Heritage buildings, like collectable wine, improve in value with age. Unlike wine, however, they can be opened time and again to give pleasure to generations of people, so long as they are lovingly conserved. Saving them from the developer's hammer is therefore just the beginning of heritage preservation.
A classic Hong Kong example is the New Territories villa Yu Yuen, in Tung Tau Wai. It dates from the city's colonial past and was designed in the European style. But it was built in the 1930s by one of the colony's early Chinese property developers Tsoi Po-tin, also a leader of the Po Leung Kuk charity, as a summer retreat from Hong Kong Island for his family. It became a local attraction and was opened to the public in 1950. In time it could become a monument to Hong Kong's unique cosmopolitan history.
That seemed likely as recently as 2002 after the Antiquities and Monuments Office declared Yu Yuen to be a grade I historic site and a rare example of Western classical architecture in a rural village setting. Such a site has the potential to become a declared monument and needs to be preserved. As a result, a plan to build village houses on the site by a partnership including New Territories leader Lau Wong-fat, which bought the villa in 1991, was blocked. But as this newspaper has reported there is little evidence, if any, of attempts to preserve the villa, which appears to have been left to rot.
So what has been done about it? Last May, instead of ordering the owners to repair and restore the building, the Antiquities and Monuments Office downgraded it to grade II because of its poor condition, meaning it requires only 'selective preservation' and much greater modification is allowed.
What kind of conservation policy is this? If heritage can be stripped of protection because it has been neglected it creates an incentive for owners to ignore the intention of the policy. Heritage experts have rightly condemned the decision as highlighting shortcomings in the government's approach to conservation. After all the battles that have been fought over redevelopment of heritage without proper community consultation, it seems the administration remains prone to inactivity until its hand is forced by public opinion. The case raises the question of whether the heritage preservation system works. It is a complex issue involving private property rights and whether the government, which spends taxpayers' money to acquire and safeguard declared monuments, should do so to preserve a historic site that might be declared a monument. That said, if a commitment to heritage conservation is to be taken seriously the fact that an historic site has been neglected should not be allowed to affect its status. The government should vigorously enforce protection of it.