Cliff Buddle
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Cliff Buddle
My Take
by Cliff Buddle

Heritage provides continuity as times change

  • The General Post Office and the colonial-style Peak Tram cars are set to be no more. While the burgundy tram carriages will be replaced, their loss and the demolition of the post office building will sadden many during this time of upheaval

Two much-loved features of Hong Kong life, familiar to residents and tourists alike, will soon be consigned to history. The General Post Office building in the heart of the city is to be demolished and the iconic colonial-style Peak Tram cars replaced with others, both in the name of progress. Their loss will sadden many, especially at a time when political upheaval has created a sense that the city is changing forever.

The post office, a landmark on the Central skyline for 45 years, is to be demolished in 2023, with operations moved to a new tower block in Kowloon Bay. Opinion on the architectural merits of the building, erected in 1976, may differ. The chunky post-war modernist design does not appeal to everyone. But it will linger long in the collective memory.

I fondly recall trips to the poste restante counter there when I first arrived in Hong Kong from London in 1994. In those seemingly simpler times, before instant messaging and social media, the arrival of a letter from home was eagerly anticipated. This was my only means of communicating with my girlfriend other than making an occasional call on the public telephone in 7-Eleven, a most unromantic setting. It must have worked though, as she later became my wife.

Hong Kong’s Peak Tram set for facelift, with classic carriages rolling into history

Hong Kong people will have their own memories of the post office. It was, when built, considered to be at the cutting edge of technological advances in the industry. The building provided much-needed space as the postal needs of the community grew.

Architects and activists are calling for it to be preserved. The plan is for the site to be redeveloped for use as upmarket offices and shops – no surprise there. Developers were required to submit their bids by last Friday. It is to be hoped the government will opt for a proposal that at least preserves some features of the post office. Incorporating it into the development plans, using part of the building as a museum or postal themed restaurant or bar, would rekindle memories and ensure the historic role of the site is not forgotten.

Thankfully, the Peak Tram, is to stay in place. But the colonial-style cars that have been ferrying passengers up the slope since 1989, are to be retired on June 28. The burgundy carriages are to be replaced as part of a HK$700 million (US$90 million) upgrade for the tram which will see it closed for six months. The new cars will carry 210 passengers instead of the current 120. The aim is to cut queuing times during busy weekends from 90 minutes to 17.

The Peak Tram - 125 years of ups and downs

The new design will, hopefully, not make the trip less romantic or deflect from the tram’s rich history. It was the first cable funicular tramway in Asia when it opened in 1888. For many years, the first two seats were reserved for the colony’s governor.

Hong Kong has an appalling record when it comes to preserving its built heritage. So little of it is left. That explains the strong public desire to keep iconic features of the city’s past, even if they lack architectural merit. The removal of Queen’s Pier sparked protests in 2007. We are still waiting for it to be returned to its rightful place in Central, as the government promised. I don’t expect to see post office or Peak Tram protests. But the city needs to do a much better job of preserving its heritage.

A famous plaque displayed on the stone arch of the old post office on the corner of Pedder Street, constructed in 1911, was moved to the current building. It bears the biblical quote: “As cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.” We are short on good news these days, whether at home or from abroad. Keeping the General Post Office building intact amid the new development – complete with the plaque – would provide a little cheer and a sense of continuity in these times of uncertainty and change.