Jake's View

Ho Tung Gardens was an eyesore … not Hong Kong heritage

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 December, 2012, 3:16am

Heritage policy failure as Peak mansion to go

SCMP headline, Dec 5

Failure? It was a victory of common sense. We were being asked to pay HK$7 billion to preserve an ugly, squat 1920s building of no historical significance and the Executive Council decided it wasn't worth the money.

The only quibble I have is the implied Exco belief that at some still very high price it would indeed have been worth the money. For purposes of antiquities preservation, however, I wouldn't have set the value of the Ho Tung Gardens at even HK$7 million.

Its antiquities claims are that it was the first place on the Peak where anyone Chinese was ever allowed to live and that it was once visited by a real, live United States vice-president. There is a photograph to prove it.

The trouble is that Robert Ho Tung Bosman was Dutch by paternal descent, not Chinese, and he didn't live in the house. He built it for a wife. As to that vice-president, he was the most forgettable of the 20th century. Even his boss, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, soon contrived to forget him.

I have additionally heard the argument that the building is a typical example of Chinese Renaissance architecture. This is architects' blather. Almost any building in China larger than a mud hut, if constructed between 1900 and 1940 and incorporating some green tiles, has been dubbed Chinese Renaissance architecture.

It was also the excuse offered a few years ago for preserving the King Yin Lei house on upper Stubbs Road, a 1930s faux-China Hollywood fantasy conceived by an English architect.

Pretty? Yes. Antiquity? Don't make me laugh. The government now has the headache of finding a use for it. Solution: let it moulder as it was doing before. There is nothing else to be done with it.

But while the authorities got it right for once in rejecting the Ho Tung house, they immediately undid their good work with a decision to preserve the government's abandoned west wing office block in Central rather than make the site available for redevelopment.

I, too, do not welcome another steel-and-glass tower overshadowing both the botanical gardens and that gem of Japanese architectural design, Government House, but demolition of the west wing would at least rid us of an eyesore.

Oh, pardon me, I forget. It is an antiquity. It dates back to the mists of history, 1959 in fact, and it was once used to host an official youth dance party. There is a photograph to prove it.

The fact of the matter is that we have allowed our decisions on heritage preservation to be hijacked by architects. The profession is slowly withering as advances in engineering overtake it and its members naturally want to resist the trend. I can see why this induces them to venerate all structures they conceive but I can't see why the rest of us should do so.

It doesn't help that the chairman of the Antiquities Advisory Board, Bernard Chan - although in my opinion a thoroughly amiable man - does not have quite the assertiveness of character or political experience to resist the special-interest groups that besiege him. He swings where he is swung in these matters.

I do agree with him, however, that we need a bit of a rethink here. It is a rethink that requires broadening our perspectives much further than he has in mind.

The urban landscape is a sad story of heritage wiped out. What very little is left has now been preserved and pretending that the likes of the Ho Tung Gardens is heritage will not make up for the loss.

But antiquities, contrary to architects' prejudices, are not defined only by bricks and mortar. Hong Kong's greatest surviving heritage is now its country parks, along with a few villages that have not yet been destroyed. This is a unique treasure that we have, largely by accident of history in how the New Territories came into Britain's possession.

And it's under threat. Much of it has already been turned into an ugly concrete wasteland. Things will be worse yet if the Heung Yee Kuk gets all the compensation it wants for scrapping the village small-house policy.

That's where you need to look, Bernard.