Nunnery's Unesco nomination makes a mockery

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 5:34am

The term world heritage suggests something extraordinary. It conjures up images like the Egyptian pyramids in Giza, the Acropolis of Athens and the Great Wall of China - places with exceptional significance to humanity. According to Unesco, it is "our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations". The adherence to stringent selection criteria means there are only some 960 protected cultural and natural sites across the globe so far. They deserve as much international recognition as conservation for posterity.

Bewilderingly enough, a Hong Kong nunnery built in the heart of Kowloon 14 years ago has the potential to be our first world heritage site. With the help of the government, the Tang dynasty-style complex has successfully lobbied the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and made it onto a tentative list for Unesco consideration, alongside big names like the Silk Road. It was all done behind closed doors without any public consultation. Not surprisingly, the move has been denounced by heritage advisers on a government panel.

It does not take an expert to tell the nunnery, dubbed a "fake antiquity" by some critics, is hardly on par with the Forbidden City in Beijing or other listed sites. It is not even deemed worthy of protection by being put on the government's list of 1,440-odd graded buildings. In theory, a world heritage site need not be an ancient monument. The Sydney Opera House isn't. But it is unclear how a mock-up complex can fulfil Unesco's requirement of having "outstanding" value in terms of history, art or science. That means its significance is "so exceptional that permanent protection is of the highest importance to the international community". The lack of policy and public input makes the entry of the faux Tang dynasty building even more questionable. It has to be asked why other monuments are not given a fair chance for consideration.

Seven years ago, our neighbour city Macau made it into the world heritage list with a well-preserved city centre dating back to the 16th century. It's a shame that Hong Kong is lagging way behind, with much of its past wiped out to make room for new development. That said, there is no shortage of worthy candidates. The historic Tai O fishing village is an example. All it takes is vigorous public debate to reach a consensus. We risk becoming an international laughing stock if a 14-year-old, inauthentic tourist attraction in Diamond Hill is all that we can offer for the world to preserve for future generations.