A lump of concrete standing in the middle of a construction site on Mok Cheong Street in Kowloon is all that is left of the Eastern Cotton Mills, one of the largest spinning factories set up in post-war Hong Kong.
"I was looking for the mill along a heritage trail, but all I could see was a pitiful part behind a hoarding," said Conservancy Association campaign manager Peter Li Siu-man.
"I thought, 'Am I in the right place?"
Li recently inspected heritage spots in Kowloon City, where district councillors and locals planned a trail to link sites of historical interest as part of a larger scheme to revamp the old district.
He wrote to the Antiquities and Monuments Office, only to find that the concrete lump was the "parts of the facade" of a grade-three historic building that the owner was willing to preserve amid redevelopment of the site.
"We feel that the present development-cum-conservation option fits in the definition of grade three," the office said in its reply. A grade-three block is considered as "of some merit" and preservation in some form would be desirable.
"This is ridiculous," Li said. "The portion they chose to preserve is a sorry state of affairs. I don't know how it can be representative of the mill at all."
Under the city's heritage policy, graded buildings, unlike declared monuments, have no legal protection.
If an owner of a graded building wants to redevelop it, officials will offer economic incentives such as granting more developable space to the site or a land swap in order to save an historic block. But it is up to the owner to decide whether to accept it.
The policy has not always worked. In the case of Ho Tung Gardens, a grade one site, the owner rejected all incentives offered, asking for HK$7 billion which the government was unwilling to give.
With the Eastern Cotton Mills, the Development Bureau said it had talked to the owner several times to encourage preservation of the building. In the end the owner agreed to keep a small part of the facade. The bureau did not offer an economic incentive.
The antiquities office had, in an earlier appraisal, described the mill as testimony to Hong Kong's economic success in the post-war period.
The mill was set up in 1954 by two prominent families from Shanghai. It started with the installation of 10,000 spindles and a large amount of its products were exported to Europe, East Asia and Africa.
After closing down in 1981, the premises were subdivided for use by different companies.
In 2006, the mill founders sold the land to Palace City, which is owned by an offshore company and could not be reached for comment.
Last year, a man purporting to be the property owner told Sing Tao Daily that it was exploring the possibility of converting the plant instead of knocking it down, after learning it had been given a historic grading.
Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po said that the government planned to put forward its conservation policy for public discussion in the second half of next year.