Unease about rich-poor gap fuels proxy war over heritage

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 December, 2011, 12:00am


The controversy over Government Hill is looking like a bit of a farce, and I think I know why. Let us start with a brief recap. During the property slump of the late 1990s, the government took the Tamar reclamation, which was earmarked for sale and commercial development, off the market. The site lay vacant. By 2006, the government had decided to build a high-profile headquarters on it and sell its Central Government Offices (there was little talk of 'Government Hill' in those days) for commercial redevelopment.

During this time, Hong Kong found a new interest: heritage. It was, I believe, part of the rise of a more assertive and aware public after the handover. I have been lucky to be involved in the heritage issue as chairman of the government's Antiquities Advisory Board and the Advisory Committee on Revitalisation of Historic Buildings.

The government's original plan to redevelop the site raised concerns about traffic and pollution, as well as heritage. After arguing that Central badly needed new office space, officials agreed to scale back the plans and conserve the east and central wings, while the west wing would be replaced by a 32-storey tower with a shopping mall and car parks.

Heritage activists objected and demanded that the whole area - now commonly called Government Hill - be preserved. Under its latest concession, several months ago, the government said it would redevelop the west wing site to house public financial institutions and authorities.

We at the Antiquities Advisory Board are now being asked to grade all of the buildings.

There is a view that the west wing has architectural significance owing to various features, such as the way it is wrapped over the hillside. I see the point, but I am not sure that the building really has outstanding architectural merit.

Activists are going further. They argue that Government Hill is an urban landscape of historic and cultural significance, and they have materials from Unesco and the International Committee for Historic Gardens to back them up. This is a problem for our board because our grading system is focused on specific buildings. We are not currently equipped to grade an area, which in this case includes features like Battery Path, which is not under threat. What if we were asked to grade, say, Wan Chai?

Thinking about this has made me wonder whether we are really seeing a clash between development and heritage preservation here. Could it be that the labels are simply masks for something else?

Heritage awareness is just one shift in public opinion in recent years. We have also seen the rise of anti-developer sentiment and the demand for better quality of life in urban areas. The backlash against some Urban Renewal Authority projects, notably Graham Street market and the pricy Queen's Cube apartment block, is an example. Officials, to their credit, are trying to adapt to this - hence the decision to preserve Central Market and other parts of Central.

The government's concessions over Government Hill raise all sorts of questions in the public mind. Why does a publicly owned site have to be sold to private developers? How many more shopping malls do officials think we need and why? How much more traffic do officials think Central can handle? Why didn't officials consider a more sensitive, government-led, people-oriented redevelopment, say with more greenery and things like affordable restaurants?

Yes, it is a historic area. But I do not think most Hong Kong people would mind losing a dull block like the west wing. What many really worry about is that, in the name of 'development', the government will simply help property tycoons get richer at the expense of everyone else's quality of life. And they have a better chance of fighting this official mentality by using 'heritage' as a weapon.

It would be good if both sides in this battle - and it is not just over Government Hill - take the masks off. We need to cut through to the real issues.

Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils