Historical Preservation Sites in Hong Kong

(The Standard)  Ho spells out heritage policy.  By Jonathan Cheng.  January 9, 2007.

Introducing the new proposals Monday, Secretary for Home Affairs Patrick Ho Chi-ping promised to take a more sensitive approach to heritage preservation.

Historic buildings "bear witness to Hong Kong people's way of life, culture, social movements and collective experience of historical events," Ho said. He asked the public to tell the government which buildings it deemed worthy of protection, while making public for the first time an internal government list of 496 buildings that were being monitored based on their age, distinctive characteristics and ties to historical events.

None of these buildings has legal protection from demolition, Ho said, but a team of professionals was reassessing a total of 1,440 sites based on a new set of "abstract" criteria that includes collective memory, historical significance and value to society.  When they report by mid-year, the newly expanded heritage board will decide whether to give any of the buildings legal protection, Ho said.  Currently, only 80 buildings are "declared monuments," meaning that there are legal restrictions on their demolition and alteration.  

Many of the 1,440 sites being reassessed are privately owned, however, spurring fears the owners would quickly raze the sites before the professionals finish their report.

All of this is far too abstract.  Can you visualize any of the 1,440 sites (beyond just the obvious landmark buildings)?  Here is Apple Daily's sensationalistic investigation of one of those sites.  It is so sensationalistic that it appears on the front page for their 700,000+ readers to peruse:

The headline is 'Class 1 historical site is a brothel.'  You get the idea, right?

(Apple Daily)  The location is 624 Shanghai Street (inside the red frame in the photograph below).  The plot had been registered in 1901, and it is estimated that building here is at least 80 years old.  This is one of the very few remaining third-generation Chinese-style buildings in Hong Kong.  "Class 1 historical site" designation has been given to this building as well as nine other similar buildings in the same neighborhood.  In the background of the photograph, you can see the Langham Place tower in Mong Kok.

If you approach the building and look at the stairs, you will find the signage for massage services:

If you then walk up the stairs (which is monitored by closed circuit television), you will enter a very modernized motel on the first floor with artificial marble floors.  There are four small rooms, the lights are dim red and purple, and this is exactly what you expect a brothel would look like.  There is no hint of any historical value here.

A middle-aged man then asked the reporter: "What would you like?  Local girls as well as mainland girls are all for HK$360."  Then he guided the reporter to wait in one of the rooms, which is about 60 square feet in area.  There was a double bed in the room, a cabinet and a standing bathtub.  There were mirrors on the walls.  The television set at the end of the bed was running some pornographic disk.  After waiting for more than 20 minutes, no girl had shown up yet.  So the reporter made up an excuse and left.

When the reporter walked up to the second floor, he encountered a completely different world.  There was a rusty iron gate.  The reporter then walked up the steep stairs to the roof and was surprised to find three illegal housing structures amid heaps of junk.

Regardless of the designation of this building, the fact is that it is privately owned.  Thus, the owner is responsible for all maintenace expenses.  If the owners felt that an 'entertainment site' generates higher rents, then it is their prerogative to allow that (provided that the 'entertainment site' does not violate any laws).  There are no additional regulations about what the owners of a historical site may or may not do.

According to the renowned Hong Kong cultural historian Ng Ho (吳昊), it should be no surprise that the Shanghai Street historical building sites contain 'adult entertainment facilities.'  "The erotic industry is one of the oldest professions in Hong Kong.  It is a part of history, and it is a part of the collective memory of the people of Hong Kong."

The point here is that the hardware (in the sense of designating a building as a historical site) is not enough, because it only pays lip service to external appearances.  The software (or the inner content) is missing.  If anything, the net result is a perversion of the original well-meaning intent.  You cannot just stop with designating a place as a historical site and walk away thinking that you have done your duty in preserving the collective memory.  Your action would look doubly worse when the site is put into some perverse use.  That was what I was trying to communicate in Star Ferry.