Due process

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 March, 2012, 12:00am


The owner of Ho Tung Gardens has rejected a government plan to declare the property a monument after the expiry of the one-year provisional monument status in January.

Ho Min-kwan turned down a land swap offered by the government and insisted on demolishing the main house of the villa as she believes it has no historical or architectural value. But, she has offered to give away some of the elements in the Chinese-style garden so that officials can reconstruct them on another site, if they wish.

Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had earlier said negotiations between the two sides were deadlocked and the final decision has to be made by the Chief Executive in Council.

Ho Tung Gardens, located at No 75 Peak Road, occupies 11,520 square metres. The property was badly damaged during the second world war. Due to neglect for many years after the war, it became dilapidated. The house was then divided into different apartments and rented to outsiders. The family reoccupied it in the 1960s. Many important visitors to Hong Kong stayed there, including former US president George H.W.Bush, when he was chief of the US liaison office on the mainland.

In terms of heritage value, the architecture of Ho Tung Gardens is not exceptional. The structure pales in comparison to some other Chinese Renaissance architecture, even though it represents an integral part of Hong Kong's colonial history. It's understandable that the owner wants to demolish the main house for redevelopment.

The opposition mainly stems from the fact that Hong Kong people have become increasingly concerned with heritage conservation in recent years.

Wanting to be on the right side of public opinion, Lam took action last year and gave Ho Tung Gardens a provisional monument status to stall the owner's demolition plan. She is now proposing to declare the villa a monument.

Hong Kong is a law-abiding place. Lam may be tough and feisty but she cannot use her position to push policy through without respecting the property rights of the owner and her family.

I don't believe Ho's plan to redevelop the family home is motivated by money. She only wants to pass the family property onto the next generation. The property has been valued at HK$7billion, but it means very little to Ho, who is in her 70s. Moreover, Ho has agreed to let officials preserve other elements in the garden.

Ho is reasonable and she won't follow in the footsteps of the developer who openly defaced King Yin Lei mansion and ultimately forced the government to compensate him handsomely in order to save the monument.

In this case, Ho has not been offered a similarly generous land exchange package. In the course of negotiation, if the owner refuses to comply, the matter should be left to the court to decide. But Lam chose to pass the problem to the chief executive and the Executive Council.

It seems that Lam only imposes her will on nice, gentle people. We should never tolerate anyone who bullies the weak and fears the tough.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk