Hong Kong does not stand out as a place rich in history and antiquities. Its rapid rise from small fishing village to leading financial centre gives the impression that there was not much around before the British arrived in the 19th century. Our strong appetite for development also means much of our past has been flattened or buried over time. Who would have thought underneath this modern city lies a bed of archaeological treasures?
The vast trove of relics unearthed at one of the Sha Tin-Central Rail Link construction sites has shed new light on our history. It suggests that the area near Kai Tak might once have been home to a sizeable settlement dating back more than seven centuries. Among the highlights discovered are several wells and structures typical of the Song dynasty. So far, the "general and special finds" from the excavations, including ceramics and coins, have filled thousands of boxes. The discovery is one of our most significant. Construction at two other sites nearby have been suspended pending excavation.
Unfortunately, this important slice of Hong Kong's past is not being well preserved. The archaeological work was commissioned by the MTR years ago under the supervision of the Antiquities and Monuments Office. One may wonder why such important finds were sniffed out by the media and put under the public spotlight only in recent months. Government antiquities advisers are also not playing an active role. Questions have been asked why construction at the first site has already resumed, with all but one square-shaped well to be preserved in situ. There are growing calls for the government to take over the digging at the two other sites.
The city's history is being rewritten with the new discovery. The strong public reaction suggests transparency and supervision fall short of expectations. While there is a need to continue with the rail project, the authorities should try to preserve as much as possible. It would be wrong to bulldoze away relics that testify to centuries of civilisation.