Urban planning

Structural safety to determine whether 19th century Hong Kong housing remains are preserved

Authority hires engineer to report on Central buildings site within half a year

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 March, 2017, 7:37pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 March, 2017, 10:07pm

Whether the remains of some 19th century tenement houses in Central can be preserved in situ will hinge on the structural safety of their existing brick walls, according to the Urban Renewal Authority.

Sandwiched between Cochrane Street and Gutzlaff Street, adjacent to the Mid-Levels escalator, the remains are said to be those of 10 tenement houses, or tong lau, built in 1879.

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The authority has hired an engineer from the United Kingdom to analyse the condition and structural safety of the walls to see if they are strong enough to support the slope on which the cluster is built.

The body is to submit an application to the Lands Department to take samples from the site, and a report is expected to be ready within half a year.

“It would be impossible to preserve the entire 34 metres, but we hope, if safety permits, that we can at least preserve more than half of it,” URA executive director Michael Ma Chiu-tsee said.

Some 20 metres of the structures, which measure 34 metres long and four metres high, could be preserved as they are.

It would be impossible to preserve the entire 34 metres, but we hope ... we can at least preserve more than half of it
Michael Ma Chiu-tsee, URA

The authority had earlier proposed dismantling the walls and reassembling them with salvaged bricks on the original site, but in a smaller area.

Ma initially said this was the best way to preserve the walls while complying with slope safety standards.

In September, a preliminary assessment by engineering firm AECOM, on behalf of the URA, showed the remains did not meet minimum safety requirements. The remains also serve as a retaining wall to prevent landslides.

The new conservation proposal would add two extra retaining walls to support the slope.

According to a government appraisal of the ruins, the remains comprised a densely packed back-to-back tenement house where many Chinese settlers had lived since it was built in 1879. They are located in an area formerly called City of Victoria.

The three-storey houses at the site at the time measured only four metres wide, with over 70 people living in one block, heritage expert Dr Lee Ho-yin said.

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The redeveloped area would be transformed into a “walking museum”, where people could experience how narrow the living conditions were.

A concern group welcomed the new proposal, but hoped the authority would consider preserving an extra section of the wall that it said was more intact and showcased unique features helping reflect the historical value of the remains.

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“The wall the authority has planned to make into a walkway is not only the wall’s highest section but also more intact,” Central and Western Concern Group convenor Katty Law Ngar-ning said.

One unique feature of that section of the wall was a grey-green brick corbel – a structure used to support the wooden beams of the houses.

The feature is an indicator of the buildings’ history as regulations after the 19th century only permitted the use of red bricks instead of grey-green bricks.