Antiquities board gives historic villa new lease on life
Olga Wong and Adrian Wan
A historic villa on The Peak that Hutchison Whampoa wants to redevelop is likely to be saved after the antiquities office raised its status to a top-grade historic building, giving the government the right to name it a protected monument.
The European-style mansion at 23 Coombe Road was slated for demolition after Hutchison, the Li Ka-shing flagship that owns the property, applied to redevelop it last year. The move to preserve it is the second such action in Hong Kong's most exclusive residential area this year, after Ho Tung Gardens.
Members of the Antiquities Advisory Board agreed at a meeting yesterday to lift the status of the Coombe Road villa, built in 1887, from grade two to grade one.
Grade-one buildings have 'outstanding merit' and 'every effort should be made to preserve [them] if possible'. Grade two buildings can be 'selectively preserved'.
Ho Pui-yin, a member of the board, said it was the social contributions of the villa's first owner, Irishman John Joseph Francis, that gave significance to the residence.
'He basically brought reforms to the health system and led a campaign that ended the mui tsai slavery system of indentured Chinese girls working as unpaid maids,' she said.
Another member, Tim Ko Tim-keung, said: 'We should respect history. Even people who made less of a contribution have streets named after them.'
A spokesman for the Antiquities Authority, which is advised by the board, said it would consider whether to declare the building a monument to give it immediate protection. The board has been considering the mansion's status since December last year, when it gave it a temporary grade-three rating, three months after the development plan came to light. This was later raised to grade two. Hutchison had no comment.
Francis, who came to Hong Kong as a military officer in the 1860s and later became a barrister, is remembered for investigating mui tsai and chairing a committee to cope with a plague outbreak in 1894.
Ho Min-kwan, the granddaughter of Sir Robert Hotung, who built Ho Tung Gardens, wants to demolish the house but keep the surroundings intact and is objecting to government plans to declare it a monument.