A happy new year to everyone, especially members of the community who share the growing interest in preserving heritage sites. The Antiquities Advisory Board, of which I am now chairman, is starting off 2009 with some changes.
One of the main changes is to the board's method of rating historic buildings - we have more than 1,400 sites to classify - as grade I, II or III, in decreasing order of importance. In the past, the rating system has been mainly for our own internal reference to guide the board when it advises the government about the heritage value of a site.
The grading system will now be directly linked to the work of the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO), which has the power to give a site monument status to protect it. This means the AMO should now automatically consider all the sites we list as grade I to be potential monuments.
As an advisory body, the board has no statutory powers, but we can now highlight sites that we believe are definitely worth preserving. We hope that this will strengthen protection for the most valuable heritage sites. (The guidelines have also been revised to highlight lower-grade sites as well, so in some circumstances we will expect the AMO to advance its scope in considering them for monument status.)
This obviously raises the question of which criteria we use for deciding how to grade a site. The central consideration is 'heritage significance', which refers to such things as architectural merit, rarity and historical importance. There was a bit of a controversy recently when the press reported that, because of this, we would not be taking 'collective memory' into account.
This is not true. Our officials have quite a strong 'collective memory' of the protests about the demolition of the Star Ferry Pier and the removal of Queen's Pier! The strength of public opinion, especially among the young, took them by surprise, and they have learned that the past is important to many Hong Kong people. Government moves slowly, but it is changing its approach on this issue (as it is with the related issue of building density).
The problem with collective memory is that it is an extremely difficult concept to define, let alone measure. I would find it very difficult as chairman to ask the board to come up with an objective decision on something that necessarily varies from one person to another, or between different age groups, for example.
However, board members have their own memories and do understand that there can be strong and maybe even unpredictable feelings about particular parts of our heritage. Community sentiment about sites will definitely be considered alongside other factors. For this reason, it is very important that members of the public continue to make their views known. It is quite possible that, in some cases, collective memory will be the deciding factor that gives a site a higher grade.
This new approach by the board, and the strengthening of its input into the AMO, is not a radical change. Activists and conservationists will continue to complain that not enough is being done to protect various sites, and some may claim that the system itself is not effective enough.
Time will tell if this is true. Conservation is far more complex than just saying we should keep something old. Nowhere in the world is it possible to keep everything the way it is. There are technical problems in restoring many old structures, and there are huge challenges in protecting buildings that have private owners. In many cases, the sites on our list may be of very limited value.
The important thing is that we identify the most important ones and we do it through a process that is widely seen to have integrity. The new system of linking grading to the AMO's work gives the board more of a voice in official decision making, and I hope that voice will be that of the community.
Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council