Finally, a heritage project to be proud of in PMQ

Peter Kammerer says by going beyond the façade of conservation, heritage officials got it right with PMQ, offering hope for other projects

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 12:57pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2014, 1:39am

Pull down old buildings and you tear out a community’s heart. That’s what successive Hong Kong governments have been doing for generations, with the result that in urban areas, our city’s spirit is in tatters. Neighbours barely talk, creativity is difficult to find and diversity can only be found on the fringes of society. It’s therefore a surprise to encounter much of what has been lost germinating in two buildings halfway along Hollywood Road above Central.

The low-rise buildings on Aberdeen Street comprise PMQ, the former Police Married Quarters, a complex built in 1951 and converted under a government revitalisation project into a creativity hub. If the blueprint of old had been applied to the site, it would have been bulldozed to rubble and dust and replaced by an upmarket residential block. But the heritage consciousness sparked by the demolition of the old Star Ferry pier in 2006 got in the way and some rare pondering took over. Smarting from the backlash of a few botched heritage projects, the development model of putting earning revenue above all other factors was turned on its head.

What Hong Kong has gained as a result is a rare government heritage success story: preservation of a historic site, creation of a place for artists to sell their wares, an interesting exhibition space and some cool places to shop, eat and drink. It’s not a Bohemian paradise for art lovers, but it moves in the right direction. Perhaps what so many European cities have and we do not will be closer to attainment in 2016 with the opening of the old Central Police Station as a place for artists.

I’m setting aside suspicions that what drove the revitalisation of PMQ was the nostalgia of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and his predecessor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Both grew up in flats at the police quarters, their fathers having been officers. Instead, I prefer to think that a genuine desire by authorities to preserve our past was the impetus, the first government school having occupied the site from 1889 (modern China’s founding father, Sun Yat-sen, was a pupil of the school when its premises there were being built). Few traces remain and the 1951 structures in its place are not architecturally noteworthy, but represent a time and place in our history that has long gone elsewhere.

A development system that has put the government in league with developers through property sales has ensured an insensitivity to our past. The conversion of the former Marine Police headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui to 1881 Heritage has preserved the buildings, but destroyed the site and context. Murray House was disassembled in 1982, granite stone by stone, from where the Bank of China headquarters now stands, and faithfully reconstructed in 2001 on the Stanley waterfront, but its expensive restaurants and shops make it off-limits for all but the well-heeled. Imagine both as havens for artists, places to craft and display local works. They would still attract tourists, but ones of a kind more appreciative of the Hong Kong experience.

PMQ proves the model of old doesn’t always have to apply. Let’s hope that the old Central Police Station follows suit – and Murray House still has a chance.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post