A better approach is needed to protect city’s heritage buildings

Under the current system, officials can only react passively when problems arise with the near-demolition of the Red House the latest case in point

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 February, 2017, 2:28am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 February, 2017, 2:28am

Heritage buildings in Hong Kong are sorely in need of better protection. The insatiable appetite for new development has left the city with few buildings of historic value. Adding to the problem is a half-hearted conservation regime that gives them nothing more than nominal recognition. The near-demolition of the Red House is the latest case in point. The century-old two-storey villa in Tuen Mun is believed to have been a secret base for China’s 1911 revolution, in which the Qing dynasty was overthrown under the leadership of Dr Sun Yat-sen. Despite having been given a grade one status in 2009, the highest in the three-tier system, the site was being pulled down by the owner for redevelopment. Work only came to a halt when the government stepped in. Sadly, the brick wall surrounding the villa already had been destroyed.

Hong Kong officials in talks with owners of historic Red House amid demolition fears

This is not the first time that intervention came only after heritage buildings were damaged. Development minister Eric Ma Siu-cheung said talks with the landlord were under way, adding that the site could be upgraded to a proposed monument if necessary to save it from the wrecking ball.

The problem owes much to the conservation mechanism. Currently, only declared monuments are protected by law. The rest are classified under a three-tier system, depending on their value. But the grading falls short of giving them any statutory protection. The existing 1,444 graded buildings and structures are still subject to the threat of demolition if their owners so wish. In the case of the Red House, the building was apparently left in a dilapidated condition before the demolition started. Even if it was upgraded to a proposed monument, it would only get a temporary reprieve from destruction for a year. Ultimately, it will depend on whether an agreement, usually involving compensation, can be reached with the owner.

That the city is left with little to show for its rich history and heritage is lamentable. Unless there is a will to revamp the existing mechanism, officials can only react passively when problems arise. The next government should take a fresh look at the current system and come up with a better approach to conservation.