Robert Ho

Preservation more than a matter of trust

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am


Hongkongers frequently lament the destruction of old treasures, landmarks and oddities as the city relentlessly makes itself taller, more modern and more generic.

But even passionate preservationists were caught short by the price tag attached to efforts to save Ho Tung Gardens, the famed Peak property in danger of being demolished by one of its founder's heirs.

In this latest controversy, the granddaughter of late tycoon Robert Hotung says she would have to receive HK$7 billion compensation for her loss of development rights. The vast sum has put the government, which had been looking for a way to preserve the place, in a difficult position.

And it has highlighted the complexities facing officials who are trying to map out a long-term policy for the preservation of Hong Kong's heritage. The current administration, with just six months left in office, has commissioned academics to study whether it is feasible to set up a statutory heritage trust.

Officials promised in 2007 to look into creating a heritage trust, after an intense public campaign to save the Star Ferry Clock Tower and Queen's Pier. Consultants have been asked to propose a legal framework, a source of income and a governance model for the trust. For a model, they're likely to look to Britain, whose national trust acquires historic buildings and generates income from renting the premises for commercial or other uses.

Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor recently said Hong Kong's trust shouldn't spend a huge sum of money to acquire historic sites but rather should encourage community participation in volunteer work such as guided tours of sites, building maintenance and public education.

Hong Kong's conservationists generally agree there should be an independent body to carry on conservation work, but they differ over how much that body should do - and none say it can copy the British model completely.

The reason is simple: the city's land prices are so high.

Dr Lee Ho-yin, director of the University of Hong Kong's architectural conservation programme, says that even if a trust was to acquire some heritage sites, its scale of targets would have to be limited and selective.

'The trust should not target only properties like tycoons' luxurious mansions,' Lee says. 'Such buildings are too expensive. Buying one will use up all the money.'

Half of the eight remaining private, historic European-style residences on The Peak are under threat of redevelopment, excluding the Chinese-style Ho Tung Garden.

'It doesn't sound right to pay millions or even billions of dollars to the owners, who are already rich people, to ask them to trade their properties,' Lee says.

A mansion at 23 Coombe Road, owned by Hutchison Whampoa Property, is valued by surveyors at more than HK$300 million. The government is considering declaring the grade-one site a 'provisional monument' to stop the company demolishing it.

Three other mansions facing a similar threat are 20 Severn Road; Villa Blanca at 47 Barker Road; and the former residence of the French consulate-general at 8 Pollock's Path. All three of them have been acquired by developers.

Rather than plunging resources into an exclusive neighbourhood, Lee suggests preservationists concentrate on Chinese-style shop- houses in old urban districts. Often of a lower historical rating, the buildings allow more room for interior alteration and are much cheaper to buy. In Singapore, certain designated conservation areas retain the facades of shophouses to preserve some of the ambience of the old city.

Hong Kong has about 80 graded shophouses, mainly in Mong Kok, Prince Edward, Wan Chai, Sham Shui Po, Central and Sheung Wan. Forty-four of these buildings are in private hands. The two largest clusters, in Prince Edward and Mong Kok's Shanghai Street, have been acquired and are being revitalised by the Urban Renewal Authority.

Ko Tim-keung, historical researcher and a member of the Antiquities Advisory Board, agrees that shophouses deserved priority.

'They reflect the history of urban development and memories of the old streetscape,' says Ko, who keeps a collection of photographs of hundreds of tenements he took in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of those buildings have been demolished.

How would the trust find the money to preserve these properties? There's no simple answer, Lee says.

'The trust cannot rely on just donations, like in the UK,' he says. 'In Hong Kong, the biggest donations are from property tycoons. If the contributions are, again, dominated by developers, things will inevitably become too politicised and commercialised. We've had enough bad examples.'

The Former Marine Police Headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui, sold to a subsidiary of Cheung Kong (Holdings) and now a hotel-and-mall complex, has been the most controversial case. Architects criticised the new additional structures as looking like 'faked heritage'.

Dr Ng Cho-nam, Antiquities Advisory Board member and a director of Conservancy Association, agrees on the need for a heritage trust. A government endowment could start it and an independent committee manage it.

'An independent trust is necessary because this makes sure that continuous efforts will be made on conservation and not be affected by a change of government and political agenda,' Ng says.

But the body should work only with those owners who are willing to preserve their properties, helping them maintain and manage the buildings and ensuring they are for public use. Recent examples include CLP Power keeping the clock tower of its headquarters in Argyle Street as a museum.

Ng says the trust cannot force people to sell their property because it might contravene the Basic Law's protection of private property rights.

But Professor Ho Puay-peng, director of Chinese University's school of architecture, thinks a heritage trust is a bad idea. 'It is not that worthwhile to set up a trust because acquisition costs here are higher than most cities and, at the end of the day, there are not that many beautiful, private historic buildings left,' he says.

'What we have are mostly government-owned, or private temples and churches. The private buildings, such as shop-houses and rural village houses, are spread around the city and it is hard to create synergy out of these scattered blocks.'

Instead of a trust, town planners should aim to preserve the unique urban landscapes of certain old areas, such as Sheung Wan and Tai Hang, rather than the physical structures of individual buildings, he says.

'In those places, it is not individual blocks but the small-sized lots, lanes, courtyards and sloping topography that define the place and the uniqueness of old Hong Kong,' Ho says. 'We have too often seen urban renewal erasing the old streetscape, with new giant towers sitting on podiums that break the past continuous shopfronts.'

Ho says Singapore can be a reference. There, guidelines are set to protect designated conservation areas, forbidding redeveloped buildings from going higher than old ones or to break the continuity of shop fronts at street level. Developers can be compensated for reductions in their projects' potential profits.


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