A city's character is often said to be defined by the way it preserves the past. Over the years, so many heritage buildings have been knocked down that there seems little left to evoke our colourful East-meets-West history. This trend may have slowed in the wake of the Star Ferry Clock Tower and Queen's Pier demolition sagas, which forced the government to pay closer attention to buildings under threat of redevelopment. But apart from a handful of applause-winning projects, conservation remains a case of two steps forward, one step back.
An example is the government's failure to save the historic Ho Tung Gardens on The Peak, which would have cost taxpayers billions of dollars in compensation to the owner. This shows conservation is still knee-jerk rather than backed by a comprehensive regime. As the existing heritage grading system has no legal power to stop owners from redeveloping properties with heritage value, at least 18 of the 1,444 government-graded buildings have already been flattened. Another eight have been substantially altered.
Belated as it is, the two-month public consultation by the Antiquities Advisory Board brings hope of a change. Some ideas are worthy of further exploration, such as the establishment of a heritage trust. The board is right in saying that a trust will help promote public participation, foster overseas exchange and explore new funding sources through donations, membership fees, property rentals and souvenir sales. But even if the trust has generous government funding to start with, questions remain as to how much money the public is willing to pay to save a historic building from the wreckage ball. Given the majority in the built heritage list are privately owned, long-term sustainability is a key issue.
In a money-minded city, the pursuit of profit means old buildings are always under threat. While property rights must be respected, the need to preserve our past should not be swept aside. The consultation is an opportunity to engage the public in serious discussion on how to strike the right balance.