Victoria Harbour has been snubbed as a potential Unesco World Heritage site by Hong Kong government officials, who instead favour the nomination of the Chi Lin nunnery in Diamond Hill rebuilt in 1998.
The rejection came despite the harbour being the top choice of three independent experts drafted in by the government because of their knowledge of the evaluation process.
Just last week, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying confirmed the creation of a new Harbour Authority in his maiden policy address. Antiquities Advisory Board members expressed their concerns over the harbour's rejection, with one describing the process as "a fiasco".
The experts - all of whom have spoken to the Post but who prefer not to be identified - said officials from the Development Bureau and the Antiquities and Monuments Office seemed "focused on the nunnery".
They said the officials also failed to give them a proper explanation of why the harbour would not be considered.
The experts argued that the harbour fulfilled the majority of Unesco's criteria and that a compelling case for World Heritage site status could be made.
They also said the status would not mean a halt to development as the city already had laws and bodies in place to manage the future of the harbour.
Meetings with the heritage experts - one based in Hong Kong, one in Asia and one an international consultant - began in the second half of 2010 after the Commissioner for Heritage's Office, the Development Bureau and the Antiquities and Monuments Office set up an ad hoc committee.
They were asked about the requirements for World Heritage status and the nomination process. According to Unesco, each government is responsible for nominating sites in their country from a tentative list.
Of the six criteria spelled out in the guidelines of the World Heritage convention for cultural heritage sites, the harbour appears to meet several. Meeting one of them is enough to qualify.
The experts agreed that, given its important role in global maritime trade and its evolution over the past 150 years, the harbour would certainly meet the fourth criterion - being "an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates … significant stages in human history".
One expert said: "Given Hong Kong's iconic place in the development of global sea commerce during the 19th and 20th centuries, the inscription of the harbour and its evolving transformation through innovative engineering during this period is a cultural expression which may well deserve recognition on the World Heritage List."
Another expert said: "The government was very keen to have the Chi Lin nunnery, but they were open to other ideas too.''
The Chi Lin Nunnery was founded in 1934 but rebuilt in 1998 in the Tang dynasty style.
It is unclear whether the nunnery's application came from the nunnery itself or from the government. The Development Bureau, the Antiquities and Monuments Office and the nunnery did not reply to questions posed by the Post.
Unesco guidelines stipulate that sites on the world heritage list must have clearly defined boundaries, a so-called buffer zone that protects the site itself and have adequate management in place to maintain the status of the site. Another heritage expert involved in the meetings - and who supported the harbour's application - said the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance and the urban design guidelines from the Planning Department would offer sufficient safeguards.
One of the experts, an international heritage consultant, expressed "great concerns" to various government officials when asked to comment on a possible application for the nunnery.
"I did not recommend the site to be on the potential list because I thought it did not meet the requirement of authenticity," said the expert.
Tim Ko Tim-keung, a member of the Antiquities Advisory Board, was vocal in his opposition to the nunnery's application, calling it a "fiasco".
He said: "It has nothing to do with the historical developments of Hong Kong at all.
"During my two years at the board, there has been no mention of the nomination of a World Heritage site at all."
Bernard Chan, a former Executive Council member and until recently chairman of the Antiquities Advisory Board, said the controversy about Chi Lin was not to do with how old the site was, but whether people were asked their opinion.
The three heritage experts believed the biggest chance of the harbour one day making it onto the World Heritage List and flying Hong Kong's flag would be if it was considered a living and constantly changing organism.
"It does not mean the site is frozen in time," said one expert, who said there must have been misconceptions and "unfounded fears" from government officials about an outside organisation monitoring the harbour's development.
"If the key feature of the site is a monument, then it would be more restrictive.
"In the case of Victoria Harbour, we are talking about the ridgeline, the waterfront and the harbour itself. They are already constantly evolving."
Public views on harbour vs nunnery heritage debate
Elaine Li Qiling, 26, tourist from Guangzhou, ticket officer at an airport counter
I don't think it can be named a cultural heritage site. All the surrounding buildings are modern, unlike those in the port of Shanghai that can reflect the "old Shanghai". It lacks some cultural features here.
David Webb, 35, businessman from Britain
It's beautiful … I support it to be a Unesco cultural heritage site. It's formed naturally and although it doesn't look natural at the moment, making it a heritage site can make the government take more effort to preserve it.
Peter Lo Kin-fan, 40s, designer
I prefer the Victoria Harbour rather than the Chi Lin Nunnery. Victoria Harbour has witnessed the change of Hong Kong for over 100 years and it is famous. Meanwhile, the distance between the two sides of the harbours has become narrower and narrower because of reclamation works. Making it a cultural heritage site can help to maintain the shoreline.
Sammy Tam Ka-leung, 47, engineer
I support Victoria Harbour being named a cultural heritage site, as it represents the whole of Hong Kong and is a landmark in the city. The Chi Lin Nunnery is just one of the places representing the religion of Buddhism.
Teresa Sze To Chung-ling, 20, flight attendant
I think it is already too late to make it a cultural heritage site. Victoria Harbour has been overexploited already. Many buildings in the surrounding area have been demolished and reclamation work has taken place. I think it is more worthwhile to preserve the Chi Lin Nunnery.
Leon Wong Siu-wah, 57, physiotherapist
I do not object to the suggestion of making it a cultural heritage site, as it is the lifeline and characteristic of Hong Kong, and I am against reclamation work here. I have not heard about the Chi Lin Nunnery. I have been living in Australia for the past 20 years.