SCMP Monday, April 16, 2001

Concrete blots on our urban landscape


They were some of the most attractive sights in Hong Kong. But now they survive only in old photographs. Classic buildings in old neighbourhoods have been razed to the ground as a result of the thirst for huge profits from property development.
Places such as the grand Lee Theatre, which once graced Causeway Bay, Mongkok's bustling Yuen Po Street (known as Bird Street) or nostalgic Li Chit Street in Wan Chai had all once brimmed with character but are now just distant memories.
In most cases, such historic sites have had to make way for unremarkable, box-like concrete structures holding shopping and office complexes.
It took the financial crisis of 1997, which smashed the property market after the handover, to slow down the relentless encroachment of these characterless glass-walled blocks into the old districts.
Now, the hopes of campaigners seeking to preserve Hong Kong's urban heritage have been given a boost with the prospect of the Urban Renewal Authority being set up later this year. The authority will replace the 13-year-old Land Development Corporation.
The corporation was often shackled by legislation that did not give it sufficient power to do its job, but the Urban Renewal Authority will be empowered to identify and preserve pieces of architecture with historical interest and to protect an old district's characteristics.
Preserving old Hong Kong has never been a fashionable cause. Long debates in the legislature on urban-renewal policy have tended to focus on compensating people evicted from their premises rather than on saving old buildings.
Urban Watch chairman Wong Wah-sang, whose group campaigns for improvement of urban areas, said: "It is only natural, because people will go out to protest if their homes are torn down, and political parties are more than happy to help them in order to canvass support. But old buildings do not make any noise. They just keep very quiet, waiting to be demolished."
The Planning and Lands Bureau declined to discuss urban-heritage preservation. A spokeswoman said the new Urban Renewal Authority would work out its own ways of operating after it was set up.
The expanded role of the new authority has won a cautious welcome from Hong Kong Institute of Planners president, Andrew Lam Siu-lo. He said there was no point in discussing the preservation of old architecture unless there was a comprehensive government policy to determine what should be considered a heritage site and how such buildings should be used once a preservation order had been served.
In a city that treasures the brand new and thrives on modernity, conservation or restoration of crumbling heritage is usually viewed as the antithesis of social progress. Hong Kong's approach to heritage has produced "piecemeal" efforts which have transformed some historical buildings into museums and exhibition halls. Examples are the Sam Tung Uk Museum in Tsuen Wan, the Law Uk Folk Museum in Chai Wan, and the Flagstaff House Museum of Teaware in Central.
But more often, according to planners and architects, this "piecemeal approach" has produced "absurd" results. When the Land Development Corporation decided to flatten Li Chit Street in Wan Chai 10 years ago, it attempted to "preserve the tradition" by building a fake facade of traditional houses in an open area where several such buildings had previously stood.
Bird Street, once a busy market selling pet birds in a Mongkok back alley, has now been relocated and is part of a small garden next to the rail route in Prince Edward.
In Sheung Wan, an artificial landscaped garden is now in place in the Grand Millennium Plaza. The area used to have several traditional Chinese houses and an unusual stone-paved back alley.
Further west, the old Western Market was kept with its interior intact but transformed into a shopping centre. It was supposed to be developed as a tourist spot but has been left to stand alone under the shadows of the neighbouring high-rises.
"It is not preservation. You won't feel the past when you walk in Li Chit Street now. It is more like seeing those fake things in Chinatowns overseas. If our Urban Renewal Authority continues adopting this approach, we are in a hopeless situation," said Edwin Chan Hon-wan, an associate professor in the Polytechnic University's Department of Building and Real Estate.
Mr Chan once worked in London, where suitable old buildings are preserved and put to new uses. "London preserves the exteriors of the old houses but turns them into bars, museums or banks. Walking along some streets, you feel you are in the Victorian era."
Architect Michael Chiang Hong-man shared Mr Chan's views and proposed a "transfer of development rights" approach under which the Government would allow a developer to build high-rises elsewhere in exchange for its co-operation in preserving heritage.
"Conservationists are too often labelled as being against social progress. We are not. We would not stop developers from making money. But if we can keep a heritage site by letting them build flats in a neighbouring area, I believe it is a win-win situation."
He referred to the old land-exchange entitlements scheme, which has now been scrapped. This scheme dates back to the 1960s, when the colonial Government began developing the New Territories. Owners of land needed for development would, in lieu of compensation, be promised a future grant to build elsewhere in the New Territories.
"Preservation, of course, costs money. But there are invisible profits in it, too," Mr Chiang said. "When you walk in London and Paris, you feel as though you are walking in the past. That is also why they can attract so many tourists.
"Very often, preservation in Hong Kong means turning an old block into a museum. And that is all. And it is not uncommon for us to have a museum buried by high-rises in the surrounding area. The Sam Tung Uk Museum, for example, is not easily accessible, and it is not in line with the general atmosphere of its surroundings."
But Mr Lam of the Institute of Planners has reservations about "transferring development rights". He said many of the urban-heritage sites were on government land and the Government would have to take the lead to promote preservation.
Mr Lam called for more public education. "There are many views expressed by different groups on how urban renewal should be done, but we do not seem to have formed a consensus," he said.
As large numbers of new but similar buildings increasingly dominate the urban scene and as the same chain stores, chain restaurants and chain supermarkets line the city streets and shopping centres, the few remaining old neighbourhoods become more valuable. They are all urban treasures, each different but suffering from neglect.
The issue of urban-heritage preservation has to be addressed seriously by the new Urban Renewal Authority. Urban renewal is more than evicting residents from their old homes, flattening the area and building skyscrapers or shopping centres instead.
Ng Kang-chung ( ) is a staff writer for the Post's editorial pages.