From today, a secluded heritage site in the heart of Hong Kong will be officially open to the public for the first time in more than 170 years. Formerly the explosives magazine site of the British garrison, the military compound in Admiralty has been turned into the headquarters of the Asia Society, a non-profit US organisation seeking to promote Americans' understanding of this region. The opening ought to be welcome news to a city where most colonial structures were long ago flattened for redevelopment. Sadly, the arrangements for public access do not go far enough.
Under the plan, visitors are restricted to a new entry pavilion with a bookshop, a cafe and information centre. For further access, either they will have to join free guided tours, pay HK$30 for a gallery ticket or pay for a theatre show. Alternatively, groups can hire the venue for activities that conform to the society's missions. The group says that restrictions are needed for the sake of security and heritage conservation. Such arguments are not convincing. Experience in other projects shows wider public access has not posed problems. It raises doubts about whether the limited access is in line with the public access promised as part of the lease conditions.
The site was granted to the Asia Society without an open tender at a nominal land premium of only HK$1,000 about a decade ago. The concessions may look extraordinarily generous today, but the group deserves praise for its commitment in shouldering the entire renewal cost, now estimated at HK$390 million, when awareness of heritage conservation was still relatively low back then. This, however, does not mean the headquarters should be run like an exclusive private club. It would be better if greater public access were allowed.
The arrangement seems out of place with the consensus today of giving the public as much access as possible to enjoy our heritage buildings. A better mechanism is needed to monitor heritage sites handed over to private bodies for long-term use.