We must not destroy our heritage because of bad policy
Ken Borthwick calls for better legal safeguards and a sound official policy
Last week saw the announcement by Development Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po of the government's acceptance of the redevelopment of a historic mansion by its owner, as well as the reversal of a previous decision to demolish the west wing of the Central Government Offices for redevelopment.
Perhaps the joint announcement was made to give the public some good news, in respect of the conservation of the west wing, to compensate for the distressing news of the impending destruction of Ho Tung Gardens on The Peak.
The latter is a Chinese Renaissance mansion built by Sir Robert Hotung, the celebrated Eurasian tycoon and philanthropist, for one of his wives. Following an expert appraisal, the government had provisionally declared it a monument and had been negotiating with its owner to preserve it.
Unfortunately, however, owner Ho Min-kwan, granddaughter of Sir Robert, had supposedly rejected all government proposals, including a land swap, to preserve the building, being determined to redevelop. Sir Robert is a renowned figure in Hong Kong's history and Ho Tung Gardens is the last remaining one of his houses. The public, however, would have had little awareness of it, other than from photographs or TV, as Ho Tung Gardens was in private ownership and has a rather secluded location on Peak Road.
However, it was the government itself that aimed to turn the west wing into a 32-storey office tower. The west wing is a critical part, together with the central and east wings, of the former government offices, and a critical part of the historic Government Hill area, long associated with the British period in Hong Kong.
The west wing was designed to have a frontage facing Queen's Road and formed the public face of the government; it was the wing that the public had most connection with. Many voices from within professional, academic and conservation circles were raised against its redevelopment, and the community warmly supported their efforts.
Government Hill, which has been described as being perhaps Hong Kong's last remaining true heritage precinct, includes not only the former government offices, but Government House, the Zoological and Botanical Gardens and St John's Cathedral. The loss of the west wing would have critically diminished the historic area.
Points that can be learned from the tussle over these two heritage sites include their owners' (this includes the government) disappointing attitudes towards heritage conservation, the weakness of Hong Kong laws to protect its remaining heritage, as well as the government's poor conservation policy.
In Britain, for example, many owners of historic buildings have presented them, together with their contents, to the National Trust for the enjoyment of future generations. This was done before in Hong Kong, when Sir Catchick Paul Chater donated his home, Marble Hall, to the government following the death of his wife. Sadly, it was destroyed by fire.
Unlike in Hong Kong where a historic building is given proper protection only after it has been declared a monument, in Britain, public good is given priority over owners' rights. This means that if a building is listed as one of architectural or historic interest, or it is in a conservation area, the owner has to apply for consent before making any changes to the building, much less demolish it.
It is being increasingly recognised in Hong Kong, following the destruction of Queen's Pier and Wan Chai Market, as well as the more recent case of Ho Tung Gardens, that heritage buildings and areas must be given greater protection.
It is surely inappropriate also for heritage in Hong Kong to come under a bureau which until now had made every effort to demolish the west wing and redevelop it under a faux public consultation. Heritage issues should be the concern of a discrete heritage authority.
Ken Borthwick is a conservation architect