The Dragon keeper

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 January, 2012, 12:00am


Cynthia Lee Hong-yee says it was probably her destiny to preserve Dragon Garden. Lee, founder of the Dragon Garden Charitable Trust, is one of 13 grandchildren of the garden's original owner, the late tycoon Lee Iu-cheung, who spent 25 years perfecting it.

In 2006, some 30 years after Lee died, the eight-hectare site on the Castle Peak Road waterfront in Sham Tseng was on the verge of being razed by property developers.

Lee, a single parent of two and a professional photographer and instructor, launched a campaign to preserve the garden and set up the charitable trust. The fact that the sellers were family members didn't make the battle to save the garden any easier.

In a dramatic turnaround after two months of wrangling, the deal was called off when Dr Lee Shiu, Cynthia Lee's uncle, agreed to buy the garden for HK$130 million. It was the same amount the developer had offered to pay.

Shortly afterwards, the Antiques Advisory Board declared the garden - which features examples of Chinese Renaissance architecture - a grade two heritage site. With the trust up and running, the garden has become something of a poster child for increasing public awareness of the importance of heritage conservation in Hong Kong.

Lee's fight to save the garden was full of drama. But her change of career from digital training professional to heritage campaigner was also dramatic.

A Stanford University graduate in East Asian studies, Lee pursued her interest in education at Boston University, where she obtained a master's degree in educational media and technology. Her studies led to a keen interest in photography and computers. 'It was the early days of the desktop computer, and I was using a first-generation Macintosh,' Lee says, adding that she now offers training on Apple computers.

After living in the US for 20 years, Lee returned to Hong Kong in the '80s and founded a desktop publishing company. 'I produced what is now commonly known as the CD-ROM. But in those days, in the early 1990s, it was still new and was incompatible with most local computers. It was hard to make a living,' she adds.

Her company nevertheless managed to obtain sub-contracts from local institutions such as the Science Museum to develop interactive multimedia projects, using photography and graphics to tell a story.

'But my main interest is training people to use tools like computers and camera for their creative projects,' she says. To do this, she founded a training company, the Digital Salon. But the proposed sale of Dragon Garden in the summer of 2006 changed everything.

'It all began when I decided to take some photographs of the garden. While I was shooting, I started thinking about how it was my grandfather's favourite garden. I realised that a part of my childhood was wrapped up in it. I felt it was my duty as a Lee descendant to preserve the family estate. Not just for the clan, but also for Hong Kong, and the city's younger generation.'

The crusade to save Dragon Garden began just a few months before the campaign to save the Star Ferry pier. It played an important part in promoting awareness of heritage conservation in Hong Kong.

Lee says her transition to conservation in order to save the garden was a natural one. 'After all, part of my studies at Stanford was Japanese landscape gardening. That goes well with my interest in photography and educational work,' she adds.

Over the past six years, the trust she founded has offered guided tours, student conservation projects, heritage exhibitions, and liberal studies workshops for secondary school students.

'Through Dragon Garden, we hope to provide a model for the public. We want to show them how to self-manage a heritage site. When I got involved in the conservation work, I realised there was a serious lack of public awareness about our heritage and its cultural significance. We've got a lot of work to do in that respect,' she explains.

To that end, the trust sponsored the publication of the Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Timeline. It is a compact guide to 13 heritage sites and their respective fates. It looks at the effects of government conservation policy from the '70s through to the present. A thousand copies of the first print run were distributed free to 450 schools for liberal studies courses.

'The publication has used up all the funds the trust has generated. Until we find fresh resources, there is not much more we can do at the moment,' she says.

She believes the crusade to promote heritage awareness needs a greater degree of public participation. For success, a long-term campaign supported by the whole community is needed.

'I am a volunteer, and I have done all I can in the past five years. I am very tired now. It's time for me to return to my interest in photography and training,' she says.

Her children, she says, were neglected during her relentless conservation campaign.

'But my kids turned out very well in spite of that. My son is working now and my daughter is in university. It's a blessing and I am very grateful,' she says.

She adds that she could have given up the heritage crusade earlier. But she stayed with it because she was concerned about the overall approach to heritage in Hong Kong.

'Hong Kong needs to strike a balance between development and conservation. I hope the government will set up a heritage trust for that purpose. There are many heritage sites.

'Other people need to take responsibility for them. One person can't do it all,' she says.

'The Dragon Garden experience has left us with an important lesson, which I hope will not be repeated. It is now in safe hands. Let's hope it'll stay that way.'