Ho Tung Gardens, the interwar house and garden complex on The Peak, has been the subject of temporary protection orders, conservation proposals and ill-informed public rhetoric for more than a year. Sadly, it now seems inevitable that redevelopment will proceed. Just as inevitably, no one - the owner, the professional heritage world, or the government - emerges from this squalid tale looking good.
Public statements by Lady Clara Hotung's granddaughter, Ho Min-kwan, provide stark insights into the surreal parallel universe inhabited by Hong Kong's wealthiest citizens. Madam Ho has steadfastly maintained that she is so attached to her grandmother's old home that she wants to demolish it. Either this obvious contradiction in terms hasn't occurred to her, or no one has dared to suggest such bizarre reasoning might best be kept to herself.
Various columnists have ranted on about the threat posed to 'our' history and 'our' heritage by the redevelopment plans. However, this particular house has never been part of the public domain.
Clubs, hotels, schools and theatres - privately owned spaces which have developed significant public connections over time - can, in many senses, be considered 'ours'. But the history and heritage of Ho Tung Gardens belongs to the extended Hotung family alone. Lamentable though her intentions may be, the property belongs to Ho. Whatever its architectural merit, only she can decide what to do with it. Loudly proclaiming otherwise solves nothing and simply obscures Hong Kong's already muddy heritage debate.
Ill-researched journalism has further promulgated the urban myth that Ho Tung Gardens was the home of 'the first Chinese to be allowed to live on The Peak'. However, Sir Robert Hotung was not Chinese - he was Eurasian. According to Chinese custom, being 'Chinese' was passed down the male line. Hotung's father, C.H.M. Bosman, was a British national of Dutch descent - regardless of how his sons and their descendants have chosen to identify themselves. And he owned the property long before the Peak Reservation Ordinance was enacted, in 1904.
And as ever, local political realities must be considered. Hong Kong heritage has become such a hot issue in recent years that attempts to ensure the conservation of Ho Tung Gardens were inevitable - whatever the property's individual merits. King Yin Lei, the 1930s mansion on Stubbs Road, was deliberately vandalised in 2007 by its new owner to reduce its conservation value. The owner even had a heritage survey document that indicated what to trash. Private hooliganism inflamed public opinion, which in turn forced the government to intervene. King Yin Lei's owner therefore achieved his tactical aim - a lucrative adjacent land-swap deal for the house is being developed.
Precedents exist for a purchase by the government. When the Mormon Church tried to quietly demolish Kom Tong Hall in Central, in 2003, the consequent public outcry forced the government to negotiate a purchase agreement, and the building was converted into a museum dedicated to Sun Yat-sen. The Ho Tung Gardens saga offers striking - yet different - political parallels to 2003. It was no coincidence that the Kom Tong Hall decision occurred around the time 500,000 demonstrators made it abundantly clear - for a whole raft of reasons - they had had enough of then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa and his merry band.
But times have changed. As Hong Kong's wealth gap widens, it would be politically unacceptable to hand an already very affluent person several billion dollars in public funds. So, when the government says it's tried all it can, the redevelopment of Ho Tung Gardens will proceed and blame will be deflected onto the tycoon class. Everyone loses.
Ho Tung Gardens was built in 1927 for Lady Clara Hotung, a devout Buddhist and quiet philanthropist who endowed the Tung Lin Kok Yuen girl's school in Happy Valley.