In Hong Kong, debate rages over the value of old buildings

HONG KONG -- The owner of a historic villa seeks to demolish part of it and construct a dozen new houses on its valuable land. The government denies her claim. To what end, preservation?

HONG KONG -- When the owner of a historic villa called Ho Tung Gardens wanted to demolish her property's main building and construct a dozen new homes on its valuable land, the government moved to declare it a monument, freezing her right to destroy it.

The homeowner, tycoon Ho Min-kwan, wrote a letter to the South China Morning Post last week to express her dismay and disbelief toward the decision: “It was a shock to me that my plans became subject to public and legal scrutiny … I genuinely do not understand why this is happening.”

While the Hong Kong public has welcomed new government initiatives to conserve heritage buildings, debates now rage over what’s worth keeping and what’s just taking up valuable space at taxpayers’ expense — it has been reported that keeping Ho Tung Gardens could cost taxpayers $380 million.

Conservation activists rightfully demand that old, historically interesting and, ideally, beautiful buildings be saved from the wrecking ball. Yet Hong Kong’s “old” buildings aren’t that significant or architecturally distinguished, usually ranging from 50 to 100 years in age. They receive attention because they look either British colonial or traditionally Chinese, two styles that have now become so rare that the public wants to see them preserved.

But this is Hong Kong, where land is scarce and property prices consistently rank among the most outrageous among world cities — and developers wield enormous power. Difficult as it may be, the government is left to play referee, striking a balance between public demand for heritage conservation and the economic drive to build yet another 40-storey apartment building.

And officials aren’t doing that bad a job of it either. Numerous government-owned buildings, many bearing neoclassical architectural details, are currently being revamped for nonprofit uses such as schools and art centers. While some conservation activists insist on making a lot of noise, scrutinizing every detail and bemoaning the changes that these buildings undergo to accommodate their new uses, these projects are generally well-received and lauded as progressive.

The most frustrating debates arise, however, over private property that is also considered historical. Property ownership is a highly respected right in Hong Kong — but that doesn’t stop activists from showing their displeasure over redevelopment of their favorite houses around town.

The most high-profile debate is over Ho Tung Gardens, a privately owned mansion in a ritzy residential area, which has sparked seemingly endless architectural reports, opinion columns and, now, drastic government intervention. The home and gardens are designed in the so-called Chinese Renaissance style, featuring curved eaves and dramatic archways. The government has been trying to buy it at full value from the owner, who won’t budge on her plans to redevelop it and live in one of the new houses.

The government, caught between the owner’s rights and the public’s interests did the only thing it could to save it from demolition — or at least to postpone it in hopes of reaching a compromise. It submitted a proposal to declare the structure a monument, the highest grade for a historical building and the only status that can prevent the owner from destroying it.

While the owner feels that she has been unfairly stripped of her rights, conservationists say she is being unreasonably stubborn. “I just don’t know why she insists on tearing down the building and leaving nothing behind,” said Lee Ho-yin, head of the conservation program at the University of Hong Kong.

Lee, who thinks the government did the right thing, said historic buildings were routinely torn down “in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and nobody batted an eyelid. But today there is such a thing as obligation to society — your duty to society.”

Photo: Hong Kong Development Bureau

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