Hong Kong’s heritage sites face continued threat despite government grading system
Activist says several sites have been destroyed or damaged over the past year; he expects this year to be worse
Hong Kong has a long and rich history as a former British colony and the gateway to mainland China, but markers of this heritage have been rapidly disappearing.
While the revitalisation of the old Tai Po police station – built by the British in 1899 as the first permanent post in the New Territories – was recognised last year by Unesco Asia-Pacific, other historical sites have been less fortunate.
“In 2016, so many heritage sites [were] destroyed,” community activist Yuen Chi-yan said. “And I think the situation [this year] will be worse than before.”
Some of the sites destroyed or damaged last year include the former detention centre on Victoria Road, the Gordon Hard barracks in Tuen Mun, a bungalow at 28 Lugard Road, Sai Lam Temple in Sha Tin and a former British military camp at Queen’s Hill, according to Yuen.
The 17,000 sq ft detention centre on Victoria Road on Hong Kong Island – formerly a clubhouse for British soldiers before it was used to jail political prisoners during the 1967 Cultural Revolution riots – will become part of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business campus in the city.
This is despite the site’s designation as a grade three historic building, the lowest level on the government’s heritage grading system.
Historical buildings are given grade one, two or three status by the Antiquities Advisory Board based on their heritage value. But this does not prevent the sites being demolished.
This system is separate from declared monument status, which currently offers legal protection to 114 sites.
Grading helps determine “the heritage value, and hence the preservation need, of historic buildings in Hong Kong,” a spokesman for the Commissioner for Heritage’s Office under the Development Bureau said.
But even buildings with grade one status, such as the Shaw Brothers Studio, are not safe.
The 600,000 sq ft site was once home to Hong Kong’s largest film production company and was the hallmark of Hong Kong cinema, Yuen said.
“In the old days, in the 1980s, we always called Hong Kong the Hollywood of the East,” he said. “But developers or the government just treat [the studio site] as a rubbish bin.”
The studio, dating back to 1961, narrowly avoided demolition last year after permission was granted to turn the site into two hostels and low-rise residential buildings in November 2014.
The problem with the grading system is that it’s an “administrative exercise” as opposed to law, according to Lee Ho-yin, professor of architectural conservation at the University of Hong Kong.
“Conservation will always be at the mercy of government funding and government policy,” Lee said. “It will never be given priority.”
The government did not prioritise conservation, and sites had been left to the mercy of property developers eager to launch large-scale, expensive developments, according to Lee.
“In Hong Kong, developers are not exactly the most friendly to conservation,” he said.
But the government says its conservation work takes a multi-pronged approach, emphasising community and collaboration.
For example, the explosives magazine compound in Admiralty – British military buildings built in the mid-1800s – was turned into the Asia Society’s Hong Kong centre, featuring art exhibitions and heritage items.
The government also launched heritage revitalisation schemes, with five batches of projects involving 19 historic buildings.
“These projects have not only brought new life to historic buildings, but also various social benefits to society,” the spokesman for the government heritage office said.
Hong Kong also launched the “Conserving Central” initiative in 2009 to preserve features of the district, including transforming the former Central Police Station Compound into a centre for heritage and art.
The executive architect for the project is Rocco Yim Sen-kee, who was recently criticised over his appointment to design the controversial Hong Kong Palace Museum.
But Hong Kong still lagged behind places such as Singapore and Guangzhou in terms of conservation, Yuen said.
The government should widen its definition of heritage to protect both graded historical sites and heritage neighbourhoods such as Sham Shui Po, he said.
The focus for conservation should be sustainable urban development to give historical sites social and particularly economic value, according to Lee.
This could be done by restricting the intensity of development in small, historic urban neighbourhoods to control developers and rapid gentrification, he said.
Heritage buildings and sites were vital to reflect the changes the city had gone through, Yuen said.
“Heritage preservation is not just about losing money or business; it also relates to our identity,” he said. “Heritage represents the character of Hong Kong.”