War of words over damage at rare century-old Hong Kong fortified compound

Yuen Chit-chi, owner of Yuen’s Mansion in Mui Wo, says decade of drainage work nearby has left house sinking on a tilt, with cracked walls and fallen masonry

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 August, 2018, 4:34pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 August, 2018, 11:02pm

A nearly century-old estate in the coastal town of Mui Wo has sustained life-threatening damage because of work by the Hong Kong government, its owner has alleged.

Yuen Chit-chi, owner of Yuen’s Mansion in the sleepy town on Lantau Island, complained that a decade of drainage work near the historic site had left it sinking on a tilt, with cracked walls and stone blocks fallen off.

The 68-year-old accused the government, which did the work, of not protecting the compound’s fragile old buildings from the construction, and shifting responsibility for the costly conservation to him.

But in a reply to the Post, the Drainage Services Department denied harming the buildings, saying the cracks existed before the work started, and the cause of the other damage was unknown. Officials from the antiquities office also said they believed there was no “insurmountable impact”.

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The compound, a fortified estate of a kind rarely found in Hong Kong, was built between the 1920s and 1940s. It includes six grade two historic buildings. That grading means they are of “special merit” and “efforts should be made to selectively preserve” them.

The six buildings, constructed with solid granite blocks, include the main house, two watchtowers, two ancillary houses and a barn.

“The government should be the one preserving heritage buildings,” Yuen said. “We are sincere in trying to conserve our old house, but the government not only doesn’t want to help us, it further damages the historic site.”

Unlike declared monuments, graded historic sites are not legally protected, meaning private owners can sell or redevelop them to make a profit in the city, the world’s most expensive property market.

But Yuen said he wanted to preserve the estate, built by his grandfather Yuen Wah-chiu, a high-ranking officer who served in the army of the Kuomintang, or the Chinese Nationalist Party, as well as being a guerilla fighter against the Japanese in the late 1930s.

He said government work had prevented him from doing so.

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According to written exchanges between Yuen’s family and the Drainage Services Department seen by the Post, a series of extensive drainage works have been going on since 2008 around the estate, which sits right beside Mui Wo’s River Silver. The works, such as installing underground pipes and extending the river wall, required excavation and piling reinforcement sheets into the ground.

Some construction sites were very close to the estate, with heavy vehicles and machinery working nearby.

The estate is visibly sunken, compared with the surrounding paths, and slanting slightly to one side, with cracks on the walls. Some stone blocks have fallen off.

“It seems quite certain that the cracks on the old building are caused by differential settlement [sinking to one side] in the old building’s foundations,” Lee Ho-yin, who heads the University of Hong Kong’s division of architectural conservation programmes, said after looking at photos of the site.

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He said the sinking was probably caused by the excavation for the drainage works nearby.

“When cracks appear, the situation has reached a very serious level,” he said. “Historic buildings are not made of concrete and steel. They are very fragile to begin with.”

Lee said there needed to be sufficient impact assessment and protection measures before any construction could start around heritage sites.

An environmental impact assessment report on the drainage project, approved by the government in 2008, said there “may be minor vibration impact” on the compound, but “there would be no adverse visual or aesthetic impacts” as the estate was screened by trees and walls.

Lee, however, said the report appeared to have underestimated the potential impact.

Yuen’s son, Kevin, said the family sought help from the Antiquities and Monuments Office, but the office only told them to apply for a conservation subsidy capped at HK$2 million. It is possible to apply for the subsidy multiple times for one historic site.

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But he said what the family wanted was for the heritage and drainage officials to devise a plan together to protect the site from further damage.

The drainage works were expected to end later this year, but another phase of work could be around the corner, pending legislative approval.

“I don’t understand why the government shifts all the responsibility for conserving historic buildings to private owners, who know nothing about the technical stuff,” Kevin Yuen said.

The family hired an engineer to assess the impact of government works on the estate.

But a Drainage Services Department spokesman said site inspections indicated some cracks allegedly caused by the department existed before the works started.

He said “minor damage” was dealt to a stone gate of the compound, but it was not among the graded buildings. The department’s contractor would reinstate the gate later, he said.

He added that the cause of a stone block coming off a mansion wall remained uncertain.

The spokesman said the department had used specialist equipment called silent pilers while installing the reinforcement sheets, to minimise vibration, and that officials would talk to the owner to reach a consensus on “a practicable working method”.

An Antiquities and Monuments Office spokeswoman said there was no “insurmountable impact” on the compound from the drainage project with protection measures by the department.

She said the department conducted a detailed survey on the estate’s condition before the project and had been monitoring vibration and excavation impact.

She added the estate’s condition had “deteriorated over time”.

Despite their comments, Kevin Yuen said the department had not provided the family’s engineer information he requested, such as survey photos showing the mansion’s condition before and during the works. He urged the department to provide the information as soon as possible, instead of simply denying the effects.

Andrew Lam Siu-lo, chairman of the Antiquities Advisory Board, which advises the government on heritage matters, said if the owner could submit evidence linking the damage to government works, the board would raise the issue at a regular meeting.