The demolition of century-old village houses featured in a government brochure on a heritage trail says much about Hong Kong's approach to preserving its past. They were rare examples of row houses, a threatened species under the New Territories' small-house policy. The eight buildings had been inexplicably ignored during an identification and grading process for worthy structures, so there was nothing preventing the owners from demolishing them to make way for more of the region's ubiquitous three-storey houses. Their sad loss has to be the impetus for a strategy rethink.
How authorities had not determined the houses in 300-year-old Wing Ning village on the Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail in Fanling worthy of preservation is a mystery. Nor were they aware the buildings, or part of the village's equally historic wall, were being pulled down. Even if the government had known and the structures been recognised as worth keeping, the chances of them being saved were likely to have been slim. Only the topmost grading of monument status - afforded 101 sites in our city - would have made their destruction illegal.
Another 909 buildings and places, given heritage gradings from 1 to 3, exist only with the good will of their owners. The number is shrinking, with development and the right to make income often being a more powerful pull than the desire to keep the past for present and future generations to enjoy. Those same reasons are why the row houses were demolished, although their being overlooked by the Antiquities Advisory Board raises questions about what other historic gems and items of collective memory have been missed. The matter also underscores how the small-house policy, which gives indigenous New Territories males over the age of 18 the right to build a house on land near their ancestral home, is contributing to obliterating our history.
With land limited, the small-house policy is obviously not sustainable. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying needs to make reviewing it a priority. But he also has to give careful consideration to heritage. Preservation is being dealt with on a case-by-case basis rather than being determined by a clear-cut, firm approach. There is even greater uncertainty now that Leung wants to move heritage matters from the development bureau to his planned culture bureau, if and when it is given legislative approval.
Hong Kong once measured quality of life purely in economic and material terms, but there is now an awareness - especially among younger generations - of the importance of conservation. There is a need to know and understand the past and a longing to identify and preserve. We need policies on heritage that nourish those expectations. Leung can help lead the way.