Hong Kong heritage policy a failure of historic proportions

The inadequacy of heritage policy is highlighted again by plight of unique grade-1 listed walled village

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 April, 2013, 10:34am

Hong Kong's unique, 500-year-old walled village of Kat Hing Wai now features a concrete ditch rather than a moat and has only about 20 old houses left - three years after being given a grade-one historic status.

The sorry state of the Yuen Long village again illustrates the need for the government to consider more forceful measures for conservation, and it follows the failure of a report on conservation policy to address the issue.

The report, carried out for the government by consultancy GHK and released on Tuesday, does suggest setting up a HK$900 million heritage trust. However, it would not be expected to buy up privately owned heritage buildings, at least in its early years.

Because the Kat Hing Wai grading - given to sites of "outstanding merits of which every effort should be made to preserve if possible" - covers only the wall, the four watchtowers, the gates and a shrine, the village inside has lost much of its atmosphere.

And some villagers would like the grading removed as it stands in the way of redevelopment.

Most of the 150 houses left in the village are modern, redeveloped in the past few decades. Only 21 of the old grey-brick houses are intact.

When the Post visited last week, one of those houses was being renovated. Workers were hammering away with little visible concern for conserving original features.

Another five old houses have collapsed, weeds growing amid the debris. Only a few of the remaining houses appear to be lived in; the others are locked up or used for storage, with a traditional rice grinder and a motorcycle seen among the items inside.

"Some fellows here want an expiry date for the grading," said village representative Tang Kwok-ki. "They are worried the wall will stand in the way when they want to build more houses."

He said the owners of the collapsed or abandoned houses had died or emigrated.

The moat that once ringed the village was filled in decades ago, leaving just one tree-lined stretch. Now, drainage work started in 2010 by the Yuen Long District Office has narrowed that to a channel barely a metre wide.

This is despite the council's promise to the Conservancy Association that this last section would be restored. Tang said the drainage work was necessary as the moat had been heavily polluted, "but I do hope officials will make the moat look better and put fish back in".

The district office says, at the request of villagers, it will be doing more work on the channel in June to "beautify the surface by laying suitable tiles".

Sam Tang, who owns one of the old houses, recalled playing in the moat as a child 40 years ago. "We rowed boats and caught fish there. The water was clear and didn't smell. It was only later that people threw rubbish in it."

Tang said he would not want his property graded as he wanted to redevelop it when he had the money, as his brothers had done.

Asked why houses had not been included in the grading, the antiquities office said there had been no such suggestion during public consultation.

Anthony Siu Kwok-kin, a member of the panel that proposes gradings, said he hoped the ongoing heritage policy review would find a solution to preserving privately owned buildings. "We don't have a fund to acquire buildings. The review should … draw up criteria for this," he said.