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Living heritage of Hong Kong

Row over heritage conservation method of remains of old Hong Kong homes in Central

Urban Renewal Authority wants to dismantle 137-year-old Central structures and reassemble them on the same site

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 October, 2016, 12:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 October, 2016, 2:55pm

The proposed dismantling and ­reassembling of the remains of Central buildings more than a century old without proper ­assessment has come under fire.

The remains, sandwiched between Cochrane Street and Gutzlaff Street near the Mid-Levels escalator, are said to be those of 10 tenement houses, or tong lau, which were built in 1879. The Urban Renewal Authority wants to dismantle the structures, which are 34 metres long and four metres high, and reassemble them with salvaged bricks on the original site but in a smaller area.

The site is being redeveloped into an open space and walking area as part of a URA plan, which was unveiled in 2007, for ­surrounding residential and commercial use.

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“We cannot accept their so-called method of conservation. Such a significant relic site has to be kept intact as it is,” Central and Western Concern Group convenor Katty Law Ngar-ning said.

Law, along with Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan and architectural and surveying sector lawmaker Edward Yiu Chung-yim, said the URA had made a hasty decision based on a preliminary assessment, without even entering the site.

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

URA executive director Michael Ma Chiu-tsee said the best way to protect the remains was to dismantle and reassemble them.

“Everyone knows safety should always be the first priority. It’s not an archaeological site, and has yet to be declared a monument. We all believe that it should be protected, but the methods just might be different,” he said.

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The 137-year-old remains are currently being assessed for grading by the Antiquities Advisory Board.

Dr Lee Ho-yin, an associate professor in architectural conservation at the University of Hong Kong, said: “Retaining walls are an inherent safety concern in Hong Kong, there’s always a danger of them collapsing, and that means safety has to be ascertained above all else.”

Lee added that other common methods of reinforcing the current wall without dismantling it would require covering it with concrete, which would defeat the purpose of retaining its heritage value.

The Civil Engineering and Development Department did not respond to inquiries by the South China Morning Post on the condition and safety of the retaining wall by press time.

The URA added that it was waiting for the Lands Department to approve its application to enter the site so it could conduct a thorough assessment on the safety of the slope by collecting soil samples.

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

The back-to-back construction method was used to make the most out of limited land in the 19th century, but often led to poor ventilation and sanitary conditions. After 1903, laws required open space and a sanitary lane to be built in between buildings.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, tenement houses in the city were mostly torn down as they were dilapidated.