Living heritage of Hong Kong

Mainland puts huge value on foreign heritage, in stark contrast to Hong Kong’s attitude to its past

Ken Borthwick says Hong Kong’s remaining architectural heritage receives neither respect from developers nor adequate protection by authorities

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 March, 2016, 1:44pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 March, 2016, 1:44pm

At a recent talk in Hong Kong, the author of a book on treaty port heritage in China described how authorities had moved three separate Western-style treaty port buildings which were in the way of road or other developments in order to conserve them. The buildings were moved intact, on rail tracks, in a highly complex engineering exercise.

The attitude to heritage in Hong Kong shown by local authorities, tycoons and other bodies remains depressingly poor

Shamian in Guangzhou is an entire island full of treaty-port-era Western buildings, most of which are beautifully restored with many featuring plaques stating their heritage grading and giving details.

In this, China can be seen to be putting a huge value on a heritage, in spite of it being a foreign one. By contrast, the attitude to heritage in Hong Kong shown by local authorities, tycoons and other bodies that should know better remains depressingly poor.

Now the government has unveiled a proposal to re-erect the Queen’s Pier structure (whose demolition sparked a community outcry in 2008) not in front of City Hall where it belongs and would have meaning, but at the waterfront between piers 9 and 10. (The pier also had history there, having welcomed UK royalty and colonial governors). The waterfront location would be devoid of meaning and history, and its incongruity would hardly be mitigated by simplistic and expensive modification options at the piers.

Recently, the company owning the historic 1887 Grade 1 residence at 23 Coombe Road, built for the notable John Joseph Francis, has been outrageously pursuing a land swap for their charming historic building. The site in question is valuable green belt land overlooking Aberdeen Country Park. This indicates they are neither content with the handsome rent they would receive for the property from heritage-loving tenants, nor concerned with contributing to the preservation of Hong Kong’s heritage.

We have also recently seen the Tung Wah group proposing an 18-storey hostel beside Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road. The tower would dominate the temple, destroying its setting and appearance, as well as possibly endangering its fabric. Such a proposal is extremely disheartening.

Architectural heritage provides a tangible expression of our past and our identity

As time passes, Hong Kong’s dwindling heritage will doubtless become more cherished, certainly by an aware civil society, if not by others who should know better. Besides its visual attributes, our architectural heritage provides a tangible expression of our past and our identity. It is imperative to improve the safeguards to our heritage by all means, including better statutory protection.

Ken Borthwick has worked, advised or written on heritage conservation in Hong Kong, Norway and the UK