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Conservation vs Development

A volunteer tour guide (left) at Hong Kong House of Stories.

Wong Sau-ping remembered distinctly the day when workers arrived at the entrance of the Blue House in 2009. The Development Bureau had ordered to dismantle one of the  building’s 80-year-old timber staircase which Wong said was a collective memory of residents.


"As soon as the workers pulled apart one step [from the stairs], we would pick it up," she recalled, teetering on the verge of tears. "We carefully packaged each of them; it was our way of telling them these wooden planks are very safe."


Along with other members of neighbourhood concern groups in the Wanchai area, they were eventually able to retain three steps.

Exhibits donated by previous or present tenants of Blue House.

This is one of the many stories of her conservation efforts that Wong tells as a cultural docent at the House of Stories, a museum at the Blue House cluster which is home to some of the prized belongings that residents couldn’t take with them when the government began its revitalisation project. But the story is often told differently from the perspective of the government’s adviser.

“Around ten years ago there has already been signages warning [Blue House] residents not to step on some of the stairs, else they would fall under it. That’s why [Development Bureau] came to change all the wooden planks. Of course the people living there welcomed it. But outsiders made a big fuss about it -- saying that it is destroying a monument and not preserving it in its most original form.” said Lee Ho-yin, the director of the Architectural Conservation Programme at the University of Hong Kong.


He was one of the two professors who drafted a conservation guidelines for the adaptive re-use of the Blue House, which served as a resource paper for the government's Antiquities and Monuments Office and Commissioner for Heritage's Office.

Lee Ho-yin, director of HKU's Architectural Conservation


“It is often said in conservation terms that if a building is not one of those few declared monuments in Hong Kong, its greatest value is its functionality. It’s not an exhibit in a museum,” he said, describing “a narrow mindset stemming from an archaeological perspective” that some non-residents in the immediate area, including District Councillors, have.


Citing UNESCO guidelines on giving new life to historic cities, he thinks that conservation and development can go hand in hand, rather than counterbalance each other, and that shophouses should be readapted to today’s needs.

A prime example of this is Lui Seng Chun, a heritage shophouse in Sham Shui Po that reopened in early 2012 after a HK$29 million dollar facelift. Originally a Chinese bone-setting clinic and living quarters for the doctor’s family members, it is now a traditional Chinese medicine centre operated by the Hong Kong Baptist University, with a herbal tea shop on the ground level.


The transformation was carried out under the Development Bureau’s Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme, which accepts proposals from NGOs on the adaptive reuse of government-owned historic buildings.

Lui Seng Chun, a Grade I Historic Building at 119 Lai Chi Kok Road.

From Lee's own research, Lui Seng Chun's revitalisation was considered successful as it is able to provide social benefits as well as integration among the many traditional drug stores which has been serving an aging community in this corner of Kowloon.

Before such a scheme was launched by the government in 2008, however, it had  little idea how to repurpose historic buildings into what the community in the immediate area around it needs, according to Lee. It instead focused on the financial viability of revitalisation proposals, which sends a signals to developers to revitalise such historic buildings into commercial projects that could maximize their profits, and not necessarily economically sustainable to the community around it. The Pawn in Johnston Road, for example, drove up rent prices in its vicinity as it was a gourmet restaurant.

Communal heritage like shophouses has proved a challenge to preserve due to the lack of prompt, legal protection by the government, leaving the fate of many traditional shophouses to the hands of profit-maximizing developers who demolish them and build shiny, “modern” but often generic high rises in its place to meet today’s housing demands.


But it does not mean that all shophouses have had, or will have, the same ending. Take the one at Lee Gardens in Causeway Bay as an example. Because of a development height restriction in its lease, developers were deterred to demolish the building as they consider it more costly to redevelop the building from ground up and profit from just three to four tenants than to simply revitalise the old structure. Such regulations, as Lee suggests, is one way through which shophouses, or heritage in Hong Kong, can be conserved.

As Wong Sau-ping told us the stories of her ongoing struggles in conserving the Blue House cluster with fellow members of the community, she was often interrupted by her friends from around the neighbourhood, greeting her and updating her about their promotional campaigns for cultural events. One would even ask if she would like to have some sweet potatoes and proceeded to stuff some of it into her hand.


In one particularly instance, she was interrupted by a large “thump” behind her back. There was a teenage volunteer who was trying to move a folding table that was clamped under a flight of stairs in the building. Wong got up from her stool and proceeded helping the young man, saying “You can’t rush these things. You have to do this step by step. You’ve got plenty of time.” 

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