Hong Kong's heritage still vanishing

Ken Borthwick says the destruction of Hong Kong's heritage continues, with the government seemingly unwilling to save historic sites

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 September, 2013, 8:17am

Last month, the government further advanced its accomplishments, in keeping with its abysmal track record of destroying Hong Kong's heritage and environment, by opposing the community proposal of making an important part of historic Government Hill into a heritage area. This proposal was turned down by the Town Planning Board.

This would have been an opportunity to make a significant gesture to safeguard a historic area from the dangers of development, at virtually no cost or risk, as all the land concerned - the former Central Government Office ensemble, former French Mission Building, now Court of Final Appeal and Battery Path - was in government ownership already.

Government action seems directed to aiding and abetting the destruction of Hong Kong's heritage and environment, where the laws for the protection of heritage buildings are outdated and protection of heritage areas is non-existent. In this respect, we are woefully out of date compared with Singapore.

Last month, the Post featured an inspired article on the revitalisation of tong lau, or low-rise shop houses, in the Sheung Wan/Tai Ping Shan areas for residential use. The article described how in Hong Kong few tong lau remain, "unlike in Macau and Singapore which have preserved entire streets, even neighbourhoods", featuring this period architecture.

Tai Ping Shan and adjoining areas represent one of urban Hong Kong's few remaining gems, with its still relatively low-rise feel; the beautiful Blake Garden in the centre, which occupies the site of unsanitary houses that were cleared at the time of the plague at the beginning of the 20th century.

The area also features handsome masonry walls, a historic granite stairway on Pound Lane flanked by the boundary retaining wall and balustrade of Blake Garden, the historic Kwong Fook I Tsz temple on Tai Ping Shan Street and a number of historic sites connected with the medical history of Hong Kong. It represents a green and tranquil oasis in contrast to the soulless towers elsewhere in Mid-Levels.

In the article, Professor Lee Ho-yin, of the University of Hong Kong, describes how in his native Singapore they introduced a conservation master plan about 30 years ago to preserve historic districts such as Chinatown, which was prompted in part by falling tourism numbers attributed to the loss of local character in the drive to build the modern metropolis. He described how Singapore used the power of planning to designate certain areas as conservation areas to restrict how much can be built.

The Tai Ping Shan/Hollywood Road area is crying out for conservation area protection status. However, it is under threat from a Highways Department proposal to build an unnecessary escalator up Pound Lane which, besides destroying historic features including the Pound Lane steps and parts of Blake Garden, would almost certainly act as a catalyst for the destruction by developers of this historic area and displacement of its community.

Only recently, a Ralph Lauren store has opened up on Hollywood Road, representing an unwelcome intrusion into the historic street.

Isn't it ironic that the government, with its highly paid heritage supremos and advisers, appears to be incapable of safeguarding anything that makes Hong Kong special.

Ken Borthwick is a conservation architect in Hong Kong


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