Preserving Pok Fu Lam village is a chance to save some of city's history

Pok Fu Lam village is on an international list of sites to be preserved, but will Hong Kong listen?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 5:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 5:03am

Hundreds of humble huts and small houses perch on a hillside in the middle-class neighbourhood of Pok Fu Lam. Between them, narrow alleys lead to small shops, green fields and historic structures that were once part of Hong Kong's largest dairy farm.

Here is where villagers perform their annual Fire Dragon Dance each autumn, where the animal, made of straw and pungent with incense, confers blessings on those nearby.

For decades, Pok Fu Lam village has crouched in the shadow of the residential high-rises of Chi Fu Fa Yuen. The village has been categorised as a squatter area, and is constantly under threat of development. This makes the 2,800 residents of the 150-year-old village - one of the last on Hong Kong Island - uneasy.

Efforts to preserve this special place won support last month. Pok Fu Lam was named on a list compiled by the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based organisation seeking to preserve architectural and cultural sites. Also making the list was Venice, where dredging is creating floods, and Yangon's historic city centre in Myanmar.

Fund executive vice-president Henry Ng acknowledges that the village, dating back to at least 1868, is "not like many of our other sites", which are better known and have greater architectural merit. Ng says it is important because it is "pre-British", and even "pre-modern". It even lacks a modern sewage system.

"It's one of the last such villages in Hong Kong," Ng says. "If you lose something singular, you can never get it back. You lose a whole chunk of history."

Villagers fear that their preservation efforts could end there. How can they save Pok Fu Lam when the city lacks a system to conserve an entire area?

In a city that dazzles with glass and steel, , Pok Fu Lam village is one of many places in Hong Kong where people are crying out to save the rich, often forgotten, native history amid a land rush for more development. Preservationists are frustrated by a system that protects individual buildings only, not entire districts.

Local residents and community groups have been fighting for a heritage zone designation for Sheung Wan and Government Hill in Central in recent years. Sheung Wan is the childhood home of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China. Government Hill was the seat of the colonial administration as far back as the 1840s.

In both cases the preservationists' attempts failed under the present historic building grading system, which stipulates that the higher the rating awarded, the greater the chance the government will stop a private owner from redeveloping the building.

But the rating system does not protect an entire street or district. That is why many historic village houses within the 500-year-old walled village of Kat Hing Wai in Yuen Long have been redeveloped despite the grade-one historic status given by the Antiquities Advisory Board.

"If Hong Kong is to revamp the policy, the government should first adopt the international conservation charters, and then formulate a conservation management plan for each area that's worth protection," says Conservancy Association director Albert Lai Kwong-tak.

"Pok Fu Lam village and Government Hill can be made an example to show the world that we do respect our history."

The village contains a few historic structures that were part of the dairy farm, including an octagonal cowshed, a main office building and a two-storey Western-style house used as staff quarters. The cowshed and office building have a grade-two status under the city's heritage classification, while the house has the top grade of one.

Hong Kong's conservation policies, together with the squatter status of the village, have hindered preservation, Ng says. In the modern concept of conservation, heritage should be looked at with a holistic approach, in which both architecture and the surrounding landscape should be considered. He hopes the village will garner more attention after making the list, so Hongkongers will eventually realise the village is "something special".

Dr Lee Ho-yin, an architectural conservation expert at the University of Hong Kong, shares Ng's view. Realising that some critics say the village is not pretty, he says: "This list is not a beauty contest list. It's a warning notice."

More than one-third of the houses in the village are categorised as squatter and licensed temporary housing, which means they must stay as they were when registered in the 1980s. The remainder sit on private land and owners cannot rebuild them because, without a sewage system, the sites would not meet building regulations.

Lee says the government does not need to inject much money into the village to preserve it.

"They just need to lift the squatter status, so the villagers feel secure and they would improve the village by themselves,'' he says. "Usually when the government gets too involved, they try to attract tourists to the area, who are not helpful in preserving the village environment."

Lee says that once the villagers start improving the environment the village's hidden gems would become clearer to outsiders.

The Development Bureau said it recognises the historical value of the village and is reviewing conservation policy.

Alun Siu Kwan-lun grew up in Pok Fu Lam village and is a conservation activist. The first step to improve the village's living environment would be a sewage system, he says. After years of negotiations, the government had finally agreed to build a system for the village, and now the proposal awaits Legislative Council funding approval. There are only four public toilets in the village. "Can you imagine that?" Siu says. "Private toilets for us are a luxury and a childhood dream."

Siu moved away from the village for 10 years two decades ago "because of curiosity", but came back because he missed the culture and close relationships in the village. He lives there with his wife and three-year-old son, Burn Siu Chun-nam, who likes the fire dragon dance a lot.

As Siu walks the alleys, he is greeted by fellow villagers Hidy Tam and Leung Ming-chung.

Tam, like Siu, lives in the village because of her parents. A former real estate agent, the 54-year-old has never thought of leaving. "I've developed a strong attachment to the village, and you can't find such relationships with neighbours in high rises," she says. "I know everyone here."

Her house is one of the sturdier ones, made of bricks, but she is critical of the squatter policy which prevents owners from modifying their huts. "Some houses are made of wood. That's dangerous,'' she says. "When there's a fire, they will be destroyed in seconds."

Leung, 61, also says he has no intention of leaving the village. His brother bought a house there before the squatter registration, and he moved in two decades ago when his brother no longer wanted to live there .

Leung grew up in a squatter area in Tai Hang, and has lived in public housing in Chai Wan. "I think fate brings me to these squatter areas," the construction worker says.

Siu says the village does not deserve its squatter status, and hopes the government will lift it one day. "There is a house where a family has lived for seven generations, but the land it is on is classified as government land. How is that possible?" he asks. "The family was there before the British came into Hong Kong."

He says the ownership of 65 per cent of private land in the village was confusing and very often even the families living in the houses did not know who actually owned them because of a lack of proper records.

Siu says the residents want the entire area to be zoned for village use, so the village can't be changed much in the future. "We don't want any big changes," he says. "Just let us improve what we think is necessary."

Additional reporting by Olga Wong