With the impending demolition of the Tung Tak Pawn Shop, in Wan Chai, another well-preserved prewar building is set to be lost.
Local heritage activists have attempted to conserve this interesting structure, which – remarkably – has housed the same business since around 1938.
Its distinctive curved corner design has made the pawn shop an unofficial local landmark in recent years; it is the sole surviving example of a design once commonplace in Hong Kong.
Just as a still-lucid, postcentenarian war veteran can become a celebrated, accidental media personality for having outlived most of his contemporaries, simply being the last building standing is noteworthy.
The conservation imperative for buildings such as Tung Tak lies almost entirely in their now scarce architectural features.
Among other historically significant facts, media reports have highlighted the building’s ownership by Macau’s legendary “pawn shop king” Ko Ho-ning, who acquired the business in 1947. Ko’s multifarious economic activities spread to Hong Kong and beyond in the pre-war era, and he controlled dozens of pawn shops all over south China.
So far, so unexceptional Hong Kong’s all-but-meaningless heritage grading system, combined with skyrocketing property prices, make the demolition of similar interesting-but-marginal properties almost certain.
A grade-three listing, which Tung Tak Pawn Shop has, affords a building no statutory protection. It does, however, give property owners warning that their investment will attract attention from heritage activists if they try to develop it.
To avoid media controversy, legal expense and general nuisance, many owners conclude that it is less trouble to quickly and quietly pull a building down and leave the site vacant until a redevelopment opportunity arises.
Given current property prices, and the limited economically viable reuse potential for Tung Tak Pawn Shop, a government buyout for the building was politically and practically not feasible.
Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po reportedly offered to discuss conservation plans with the owners, but they declined to meet him. Given that Chan could have had little to offer beyond pointless gesture-politics for public consumption, why would they bother?
In 2003, during the Sars crisis, the Mormon Church attempted to demolish for redevelopment Kom Tong Hall, a magnificent old mansion in Central which it owned. A public outcry at a politically sensitive time, and amid collapsed property prices, saw the building purchased by the government. It has since been converted into the Sun Yat-sen Museum.
To prevent similar scenarios, numerous old buildings – particularly in Central and Western – were rapidly demolished soon afterwards. Some sites, left vacant for several years, have only recently been redeveloped.
Well-planned, comprehensively executed trashing of extant heritage features is a widely deployed tactic when swift demolition is impossible. Ethical compromises within Hong Kong’s historical research community have played a key role within this shabby trend.
After years spent belabouring some microscopic local topic, a growing number of history and architectural conservation PhD graduates find themselves unable to obtain employment within local academia. And the few posts actually worth having – whisper it softly – tend to go to overseas candidates.
But livelihoods have to be made somewhere, and heritage consultancy reports commissioned by owners of grade-three listed buildings can be very remunerative.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong