Preserving Heritage

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I guess heritage preservation must be the same. What one person may see as a useless derelict old building, better knocked down with something modern and useful erected to take its place, another may see as a priceless reminder of the community’s past to be preserved almost without regard to cost. And is it just the buildings, or does heritage include the activities in and around them? To what extent is an individual’s opinion affected by personal history with the area in question. And who is to be the ultimate arbiter?

What triggered these reflections was the announcement by the Urban Renewal Authority that it had developed a plan to implement major changes in the vicinity of the Mongkok Flower Market. Some buildings would be demolished, others restored and preserved. Some new public facilities, including a water feature, would be constructed but others would be demolished to make way. The plan was the subject of a lively discussion on a recent RTHK talk show.

Mention of the word “market” naturally brings to mind proposals to maintain those in Western, Central and Yaumati among others. The old Western market building is attractive and the fabric has been well preserved. Some products are still on sale, though it is also used for general community purposes. I have seen senior citizens taking dancing lessons there, for example. The old Central market is rather plain and seems to have been retained for age reasons rather than any particularly beautiful features. Incredibly, the old Yaumati fruit market, whose main claim to fame is surely as a centre for drug trafficking and distribution protected by corrupt officials, also lives on with plans for conversion to social purposes. I hope there will at least be a plaque on the wall to mark its historic function.

The most beautiful building I ever remember seeing here was the old GPO which used to stand at the junction of Pedder Street and Connaught Road Central. Such a location made the site very valuable and the potential revenue for public coffers was just too tempting. So the land was sold and the 1911 structure demolished in 1977. A nondescript commercial building, World-Wide House, now stands there in its place. The post office was relocated to a bland modern building near the waterfront, but that too is now under threat. Incredibly it too now has its supporters on heritage grounds.

This fundamental clash of priorities – the desire to demolish dilapidated structures on the one hand, the need to preserve buildings, sites and structures of historical, cultural or architectural interest on the other – is inherent in every urban renewal project. The question each time is which way the verdict should go in an individual case.

Inevitably the URA has been caught up in controversy from time to time. Many people still mourn the loss of Lee Tung Street in Wanchai, popularly known as wedding card street, and world famous under that name. I had my own wedding invitations printed there in 1974. The 2007 demolition was definitely a cultural loss. A similar nearby project covering Mallory and Burrows streets saw the local comic industry lose its home and several historic buildings demolished. One of them had been occupied by a street sleepers shelter relocated to Kennedy Street, its loss perhaps closer to a cultural gain. A pleasant, but somewhat antiseptic, shopping and dining area now occupies the site.

Another way of preserving heritage is by taking commercial considerations completely out of the equation. I am thinking here of the Tai Kwun project on the site of the old Central Police Station. The work is being funded and supervised by the Jockey Club. The result has been development of a thriving area in carefully restored historic buildings. The outcome has resonance with me: in the early days of the ICAC we had no cells of our own and often took prisoners to the police station for them to be bailed out.

I am less impressed with the works at a different police station, the old Marine Police Headquarters in Tsimshatsui. The project was tendered out to a private developer and the commercial influence is more marked. Now known as 1881 Heritage, though the original building was completed in 1884, the buildings have been restored well enough but the rest of the site has largely been concreted over, albeit with an attractive fountain. But I may be prejudiced: my first boss in the ICAC was a police superintendent and a fine upright man who shot himself with his service revolver on the balcony there one evening after returning to police service.

All of which is by way of introduction to the Flower Market scheme. Because of the radio discussion I decided to visit the site in the company of an experienced guide to see for myself what the project entailed. After I returned I learned that on his Facebook page former chief executive Leung Chun-ying had recommended members of the URA do the same. I agree with his caution. The market has developed organically and naturally over many decades. It flourishes in its present location and with its existing mode of operation. It is hugely popular with Hongkongers and visitors alike. At most it might benefit from some minor tweaking, but the scale of demolition and building works proposed is major. Plants are very sensitive to construction dust. I fear we may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In 10 years time (project estimated to take until 2035 to complete) we could end up with a pristine market where nobody goes.

Time for second thoughts.