Concrete Analysis

City must adopt proactive policies to protect, preserve heritage buildings

Existing government system for protection of old buildings still has significant gaps that urgently need to be closed

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 March, 2017, 4:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 March, 2017, 8:01pm

There has been much in the media recently regarding the Red House, a Grade 1 villa located on farmland in Pak Kok near Tuen Mun. Ownership changed hands in November last year at HK$5 million and concerns regarding demolition were first expressed last month when some tenancies were terminated and damage inflicted to parts of the surrounding walls (not included in the grading). Since then further damage has been done to the house itself resulting in the government taking action to declare it a “proposed monument”.

Many believe the house served as a base for republican revolutionaries who overthrew the Qing dynasty in 1911 including Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of modern China. Others have doubts about the linkage with Sun himself as there appears to be no real certainty as to the date of construction of the house itself; however this does not change the fact that Red House is a Grade 1 heritage building and only adds to the challenges faced in conserving the city’s built heritage. I will come back to Red House later but believe there is first a need to explain the context within which decisions regarding built heritage conservation in Hong Kong are considered.

Historic Hong Kong Red House may have just escaped the wrecking ball

The Antiquities & Monuments Ordinance has been in effect since 1976, a time when economic growth and expansion were the drivers of the day and most, although not all, of the community supported such policies with the result that issues like heritage conservation, adequate open space, the environment and similar issues were not considered to be as important as building more infrastructure, more housing, more offices and bigger shopping centres.

To be fair, the system has improved, thanks to the various bodies involved doing much to increase their transparency

In fact the ordinance almost seems to have been written with a view to limiting what might be regarded as worthy of conservation with only a narrow definition of built heritage – historic or architectural significance. In addition, the Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB) is just that – it has no executive powers and is reliant on others within government to implement its recommendations. Various heritage policy consultations and engagements have taken place over the years but unfortunately review and upgrade of the ordinance have always been regarded as an unnecessary outcome.

Windows ripped out of Hong Kong’s historic Red House despite ongoing preservation talks

There are also issues with the current grading system in that even a Grade 1 building is not fully protected against demolition or inappropriate alteration which reduces or destroys its heritage value. Only declared monuments cannot be demolished under the law (there were 114 of these as at May 2016) and Grade 1 (which at December 2016 comprised some 172 buildings) is currently only regarded as a “pool” of possible future monuments.

Under the current policy introduced in 2007 “due regard should be given to development needs in the public interest, respect for private property rights, budgetary considerations” among other factors with the Secretary for Development acting as the Antiquities Authority (solely but with the assistance of the Commissioner for Heritage); however the Antiquities & Monuments Office (AMO) remains under the Home Affairs Bureau.

To be fair, the system has improved, thanks to the various bodies involved doing much to increase their transparency, their willingness to listen to and interact with the community and to work with other government departments in a more connected manner. There is also a range of potential incentives which Development Bureau is prepared to discuss with private owners threatening demolition or damage – from maintenance funding to outright purchase depending on circumstances. However, it is mainly reactive and when challenges like Red House arise, the system still displays significant gaps that urgently need to be closed.

Hong Kong officials in talks with owners of historic Red House amid demolition fears

One of these is a lack of detailed information and supporting evidence/provenance in regard to more than a few of our graded buildings. Again to be fair, this is not entirely the fault of any one part of the system as many government records have been destroyed, particularly during the Japanese occupation, and, in any event, there has always been a government reluctance to archive its documents, something which urgently needs to be reconsidered. While there are some alternative sources, particularly for many of our infrastructure monuments, these are not all in Hong Kong while others are held in private collections or academic institutions and not easy to track down.

At a recent international heritage conference in Hong Kong the need for full and evidenced information about those buildings regarded as having heritage value was emphasised by several of the overseas speakers and the lack of clarity with regard to the history of Red House proves their point – whilst it clearly is old and has heritage value, quite what value and whether this is of monument status is currently uncertain. However, the action taken to declare the building a “proposed monument” to prevent further damage over the next year so that discussions regarding conservation can take place with the owner is welcome although it demonstrates the need for a more proactive policy.

Margaret Brooke is chairwoman of the Heritage Hong Kong Foundation and a member of the organising committee of the International Heritage Conservation Conference