Re­vival of the Fittest

AF­TER decades OF ne­glect And de­mo­li­tion, Hong Kong’s HER­ITAGE Ar­chi­tec­ture is En­joy­ing A long-awaited re­nais­sance. christopher de­wolf Ex­am­ines THE Adap­tive re­use OF THE city’s His­toric gems

Hong Kong Tatler - - December -

Hong Kong’s her­itage ar­chi­tec­ture is en­joy­ing a re­nais­sance with the adap­ta­tion of his­toric gems for mod­ern use

When the scaf­fold­ing re­cently came off the Hol­ly­wood road fa­cade of the old cen­tral po­lice sta­tion,

the dour build­ing seemed to have re­ceived more than a fresh coat of paint; it looked pos­i­tively youth­ful. Up­hill, ren­o­va­tion work con­tin­ues on Vic­to­ria Prison, the first per­ma­nent struc­ture erected by the Bri­tish when they ar­rived in 1841. To­gether, the build­ings are the largest sur­viv­ing clus­ter of 19th­cen­tury ar­chi­tec­ture in Hong Kong. When work is fin­ished next year, the his­toric site will be­gin the next stage of its life as a con­tem­po­rary art hub.

A few decades ago, things might not have worked out this way. Like Kowloon Sta­tion or the Gen­eral Post Of­fice, the fate of Cen­tral Po­lice Sta­tion could have been de­liv­ered by a wreck­ing ball—or per­haps, more ac­cu­rately, a cho­rus of jack­ham­mers chip­ping away at history. But the com­plex had the good luck to be de­com­mis­sioned in 2006 just as Hong Kong was un­der­go­ing a quiet revo­lu­tion in the way it thinks about her­itage.

“I’m amazed by how quickly things have changed,” says Lee Ho-yin, who runs the ar­chi­tec­tural con­ser­va­tion pro­gramme at the Univer­sity of Hong Kong. It wasn’t long ago that Hong Kong felt hope­lessly out of date when it came to her­itage. Old build­ings were knocked down with aban­don and even the hand­ful that were saved were ren­o­vated to within an inch of their lives. Th­ese days, Hongkongers seem to think dif­fer­ently. They don’t want new things on a blank can­vas. They want to take what we have and reimag­ine it for the fu­ture. But to what ex­tent has this de­sire trans­lated into real change?

“You can­not talk about the fu­ture with­out talk­ing about what we have, the legacy of what makes Hong Kong unique,” says Yutaka Yano, one of the cu­ra­tors of the Shen­zhen and Hong Kong Bi-city Bi­en­nale of Ur­ban­ism/ Ar­chi­tec­ture. This year’s bi­en­nale takes aim at the fu­ture and when it opens in Kowloon Park on De­cem­ber 11, it will in­clude ex­hibits that ex­am­ine how we treat the past, in­clud­ing a case study on the re­gen­er­a­tion of the area around Star Street in Wan Chai.

There are plenty of in­no­va­tive ex­am­ples. In Kennedy Town, de­vel­oper Vic­to­ria Allen spent a decade trans­form­ing a nine-storey

tong lau called the Tung Fat Build­ing. One rea­son it took so long is that Allen faced count­less bu­reau­cratic road­blocks. She wanted to re­tain as many his­toric fea­tures as pos­si­ble, such as the build­ing’s orig­i­nal name­plate and the ter­razzo rail­ings in the stair­well, while re­vamp­ing it as a mod­ern, lux­u­ri­ous res­i­dence. “I could see there was a real need in the mar­ket for some­thing more unique, an older space that had been really well ren­o­vated,” she says. “I was prob­a­bly a bit naive.”

In the end, the ef­fort paid off. The Tung Fat Build­ing has been praised for its un­apolo­get­i­cally con­tem­po­rary rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of the tong lau ty­pol­ogy, with sleek win­dows and a stream­lined aes­thetic that bring out the art moderne in­flu­ence in­her­ent in Hong Kong’s most iconic form of hous­ing. It’s the kind of twist that makes you think twice about some­thing you may have taken for granted. “We need more devel­op­ments like that,” says Goods of De­sire founder and lo­cal de­sign guru Dou­glas Young.

In Wan Chai, Comix Home Base fea­tures a sim­i­larly mod­ern rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of his­toric hous­ing. When the Ur­ban Re­newal Author­ity (URA) took pos­ses­sion of 10 cen­tury-old shop­houses on Bur­rows Street and Mal­lory Street, it was the first time the quasigov­ern­men­tal agency had tried to ren­o­vate a block of old build­ings with­out build­ing some­thing new in their place. It hired Hong Kong-based ar­chi­tec­ture firm Aedas to de­velop the de­sign. “The row of four shop­houses on Bur­rows Street were in a di­lap­i­dated sta­tus and suf­fered from past al­ter­ations, while the row of six shop­houses on Mal­lory Street were in a more in­tact and au­then­tic his­toric sta­tus,” says Ed­ward Le­ung, the project’s de­sign di­rec­tor.

Le­ung and his team de­cided to keep only the fa­cades of the Bur­rows Street shop­houses, which freed up room for a new pub­lic space in­side the block. The Mal­lory Street shop­houses were re­stored and con­verted into a hub for the city’s comics scene, with a cafe,

li­brary, gallery and meet­ing rooms. Cur­rent build­ing codes pro­hibit the use of wood as a struc­tural el­e­ment, but Le­ung was able to re­tain the shop­houses’ orig­i­nal tim­ber beams by fire­proof­ing and re­in­forc­ing them, which al­lowed him to keep the struc­ture’s dis­tinc­tive tiled roof. A sim­i­lar ap­proach was taken to pre­serve the orig­i­nal wooden stair­cases.

“It is im­por­tant that visi­tors are able to walk up the steep and dark stair­case to have a feel of the life in lo­cal shop­house dwellings back in the 1910s,” says Le­ung. By it­self, that isn’t so dif­fer­ent from a mu­seum—but in the con­text of the shop­houses’ mod­ern ad­di­tions, it’s an ap­proach that gives new rel­e­vance to the past. “Con­ser­va­tion of his­toric build­ings is not just about re­tain­ing fea­tures, but pre­sent­ing the his­tor­i­cal mes­sages and ar­chi­tec­tural wis­dom in a mean­ing­ful man­ner,” says Le­ung.

The fact that the URA—AN agency founded to fa­cil­i­tate property de­vel­op­ment, not preser­va­tion—over­saw the cre­ation of Comix Home Base shouldn’t be over­looked. Re­spon­si­ble for the much-crit­i­cised de­struc­tion of the Cen­tral street mar­ket, the URA’S foray into con­ser­va­tion is one of the ways the gov­ern­ment has ad­dressed grow­ing con­cern over Hong Kong’s her­itage. An­other is the Re­vi­tal­is­ing His­toric Build­ings Through Part­ner­ship Scheme, launched in 2008 af­ter protests against the de­mo­li­tion of the old Star Ferry pier. Since then, it has been re­spon­si­ble for many of the city’s high-pro­file con­ser­va­tion projects: PMQ, the Tai O Her­itage Ho­tel, the Sa­van­nah Col­lege of Art and De­sign, the Blue House in Wan Chai, Mei Ho House and more.

The thread that links all th­ese projects is adap­tive re­use. When the gov­ern­ment takes pos­ses­sion of an old build­ing, it in­vites pro­pos­als on how to ren­o­vate the struc­ture with a new pub­lic pur­pose. That’s how a for­mer pub­lic hous­ing es­tate be­came a youth hos­tel and cul­tural cen­tre, how a court­house be­came a de­sign school, and how an old po­lice sta­tion be­came a bou­tique ho­tel. “Right now the key thing is to demon­strate to the pub­lic that this works,” says Lee Ho-yin. “It’s the only way we can pro­duce her­itage for the fu­ture.”

The scheme has at­tracted a num­ber of high­pro­file ap­pli­cants. In 2008, the Hong Kong Her­itage Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion, led by Sino Group scion Daryl Ng, won the com­pe­ti­tion to re­store the for­mer Tai O Po­lice Sta­tion, which was built in 1902. Ng’s team con­verted the struc­ture into the Tai O Her­itage Ho­tel, which has be­come a pop­u­lar re­treat for Hongkongers and a must-see stop for week­end day-trip­pers. More than 700,000 visi­tors have passed through the ho­tel since it opened in 2012.

“Peo­ple build a sense of iden­tity through links to the past and fu­ture, and con­ser­va­tion

of her­itage can strengthen re­la­tion­ships in so­ci­ety,” says Ng. Be­yond pro­vid­ing tourists with comfy beds and af­ter­noon tea, the ho­tel funds Tai O cul­tural groups and so­cial ser­vice or­gan­i­sa­tions. In 2013, it sup­ported an oral history project that led to a play per­formed by Tai O res­i­dents. “We have a strong be­lief that con­ser­va­tion projects are only mean­ing­ful when they en­gage the com­mu­nity,” says Ng.

While the gov­ern­ment’s re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion scheme wins plau­dits from con­ser­va­tion­ists like Lee Ho-yin, it’s the one shiny tool in an oth­er­wise rusty kit. “There isn’t a clear for­mula,” says Yutaka Yano. “That says some­thing about how the gov­ern­ment and de­vel­op­ers see her­itage.” The re­sult is that for ev­ery land­mark project like the Tai O Her­itage Ho­tel, there are dozens of smaller pieces of history that face oblit­er­a­tion. Un­less a build­ing is de­clared a mon­u­ment, the her­itage-grad­ing scheme main­tained by the An­tiq­ui­ties and Mon­u­ments Of­fice (AMO) pro­vides no pro­tec­tion for his­toric build­ings against dam­age or de­mo­li­tion. The re­cent de­mo­li­tion of a beloved 1930s-era pawn shop in Wan Chai is just one ex­am­ple of how the city’s his­toric fab­ric is be­ing chipped away, bit by bit.

“Frankly, I don’t know why they bother with clas­si­fi­ca­tion at all if the property de­vel­oper usu­ally wins out in the end,” says arts writer Diana d’aren­berg Par­manand. “It’s a shame and re­gret­table to have ended up with a city stripped of so much of its history and unique ar­chi­tec­ture, sim­ply to make way for me­diocre high-rises for which max­i­mum dol­lars can be squeezed out per square inch.”

Not only does the AMO’S her­itage clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem fail to pre­vent de­mo­li­tion, its im­pact is lim­ited by the fact that it only cov­ers in­di­vid­ual build­ings. Cities like New York and Lon­don have his­toric dis­tricts where ev­ery change must be vet­ted by the gov­ern­ment. But in Hong Kong, the only way to pro­tect an en­tire street or neigh­bour­hood is for a sin­gle landowner to buy up all the prop­er­ties, as the URA has done on Shang­hai Street and Prince Ed­ward Road in Mong Kok, where two of Hong Kong’s last strips of early 20th-cen­tury shop­houses are be­ing re­stored. In She­ung Wan, pub­lic op­po­si­tion killed the URA’S plan to raze the area around Wing Lee Street, and while the neigh­bour­hood’s dis­tinc­tive clus­ter of 1950s

tong lau has been saved, there are no clear plans for its fu­ture.

“It is one thing to pre­serve and an­other to find good uses for the build­ings. An old build­ing is mean­ing­less un­less it’s in con­text,” says Dou­glas Young. That’s the crux of the mat­ter—her­itage isn’t about em­balm­ing the body, it’s about nour­ish­ing the soul. For all of Hong Kong’s re­cent suc­cesses, Young is un­spar­ing in his as­sess­ment: “I think Hong Kong could do a lot, lot more.”


cre­ative com­ple­ments From left: The Cen­tral Po­lice sta­tion at the turn of the cen­tury; the newly re­stored build­ing as seen from Hol­ly­wood Road; Comix Home Base in Wan Chai

Dou­glas Young “So many his­toric build­ings have been moth­balled. In many cities, her­itage is knit­ted into the fab­ric of so­ci­ety, but in Hong Kong it’s more like an or­na­ment. I don’t think this should be the case.”

Daryl Ng “By the time my chil­dren have grown up, Hong Kong will have an even more in­ter­est­ing ur­ban fab­ric of won­der­fully revitalised build­ings jux­ta­posed with con­tem­po­rary ones”

new lease of life Clock­wise from left: The Tai o Her­itage Ho­tel; PMQ; the Tung Fat Build­ing in Kennedy Town is a con­verted tong lau

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