limbo

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 October, 2011, 12:00am


Hong Kong's awareness of the need for heritage conservation has been growing in recent years. A coherent and effective policy that meets public expectation has yet to be developed. The result is that while the government often steps in to prevent old buildings being destroyed, this often occurs only at a late stage and when public opinion is strong.

The change of heart which saved a row of 60-year-old tenement blocks in Wing Lee Street is a case in point. Despite being one of the last remaining clusters of Chinese-style residential blocks in the heart of Hong Kong, the street was destined to be flattened for development. The Urban Renewal Authority first intended to keep three of the 12 tenements. The government only made a last-minute U-turn to preserve them all after a nostalgic film - Echoes of the Rainbow - set in the street won the Crystal Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival last year and sparked calls for better conservation.

The project has, however, not been as successful as hoped. After 19 months, the Urban Renewal Authority only managed to renovate four of the 12 tenements. The others are in the hands of property-acquisition companies. Sadly, the owners did not respond to the offer of subsidies. With the area being rezoned for conservation, redevelopment at the remaining tenements is prohibited. It is disappointing that the rescue has come too late. The street has been left in an awkward situation, with some blocks given a facelift while the rest are stuck in limbo. It would be a real pity if they are just left to decay.

Nonetheless, the authority deserves credit for breathing new life into the old street. It is good to see that plans are under way to lease the renovated units to artists and researchers at nominal rent. Although there are concerns that the nostalgic ambience might be lost, the new design does not necessarily destroy the character of the buildings. Indeed, the authority has made efforts to preserve some of the features while bringing the flats in line with modern safety and living standards.