The habit of her­itage con­ser­va­tion is spread­ing across main­land China, with his­toric dis­tricts in­creas­ingly be­ing in­te­grated into mod­ern ur­ban de­vel­op­ment. Could Hong Kong learn some­thing from the main­land?

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents - STORY STU­ART HEAVER

The habit of her­itage con­ser­va­tion is spread­ing across main­land China

Any­one vis­it­ing a Chi­nese city, with a few mo­ments to spare, can wit­ness a revo­lu­tion in the way lo­cal cul­tural her­itage is be­ing con­served and pro­tected.

It can be seen in the for­mer for­eign set­tle­ment of Gu­langyu, an is­land off the coast of Xi­a­men; in the streets of San­fang Qix­i­ang district in cen­tral Fuzhou; in Shamian is­land in Guangzhou; around the res­i­den­tial palace in Nan­jing; and even in rapidly grow­ing Pearl River Delta towns like Zhong­shan. The ev­i­dence is ap­par­ent – af­ter decades of ne­glect, ef­fort and re­sources are fi­nally be­ing in­vested in con­serv­ing China’s old build­ings, mon­u­ments and his­toric dis­tricts.

“Ten years ago, cul­tural her­itage con­ser­va­tion in China was not even on the agenda and now it’s a na­tional pri­or­ity”, says Ste­faan Poort­man, CEO of the Global Her­itage Fund (GHF), an NGO that works on built her­itage con­ser­va­tion projects around the world, in­clud­ing China.

The mo­ti­va­tion is not sen­ti­men­tal nos­tal­gia, but hard­headed eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal prag­ma­tism, driven from the top. Ac­cord­ing to state news agency Xin­hua, in April this year, Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping told a meet­ing on cul­tural pro­tec­tion in Beijing that a coun­try’s cul­tural her­itage is a pre­cious trea­sure.

“We must be sober-minded in say­ing that we are a coun­try of great cul­ture and are in a pe­riod of rapid ur­ban­i­sa­tion, so cul­tural pro­tec­tion work re­mains an ar­du­ous task,” Xi told the au­di­ence. This en­dorse­ment of the pol­icy is help­ing to cre­ate a grow­ing niche in­dus­try for ar­chi­tects, re­stor­ers, cu­ra­tors, ar­chae­ol­o­gists, crafts­men and de­sign­ers.

At the Her­itage China trade ex­hi­bi­tion and con­fer­ence held in Shang­hai in Au­gust this year, or­gan­is­ers told del­e­gates that

Shang­hai has 4,500 dif­fer­ent build­ings, ar­chi­tec­tural en­sem­bles and her­itage ar­eas, which are un­der a preser­va­tion or­der or have been clas­si­fied as his­toric. Fol­low­ing the ini­tial re­vival of the Bund in 1990s, its se­cond restora­tion is now the sub­ject of a new mega-project.

The or­gan­is­ers also say the Chi­nese Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Cul­ture Her­itage has bud­geted RMB17.5 bil­lion (HK$20.9 bil­lion) for her­itage preser­va­tion in 2017, an in­crease of RMB405 mil­lion on 2016. To­tal spend­ing on na­tional her­itage preser­va­tion is es­ti­mated at RMB80 bil­lion – in­clud­ing re­gional bud­gets but ex­clud­ing pri­vate sec­tor and NGO in­vest­ment.

Pri­vate projects that seek to cap­i­talise upon the huge ap­peal of her­itage con­ser­va­tion to cus­tomers can also be found through­out the coun­try. The new Amanyangyun by Aman lux­ury re­sort in Hangzhou is a case in point. In­cor­po­rat­ing 13 re­con­structed Ming and Qing dy­nasty vil­las, and set amid a for­est of an­cient cam­phor trees, the re­sort uses lash­ings of mod­ern com­fort to rein­vig­o­rate these his­tor­i­cal struc­tures, in­tro­duc­ing them to a whole new au­di­ence.

In­cred­i­bly, the vil­las and even the cam­phor for­est at Amanyangyun were orig­i­nally lo­cated in Jiangxi prov­ince, some 800km away, and were ear­marked to be de­stroyed dur­ing the con­struc­tion of Liao­fang reser­voir in 2002. But when Shang­hai busi­ness­man and phi­lan­thropist Ma Dadong wit­nessed the felling of the huge trees dur­ing a visit to his home prov­ince, he was shocked into ac­tion. Ma put to­gether a team of ex­perts to move the trees and dis­as­sem­ble the houses ready for re­lo­ca­tion. In 2009, Aman re­sorts be­gan a plan to in­cor­po­rate the an­cient houses into what is now the brand’s fourth Chi­nese prop­erty.


Even the very high­est voices in the coun­try have spo­ken out on the is­sue of her­itage con­ser­va­tion as a na­tional pri­or­ity. “Pres­i­dent Xi un­der­stands the im­por­tance of cul­tural her­itage for in­still­ing na­tional iden­tity and pride – the state is try­ing to use cul­tural her­itage to counter the im­pact of mass ur­ban­i­sa­tion and glob­al­i­sa­tion at a re­gional level,” says Kuang­han Li, di­rec­tor of GHF’S China Her­itage Pro­gramme.

Li ad­mits that cul­tural her­itage preser­va­tion in China is cer­tainly far from per­fect, though she in­sists it is chang­ing rapidly. In the more re­mote re­gions where GHF tend to run their projects, such as the Pingyao Court­yard Houses project in Shanxi prov­ince, she says the al­lo­ca­tion of funds is spo­radic and there is of­ten lit­tle ex­per­tise or plan­ning in place.

Pingyao is an ur­ban con­ser­va­tion project de­signed to en­sure the long-term preser­va­tion of pri­vately owned his­toric houses, in what was once re­garded as the bank­ing cap­i­tal of China. The project won the 2015 Unesco Asia-pa­cific Con­ser­va­tion Award of Merit.

But, as Li points out, “China is still a lit­tle too fixed on hard­ware and in­fra­struc­ture and not com­mu­ni­ties.” In Au­gust, the South China Morn­ing Post re­ported that

res­i­dents in the old town of Chikan in western Guang­dong prov­ince were fac­ing forcible evic­tion from their homes so a pri­vate de­vel­oper could trans­form the town into a cul­tural her­itage vis­i­tor des­ti­na­tion, com­plete with fancy bou­tique ho­tels and tea­houses.

De­spite this, in many Chi­nese towns and cities cul­tural her­itage zones have al­ready es­tab­lished them­selves as suc­cess­ful vis­i­tor at­trac­tions, cre­at­ing tourism rev­enue, gen­er­at­ing ur­ban re­newal and act­ing as a cat­a­lyst for lo­cal en­ter­prise. On a re­cent visit to the 11th cen­tury Con­fu­cian tem­ple


com­plex in the south­west­ern sec­tion of the walled city of Nan­jing, the en­tire sprawl­ing site of re­stored nar­row lanes, restau­rants and re­li­gious build­ings was packed with tourists and lo­cals. It’s a sim­i­lar scene at the award-win­ning San­fang Qiqiang (Three Lanes and Seven Al­leys) com­plex in Fuzhou. Here, ten an­cient lanes and al­leys dis­trib­uted in the South Back­street district of the city con­tain im­pec­ca­bly re­stored mer­chant’s vil­las and court­yard man­sions dat­ing back to the Ming dy­nasty, form­ing the fo­cal point of the vi­brant, pedes­tri­anised vis­i­tor zone.

“It’s not just about in­di­vid­ual old build­ings – it’s about dis­tricts, neigh­bour­hood and peo­ple’s homes – this is def­i­nitely hap­pen­ing in China,” says Poort­man, who tells us he feels the lo­cal ar­chi­tec­tural ver­nac­u­lar is be­ing pro­tected, rather than just in­di­vid­ual mon­u­ments. He re­veals that lo­cal of­fi­cials now talk about “cul­tural land­scapes” and many think the eco­nomic and so­cial ben­e­fits ex­tend well be­yond tourism.

“In China, the her­itage and cul­tural de­vel­oper has been pro­fes­sion­al­is­ing for al­most a decade – start­ing from Xin­tiandi in Shang­hai,” says award-win­ning ar­chi­tect Dr Tat Lam, ad­junct as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Chi­nese Uni­ver­sity of Hong Kong and founder of Shan­zai City, a so­cial de­vel­op­ment so­lu­tions start-up. Xin­tiandi is the 128-acre site in the heart of Shang­hai’s French Quar­ter, which was trans­formed by Hong Kong de­vel­oper Shui On Group – with ad­vice from Amer­i­can ar­chi­tect Ben­jamin T Wood – into


a his­toric en­ter­tain­ment, re­tail and res­i­den­tial area.

Other Chi­nese cities have fol­lowed Shang­hai’s lead.

“I think there is a gen­eral trend in the main­land, and even Hong Kong, that peo­ple are more will­ing to spend their money in a niche mar­ket, to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves from main­stream mid­dle class. I think it is ac­tu­ally a phe­nom­e­non of high cap­i­tal­ism,” Lam says.

He be­lieves China has gained an ex­per­tise and a suc­cess­ful model that Hong Kong has failed to ac­quire, adding that the reg­u­la­tory frame­work is less re­stric­tive than Hong Kong.

“These Chi­nese de­vel­op­ers are ex­perts in her­itage de­vel­op­ment, they are [used to] merg­ing in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ment with hous­ing and tourism. But in Hong Kong, main­stream de­vel­op­ers are more ex­pe­ri­enced in hous­ing de­vel­op­ment and shop­ping mall de­vel­op­ment – they usu­ally have no ex­pe­ri­ence of her­itage de­vel­op­ment.”


Hong Kong does not have a glow­ing track record in cul­tural her­itage preser­va­tion or much suc­cess in in­te­grat­ing it with vi­sion­ary ur­ban de­vel­op­ment to pro­vide what Lam calls a “di­verse ecosys­tem”. In­stead, my­opic Hong Kong must be the only city in Asia seek­ing to lure China’s in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated new mid­dle class on the back of se­cond-rate theme parks and ho­mogenised shop­ping malls.

An in­di­ca­tion of the size of the built her­itage in Hong Kong is given by a ter­ri­tory-wide sur­vey con­ducted by the An­tiq­ui­ties and Mon­u­ments Of­fice (AMO) be­tween 1996 and 2000, which recorded some 8,800 his­toric build­ings. Cur­rently, there are cur­rently 114 de­clared mon­u­ments in Hong Kong and 955 graded his­toric build­ings. In 2016, the gov­ern­ment an­nounced a HK$500 mil­lion Built Her­itage Con­ser­va­tion Fund (BHCF), which will pro­vide sub­si­dies for pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, com­mu­nity in­volve­ment and pub­lic­ity ac­tiv­i­ties, and aca­demic re­search. It may sound gen­er­ous but it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that the gov­ern­ment,

which owns a 52 per cent stake in the Hong Kong Dis­ney World theme park, will chip in an­other HK$5.45 bil­lion to fund ex­pan­sion of the loss-mak­ing at­trac­tion over the next few years.

“If we could talk more about the eco­nomic value of con­ser­va­tion, maybe gov­ern­ment would lis­ten more,” laments Poort­man.

If cul­tural her­itage con­ser­va­tion is ever on the po­lit­i­cal agenda in Hong Kong, it tends to be in­volved in ar­gu­ments about in­di­vid­ual build­ings and their his­toric merit, and whether they should be torn down to make way for high-rise ur­ban de­vel­op­ment or in­fra­struc­ture projects. In stark con­trast to many main­land cities, cul­tural her­itage is rarely seen as a pre­cious as­set with po­ten­tial so­cial and eco­nomic value, so it is of­ten squan­dered.

Who could es­ti­mate the eco­nomic, so­cial and fi­nan­cial value of a sen­si­tively pre­served and readapted Bruce Lee man­sion in Kowloon Tong, or the his­toric 7.8 hectare Shaw Stu­dios site in Deep Wa­ter Bay, which only nar­rowly avoided de­mo­li­tion in 2015? Ev­i­dence from the main­land in­di­cates that con­serv­ing and in­cor­po­rat­ing these types of build­ings or dis­tricts in new de­vel­op­ments can in­crease lo­cal land val­ues, trig­ger in­fra­struc­ture im­prove­ments and in­stil a sense of civic pride. While the build­ings them­selves may not rep­re­sent Ming dy­nasty ar­chi­tec­ture or the 19th cen­tury colo­nial ver­nac­u­lar, they are part of the nar­ra­tive of Hong Kong and form part of its iden­tity.

“It is about the spe­cific story and value to be un­locked,” says Lam, who thinks that de­vel­op­ment com­pa­nies should care about cul­tural her­itage be­cause they can de­velop dif­fer­ent prod­ucts by telling dif­fer­ent sto­ries. “Mon­etis­ing the con­tents and sto­ries in her­itage is a big

dif­fer­en­tia­tor and a big mar­ket,” he says. But, sadly, it seems not al­ways the case in Hong Kong.

“In Hong Kong, de­vel­op­ers are not ex­actly the most friendly to­wards con­ser­va­tion,” found­ing head of the Di­vi­sion of Ar­chi­tec­tural Con­ser­va­tion Pro­grammes at Hong Kong Uni­ver­sity, Pro­fes­sor Lee Ho-yin, told lo­cal re­porters ear­lier this year.

Of course, there are good ex­am­ples of cul­tural her­itage preser­va­tion in Hong Kong, but they tend to be iso­lated cases rather than in­te­grated de­vel­op­ments adding value and iden­tity to a ma­jor project.

New York-based ar­chi­tects Tod Wil­liams and Bil­lie Tsien em­ployed adap­tive re­use to trans­form the for­mer ex­plo­sives mag­a­zine of the old Vic­to­ria Bar­racks into the Asia So­ci­ety’s Hong Kong Cen­tre in Ad­mi­ralty. The 1.364-hectare her­itage site was opened into a cul­tural and artis­tic cen­tre in 2012.

The Hong Kong gov­ern­ment has also launched a se­ries of her­itage re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion schemes, with five batches of projects in­volv­ing 19 his­toric build­ings. Some of these in­volve adap­tive re­use – the term ap­plied to ren­o­vat­ing old build­ings for a new pur­pose. Ar­guably the best of them all is the Tai O Her­itage Ho­tel, a project on the western tip of Lan­tau Is­land un­der­taken by Sino Her­itage. This for­mer ma­rine po­lice sta­tion over­look­ing the Pearl River Es­tu­ary has been re­stored into a small bou­tique ho­tel and restau­rant. It chal­lenges the un­writ­ten rule in Hong Kong that if an old build­ing is con­served, it is des­tined to be a mu­seum or gallery with earnest but dreary con­tents. There is a small mu­seum at the Tai O Her­itage Ho­tel, but its in­flu­ence ex­tends be­yond the build­ing into the com­mu­nity. Lo­cals have been trained to op­er­ate the ho­tel and ef­forts are made to in­te­grate with the over­all vis­i­tor of­fer­ing at Tai O fish­ing vil­lage.

Not all projects in Hong Kong have been so well re­ceived. In 2003, the gov­ern­ment com­mis­sioned the for­mer Ma­rine Po­lice Head­quar­ters com­pound in Tsim Sha Tsui for restora­tion, and this im­por­tant his­toric site was ul­ti­mately ‘re­ju­ve­nated’ into 1881 Her­itage, a shop­ping cen­tre and ho­tel com­plex cre­ated by Che­ung Kong Prop­erty Hold­ings Lim­ited. Con­ser­va­tion­ists are di­vided on the mer­its of the project, which is essen­tially an out­door shop­ping mall – the of­fi­cial web­site main­tains it is where “lux­ury brands make his­tory”.

“There is def­i­nitely a com­ple­tive ad­van­tage for a city that does pro­tect its cul­tural her­itage,” says Poort­man. “To en­tice peo­ple to visit, live and work in a city we have to take a holis­tic ap­proach that ex­tends be­yond fi­nan­cial is­sues.”

With glob­al­i­sa­tion comes ho­mogeni­sa­tion, some­thing that en­sures peo­ple lose a sense of where they are and why they are there. This is the rea­son so many grass­roots her­itage pro­tec­tion groups spring up around cities, hop­ing to pro­tect built her­itage. The age of a street, build­ing or mon­u­ment and the ar­chi­tec­tural style is ir­rel­e­vant, so long as the com­mu­nity at­taches value to it and what it rep­re­sents.

As Lam points out, Shen­zhen did not even ex­ist as an ur­ban en­tity un­til the 1980s, but re­dun­dant in­dus­trial build­ings have been pre­served in the Over­seas Chi­nese Town (OCT) district in what is now a pop­u­lar pedes­tri­anised area of cafes, craft shops and de­sign stu­dios called OCT Loft.

“If we bull­doze all our old build­ings, ev­ery city will look the same. It boils down to dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion,” says Poort­man. In eco­nomic and mar­ket­ing terms, that is an im­por­tant value unto it­self.


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