Heritage experts have criticised the government's passive approach to conservation after it was found that a graded historic villa owned by New Territories strongman Lau Wong-fat has been left to rot.
Yu Yuen - which was rated a Grade I historic building in 2002 because of its unique architecture and symmetrical shape - has fallen into ruin. Instead of ordering its owner to repair and restore the building, the Antiquities Advisory Board downgraded it last May.
The European-style villa was built by businessmen Tsoi Po-tin in 1934 in Tung Tau Wai. Lau, leader of powerful rural affairs body the Heung Yee Kuk, bought the building through a company called Profit Rich Industrial with four partners for HK$12.5 million in 1991. They submitted an application to build village houses on the site in 2002.
The Antiquities and Monuments Office, after receiving the application, found the building to be worthy of preservation. It declared Yu Yuen a Grade I historic site and praised it as 'a rare example of Western classical architecture in rural village settings'.
A Grade I historic site has the potential to become a declared monument and the owner should make every effort to preserve it, so the plan to build village houses was blocked.
After the government's decision, Profit Rich Industrial simply left the building to decay.
It was downgraded to Grade II last May because of its poor condition. A Grade II building requires only 'selective preservation' and much greater modifications are allowed.
Heritage advisers questioned the decision and said the case highlighted the shortcomings of the government's passive conservation policy.
Peter Lee Siu-man, campaign manager of the Conservancy Association, said a site's poor condition should not be used as a reason to downgrade it.
'If a lack of maintenance [is the measure], I guess many historic sites in Hong Kong would have to be downgraded,' Lee said.
He said the authorities should instead order the owner to improve maintenance of the site.
Antiquities Advisory Board member Ng Cho-nam said the case was a typical example of how little power the board has to protect privately owned heritage.
'The grading only prevents [owners] from redeveloping for a time. It does little to ensure proper conservation,' he said. 'It depends on the owner. It's just a matter of whether they want to do it or not.'
Another member, Lee Ho-yin, described the current conservation policy as 'very limited'.
He said the government does offer maintenance subsidies as an incentive to encourage owners to protect buildings, but 'for owners like Lau Wong-fat, a HK$1 million repair subsidy has little appeal'.
Lau said Yu Yuen was 'company business' and had not been discussed. When told of its dilapidated condition, he said he had not yet visited the site.
'We just left it empty ... thank you for reminding me,' Lau said, but he refused to be drawn on whether he had any restoration plan for the villa.