A New Territories villager who demolished a 160-year-old Hakka terrace in what has been called an act of cultural vandalism has been ordered to stop work on three new houses he has started to build on the site.
The old building - which was split into two homes, including a house featured in the design section of the Sunday Post Magazine - was reduced to rubble earlier this month.
About 10 days later, work began on the foundations of three new houses on the site, which lies in Pak Tam Chung village, just within Sai Kung Country Park.
But on Thursday, officers from the District Lands Office of Sai Kung (DLO/SK) conducted a site inspection and ordered builders to stop work.
A Lands Department spokeswoman said an application to redevelop three lots on the site, submitted by the owner, was being considered but no approval had yet been given.
"The DLO/SK has immediately issued a warning letter to the owner requiring cessation of such works and referred the case to the Buildings Department for action," she said.
Site owner Michael Wong claimed he had decided to demolish the old building because its tiled roof had been damaged by a tree blown over in Typhoon Usagi last September.
But members of the Sai Kung community and the Save Our Country Parks Alliance said the house appeared solid. One section, known as Honeysuckle Cottage, had been rented out to a family up until September.
A spokesman for pressure group Friends of Sai Kung said the demolition of the building was just another example of the "destroy first, develop later" tactic and showed how the New Territories District Lands Office had totally lost control of the small-house policy.
"This is yet another act of cultural vandalism driven by greed for profit," the spokesman said. "The owner's application for redevelopment has not been approved by the Lands Department, but he has nonetheless proceeded to destroy this beautiful old house of great heritage value, presumably in the expectation he will be granted permission by a rubber-stamp bureaucracy."
The Hakka were among the original residents of the New Territories. The terrace was believed to be 160 years old and included a central flat-roofed building that was the gateway to Pak Tam Chung village. It had undergone renovation, but included original features such as a Hakka-style tiled roof and wooden beams.
Paul Zimmerman, of non-profit organisation Designing Hong Kong, said the building's demolition highlighted a hole in the city's conservation policy.
Zimmerman, also a member of the Save Our Country Parks alliance, said questions should be asked as to why the building was not on any lists of graded buildings and what the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO) was doing to protect Hakka-built heritage in the New Territories.
"I find it alarming this building has gone. It is really quite scary that all of these properties could be wiped out in a matter of months," he said.
The AMO said the building was not protected under the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance. It said a territory-wide survey between 1996 and 2000 of 8,800 old buildings, including the one at Pak Tam Chung, found it was not one of those deemed to have higher heritage value that were selected for assessment for grading.