Conserving Hong Kong’s Heritage
Mrs Carrie Lam, Secretary for Development Bureau, was the Foundation's guest speaker on 10 December 2007. Below is the full text of her speech.
It's very nice to come back to luncheon of the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation. I think I was here almost six years ago, in my then capacity as Director of Social Welfare talking about the role of welfare in a laissez-faire economy like Hong Kong. Just now when we are at the table, because the organizer has kindly placed my former colleague in SWD next to me, we spent a couple of moments talking about social welfare. In fact it is no secret that if anybody asks me which is my most-liked job up to this date, it would be my job as the Director of Social Welfare.
Despite the recovery in economy and all these good things that we have seen happening in Hong Kong, it is a pity that we are addressing the same old problems that I was addressing when I was Director of Social Welfare: the adequacy of CSSA, the surge in domestic violence, the alienation of children from family support and so on. This is a topic that will not go away. And I do appeal to all of you, distinguished members of community, to continue to support the work of government in this respect and also to do whatever you could in your various capacities to help the disadvantaged in Hong Kong.
Today I am going to talk about a very different subject: heritage conservation. And I have to say that this is really a subject that is very new to the government. We are still learning and I in particular am going up a very sharp learning curve. Although it would be no excuse to say that I wasn't aware and involved in heritage matters, as before the re-organization from 1st July this year, heritage policy was with the Home Affairs Bureau. And as the Permanent Secretary in Home Affairs, I had the duty to also oversee this area. But to be honest, the Government has been paying a lot more attention to heritage conservation in the last year or so, partly prompted by the Star Ferry incident followed by the Queen's Pier.
As the Chief Executive said in his Policy Address, I can assure you that we are adopting a very positive attitude towards heritage conservation. We feel that the time really has come for us to treasure the sense of place, the sense of identity that this generation has developed and attached to Hong Kong's cultural history and the past so that we have a story to tell for our future generations. We are not approaching it just as with one of those many topical topics that have caught the attention of the public particularly the concern groups and in response to which we have to do something. I have to show you that we are serious about doing some good work in heritage conservation for the enjoyment of the current as well as the future generations. So when we started off to tackle this area, we thought that we need to have a clear statement upon which we could anchor our various initiatives and action plans, because there have been so many criticisms in the past that we do not have a policy on heritage conservation. Frankly personally I do not attach a lot importance to high sounding policy statements. But we know that once we come out in front of the community the various measures, then people will ask: what is the foundation and the basis of all these heritage conservation works? So we have this policy statement which has been adopted with the endorsement of the Executive Council and will from now on guide our work in heritage conservation in Hong Kong. Every word has been carefully chosen.
Our policy is to protect, conserve and revitalize as appropriate historical and heritage sites and buildings through relevant and sustainable approaches for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations. When we talk about conservation, it has to be in a sustainable fashion. It has to be in a way that can give the building a new lease of life where appropriate because it is not always the best option to just package it as an historic building. So we attach a lot of importance to choosing the right mode of conservation. It could be just mere protection as we are doing with the temples and shrines in the New Territories. But sometimes we need also to revitalize a building, to give it a new lease of life so that people will go in, and appreciate the past and at the same time find it a nice place to spend some time. And then we go on to say that implementing this policy, due regard should be given to development needs in the public interest, respect for private property rights, budgetary considerations, cross-sector collaboration and active engagement of stakeholders and the general public. So in some of the cases that I will be mentioning to you, this respect for private property rights is an important guiding principle.
Heritage Impact Assessments
I would also particularly draw your attention to the final phrase of the policy statement, and that is active engagement of stakeholders and the general public. Of all the areas that I have dealt with in my past jobs, this has always been my guiding principle - that we really want to work with the people instead of just sitting in our little office to frame up all the proposals and to have them implemented.
Let me just briefly mention to you a range of new initiatives that we have devised to take forward this heritage conservation policy. And then I will move on to some other cases which you may be interested.
First of all, we have to do things that are preventive, that help to avoid situations where we suddenly realize that what we are doing will upset or destroy a particular historical heritage that people attach a lot of importance to. From now on we are requiring all the capital works projects that go before the Legislative Council, even minor works projects within delegated authority, to go through a Heritage Impact Assessment. This is not something new. We already have TIA - Traffic Impact, then EIA - the Environmental Impact Assessment. From now on, we are also doing the HIA.
So for example, you will see that the Public Works Subcommittee paper we presented to LegCo for funding already contained a clear statement on whether the laying of water pipes or a road project will affect any heritage buildings. Not many people realize that this particular principle has already been incorporated in one of the very important works projects, that is the West Island Line. Almost two years has been spent by the railway corporation in consultation with the local district council on the alignment of the West Island Line. In fact, it has now managed to preserve two things. First is the Stone-Tree-Wall: we have re-aligned the railway in order to avoid touching those heritage sites. The other thing is while we will move the David Trench Rehabilitation Centre in order to make way for a MTR exit at Bonham Road, we are going to move it into a historic building which is an old police station on the upper part of High Street. This, itself, is an example of preservation and revitalization. Instead of just keeping the old police station disused, we are turning that into a rehabilitation centre to serve members of the public in the Central and Western Districts, including the building of a new structure because by itself, it will not be able to cope with the demand for space.
Government heritage sites
Measure number 2 is to do something about the large number of heritage buildings under Government ownership. I am afraid we didn't realize that we have in our own possession so many historic buildings that have been either declared monuments or given historical status. I would attribute this to the fact that, unlike private companies where you have to do all these balance sheet and accrual accounting, we are still operating on a cash basis. We are not as good as private corporations in managing our physical assets.
This is not something entirely new to us. The Antiquities and Monuments Office under the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, together with Architectural Services Department, have successfully preserved Kom Tong Hall (甘棠第) and turned it to Dr Sun Yat-sen Museum. But this is only once in a few years. We are now mounting a pretty ambitious scheme to revitalize more historic buildings at the same time through partnership with non-governmental organizations. We are not doing it ourselves; we want to invite innovative ideas from NGOs to make use of these historic buildings. In the past, this did not materialize because of lack of support from the government, because to do a single renovation is a very costly exercise. The Bethanie which was done by the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts required a HK$72 million grant from the HKSAR government plus the donations that they have raised themselves. This is a very expensive venture because all these buildings are pretty dilapidated. It would not be easy to renovate and refurnish them for present day use.
For this scheme, we have chosen a first batch of seven buildings. In fact, I understand some of the audience might have already eyed some of the buildings for a revitalization proposal from their organization. The batch includes two police stations: one in Tai O and one in Tai Po. It has the first public housing estate in Hong Kong in the name of Mei Ho House (美荷樓) under the Housing Authority on which some friends in the audience are doing some PR work. It also has the Lui Seng Chun (雷生春) which is a gift from the Lui Family that we have not been able to do anything about in the last few years. It also has the brilliant magistracy, the North Kowloon Magistracy.
In order to make sure that this scheme in conjunction with the NGOs will work, we have been spending a lot of time to design the details of the scheme. I attach a lot of importance to execution: whatever we say we should be able to carry out. We have designed the scheme to ensure that it will create no headaches for the NGOs interested to collaborate with us. We will provide the capital grants for the refurbishment. We will look after the maintenance of the buildings in future. We will even provide a grant for the NGOs to come and to operate on a social enterprise basis for the initial two years. Normally a social enterprise will not be able to break even on day one. So we are taking care of that.
We are also setting up a dedicated team within our bureau and group of departments to support whoever is interested in revitalizing these buildings because to subject these buildings to the current day building codes or the building regulations is almost impossible - some were built a hundred years ago. So we need a dedicated team of officers in the Buildings Department who will have that judgment and good common sense to waive as necessary some of the building requirements. We also have our team in the Architectural Services Department who has been doing all these nice renovations throughout the territory and they will assist the NGOs. We will also have in my Bureau a Commissioner for Heritage who will try to resolve all the problems that NGOs have in interactions with the government to make sure that whatever they have put in as good proposals selected by the committee will eventually be able to be implemented.
Sites in private hands
The third initiative is the most difficult area - how to provide the economic incentives to private owners to enable them to conserve historic buildings in their ownership. We have this famous King Yin Lane (景賢里) which Tanya (Chan) has helped to save. We actually have quite a few of these buildings where the owners are in active discussion with us on the potential for some economic incentives so that we could preserve them for future generations.
For those buildings in private ownership, owners might have no intention to tear them down. But they are very expensive to maintain. At the moment, we only have a financial support scheme that will make available money for private owners to upkeep their buildings when they are declared monuments. But we have very few declared monuments in Hong Kong, less than seventy. In this policy address, the CE has agreed that we could extend the financial assistance scheme to the privately-owned, graded historic buildings, that is, if they are already graded by the Antiquities and Monuments Office with the support of the AAB (Antiquities Advisory Board) as grade 1, grade 2, grade 3, they can all come forward to apply for a maintenance grant subject to certain conditions.
I can say that the Catholic Church is very pleased with this initiative because they have a number of these graded buildings in their possession. It's very difficult to get money to renovate and touch them up from time to time. In order to be
I will mention about the setting up of the Commissioner for Heritage Office in the Development Bureau. This is to provide a focal point for people both local and overseas who want to talk to this government about heritage. At the moment because the government is such a big bureaucracy and there are different parts of it, things get lost in the process. I have learned this lesson from King Yin Lane (景賢里) where the letter went astray for no good reason and we ended up with this big problem. This office is there to show commitment that this is not only ad-hoc job, this is something that we would like to push forward. And I look to our Legislative Council members to support our modest request for the creation of one AO Staff Grade C.
People have been talking about updating the legislation. We already have a quite powerful AMO, the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance, which to a certain extent is undermining or taking away private property rights. In the case of King Yin Lane, I went in to declare as a proposed monument and everything had to stop. This is a pretty draconian piece of legislation. People are advocating that it should be extended to cover not only monuments but graded buildings. To do that, we need a better database to register comprehensively the historic buildings that we have in mind. We are giving additional manpower to the Antiquities and Monuments Office with the support of the expert team comprising historians and architects from various universities to try to speed up the grading of 1,440 buildings. 496 of them have been graded. But there are still nearly a thousand buildings outstanding that need the detailed assessment of the historical significance and the architectural merits as well as the uniqueness before they gain the status of an historic building.
Finally in order to engage the public, we appreciate that we need to be more open in terms of information, so we will be launching a dedicated website on heritage from January next year. At the same time, we will be launching a public awareness campaign. In this exercise, we also look to those with an interest in this area for collaboration. If anyone in the audience knows of concern groups or organizations that have interest, please get in touch with us. We will be very happy to bring them into this campaign.
There are of course two other subjects which have caught a bit of attention in the last few months. One is Dragon Garden, a private garden of the Lee Family. One of the sons has bought Dragon Garden from the other brothers and wants to give it as a gift to the people of Hong Kong. So we are discussing with the family on whether they would like to nominate a NGO to manage and renovate the Dragon Garden for open to public accessibility because my feeling is Dragon Garden will lose its historical significance and cultural characteristics if I just hand it over to the LCSD to operate as another park in Hong Kong.
The second candidate is the Blue House. This is a very old building in Stone Nullah Lane in Wanchai happened to be painted blue. Originally it was supposed to be undertaken as a URA project but entrusted to the Hong Kong Housing Society. The idea was to decant everybody living in the Blue House and then turn it into open space and arts and cultural venue. But that would lose the local and human side of it. So I am trying very hard to grab this Blue House back into the revitalization scheme so that we could give it another chance not only to preserve the building but the social fabric and the social network that it has been created over the last several decades.
Point, line and surface
One approach to heritage conservation is what they called a point approach (點). This is where we preserve and revitalize one building after another building. Common examples are the seven buildings I mentioned and the Hong Kong Jockey Club's proposal for the Central Police Station Compound Revitalization. By the way, this morning we have just opened an exhibition on the Hong Kong Jockey Club's Central Police Station Compound at the Racing Museum and the design architect Mr Pierre de Meuron is in town to host the seminar later. I would urge you to go to visit the exhibition where you will see the model of this new design by Herzog.
Of course, in the Policy Address CE has also mentioned that from now on the URA will take on a new mission to preserve and revitalize some of the pre-war shop houses. This will be the thing that I will work with the Legislative Council and the Urban Renewal Strategy Review that I have promised to start next year. But all these are confined to individual buildings. However, if we are starting from a cultural and historical perspective, heritage conservation should take on a further approach. That is what in Chinese called 「線」, is a line - a trail approach.
With the good work of the District Councils, particularly Central & Western, and also Wanchai and Yuen Long, some of the historic trails have been created over these years. There is still a lot of potential to build on this basis and to develop heritage conservation along a trail. The most prominent case we would be doing would be Hollywood Road. Along Hollywood Road, we would have half-a-dozen or even more historic buildings of one type or another. In this policy address, the CE has given up a site which could fetch several billion dollars in Hollywood Road, the place where he grew up, the former married police quarters in Hollywood Road, for us to come up with a revitalization plan in that trail context. We will not be just looking at that site, how to make use of it whether as open space, another museum or whatever, but also the synergy that this site will bring with the other sites along Hollywood Road. Of course, we have this HK$1.8 billion project down the road in the form of the Central Police Station Revitalization Project of the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
The third approach is even broader in terms of a surface, 一個「面」 - 點線面的「面」. This literal area base approach in fact has been adopted in some of the Mainland cities. I went to Beijing, Shanghai and last Saturday I was in Shenzhen. They have already adopted this sort of approach in revitalizing small areas which have significance in terms of history, culture and so on. The case we have picked in experimenting this surface or area-base approach is the older parts of Wanchai, south of Johnston Road where we have half-a-dozen URA projects going on, a dozen historic buildings like the Blue House and the pre-war shop houses along Queen's Road East and temples and so on.
In this context I have managed to persuade parties concerned to preserve the open air market bazaar in Cross Street and Tai Yuen Street. On its own, this market is just an open air, wet and probably not very hygienic market. It has not been perceived to be that sort of cultural and historic and social network perspective. But now that we have this initiative to revitalize the older parts of Wanchai, it provides the good context for re-assessing the local cultural significance of this open air bazaar. I am pleased to say that the involved departments are fully cooperative to make this possible. We have put this to the Legislative Council Panel and have won their support. This is a project which members from left, right and centre give a round of applause.
Finally we come to a very difficult subject, that is, economic incentives. I suppose very few places are like Hong Kong in having the sort of development pressure we have here. Some of the buildings are located in pretty prime areas. Look at the Central Police Station in the heart of Central. Look at King Yin Lane in Stubbs Road, which is a key location for high-class luxury residential development. Back in 2004 when the then Home Affairs Bureau undertook a consultation on the review of built heritage conservation policy, we already recognised the need for some forms of incentives to induce private owners' cooperation and compliance with heritage conservation. Based on the then research and all these experience, we said that incentives could include transfer of development rights. Not many people fully realize what we are talking about, though. Although in the course of consultation, many people say that this is something very good, let's transfer the development rights so that we could preserve historic buildings. There is also this demand for greater transparency, accountability and fairness and equity which means that whatever we do on economic incentives, we have to be very transparent with the public. Acceptability includes acceptability to government and to the public. Economic incentives to private owners may take the following forms.
The first option is where the incentive requires new extra land. So where does the economic incentive come from if we are not going to compensate the private owner by giving them more land. The economic incentive will come from imaginatively creating additional development in situ on the same piece of land through relaxation of the land lease conditions and planning controls. Take King Yin Lane as an example, the current control there is a one house rule - we can only build one house, it's a residential zone with a plot ratio of 0.5, it has a height restriction of 35 feet. So if we need to create additional development potential for the same site at the footprint, these are the things that we could attempt to move or relax in order to create the needed development potential to offset the loss arising from the preservation of that mansion.
The second option is in situ land exchange. We already have established policy to do in situ land exchange, that is to give either government land encircling that private piece of land or government land in the immediate vicinity. Normally that piece of land will have little value on its own. In other words, that is not a piece of land that you could put on the application list for sale. But by attaching it to this piece of land in private hands which has the private heritage building, it will create development potential by enlarging the site footprint.
The third option will be non-in-situ land exchange. This is extremely difficult. I have no illusion that this is something that could readily meet current day standards of accountability and transparency. We have mentioned Bethanie on Pokfulam Road. This was a former French missionary sanatorium and was preserved by a major land swap with the developer involving Chi Fu Garden on the other side of Pokfulam Road. Just imagine the difficulty of the Government or the bureaucracy today if they arranged such a deal. I would be the subject of PAC or an audit enquiry as to why this piece of land, why that development, and so on.
This brings me to the fourth option, cash compensation. Here, we go forward to the Legislative Council in a transparent manner to get a grant, a cash grant, to compensate the owner. In fact, whether I like it or not, ultimately this will be the case, because under the very draconian Antiquities and Monuments Office that I have referred to, whoever has a building that has been declared as a monument by the government could seek legitimate compensation. Or failing that he will go to court, with specific action to claim damages. So at the end of the day, cash perhaps would be the ultimate solution. We have not come up with a very structured framework for the economic incentives that I have mentioned; in practice each case varies.
We have two cases in hand which within the next two to three months we will need to come up with a solution or a proposed solution that could stand the challenge of public accountability, fairness, equity and so on. One is this famous King Yin Lane at 45 Stubbs Road. In fact apart from discussing with the new owner the economic incentives and the compensation, we have just completed a very interesting report by a renowned architect in Guangzhou University. He has come to spend one full month in King Yin Lane and has discovered a lot of things that we were not aware of. Even the AMO was not aware of when they said that it has historical significance. There is now no doubt in our mind that King Yin Lane will go forward as a declared monument. That makes it even more timely for us to talk about compensation. I just want to tell you that the new owner has written to confirm again that they will pay for the renovation cost of the old mansion, regardless of whether we have the deal ultimately, he will pay for the renovation.
The second case is something that is not very prominent to most people. But again it has been given a declared monument status with a deadline attached to it, in fact a much earlier deadline by April next year. I as the Antiquities Authority have to make up my mind whether it will go forward to be declared a monument. It is the Jessville. It's a more westernized building on Pokfulam Road, next to the university quarter of the Hong Kong University and Queen Mary Hospital in case you go near them. It is a historic building from the 1930s. At the moment, I am concurrently managing these two exercises together to see whether we could provide a good precedent and an example of how public and private sectors could collaborate with the support of the community to pay a price for the preservation of these historic buildings for our present and our future generations.
All in all, I am confident that establishment of the Development Bureau, which now oversees planning, land, buildings, works and heritage, provides the institutional advantage for us to take forward some of the things that could be difficult to pursue in the past. Thank you.
The above does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation.