Living heritage of Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s historic Blue House wins Unesco’s highest heritage conservation award

Judges impressed by ‘truly inclusive approach to urban conservation’ at cluster of 20th century shophouse blocks, once threatened with demolition

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 November, 2017, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 November, 2017, 3:04pm

A cluster of historic tenement buildings revamped into a modern residential and community complex in Hong Kong has won a prestigious international award for heritage conservation.

The Blue House cluster – three 20th century shophouse blocks in Wan Chai – was given the Award of Excellence, the highest level in four categories, in this year’s Unesco Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.

It is the first time Hong Kong has received the highest level of achievement from Unesco, but 17 other projects in the city have also been given honourable mentions or merit prizes since the awards began in 2000.

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Sixteen projects from six countries in Asia were selected as winners from 43 submissions.

An international panel of conservation experts was impressed by the government-funded project’s “truly inclusive approach to urban conservation”.

“This unprecedented civic effort to protect marginalised local heritage in one of the world’s most high-pressure real estate markets is an inspiration for other embattled urban districts in the region and beyond,” the jury wrote in a citation.

The Blue House cluster, which was named after the main building’s distinctive colour, once faced demolition and wholesale redevelopment, but was saved after its original tenants, social workers and conservationists campaigned to preserve the building.

“Succeeding against all odds, their impassioned efforts and innovative participatory programmes have safeguarded not only the architecture, but also the living history and culture of a neighbourhood which is rooted in a formative chapter of Hong Kong’s past,” the jury said.

The cluster was one of the projects under a government scheme revitalising historic buildings launched in 2009.

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A spokesman from the Commissioner for Heritage’s Office under the Development Bureau said the award not only encouraged and recognised its heritage conservation efforts, but demonstrated that “a local level of revitalisation of government historic buildings can also be internationally recognised”.

St James' Settlement, a charity, was selected to redevelop the site with a government grant of HK$76 million.

A charity spokeswoman said the group was “deeply honoured” and “extremely surprised to get the award”.

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“The whole process was made possible through a bottom-up approach, planning and participation, focusing on the residents and their rights. This proves that a conservation approach to retain the building and its people can work and is worth encouraging despite the city’s rapid development and gentrification.”

She added the charity hoped its experience could “become a reference for others in Hong Kong that development isn’t the only option”.

After four years of refurbishment, the historic buildings were turned into a multifunctional complex, which includes 20 residential flats, a community service centre, two restaurants run by social enterprises, and a space dedicated to record and exhibit Hong Kong stories.

One of the major highlights of the project was its “Good Neighbour Scheme”, which aimed to rent out 12 flats to tenants who had their own visions about community life and were willing to contribute to the neighbourhood. The other flats were for eight tenants who lived there before the renovation.

Rental costs of the flats – between 360 sq ft and 846 sq ft in size – range from HK$11,540 to HK$30,477 a month.

Competition for the flats was fierce, with 12 families selected from more than 150 applicants.

Unesco awards were given to three other projects on the mainland, including a cathedral in Shanghai, a ceramic industry museum in Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province and a traditional village in Gansu.

Since 2000, a total of 196 projects have been recognised under Unesco’s Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. Over the years, more than 638 entries from 25 countries ranging from family homes to palace complexes have been submitted to the organisation.

The Award of Excellence is the highest recognition presented to the projects that display exceptional achievement in all criteria and have a “major catalytic impact” at the national or regional level, according to Unesco.