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The newly restored Central Police Station as seen from Hollywood Road

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 19th-century 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 It wasn’t long ago that Hong Kong felt hopelessly out of date when it came to heritage.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?

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Hong Kong then and now

“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, which opened in Kowloon Park on December 11. This year’s biennale takes aim at the future, including exhibits that examine how we treat the past, including a case study on the regeneration of the area around Star Street in Wan Chai.

Hong Kongers 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?

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.”

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The Tung Fat building in Kennedy Town is a converted tong lau

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 quasi-governmental 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.

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Comix Home Base in Wan Chai

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.

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PMQ in Central

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.

“Conservation of historic buildings is not just about retaining features, but presenting the historical messages and architectural wisdom in a meaningful manner” – Edward Leung 

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 high-profile 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.

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Daryl Ng of Sino Group; The Tai O Heritage Hotel

“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.

“People build a sense of identity through links to the past and future, and conservation of heritage can strengthen relationships in society." – Daryl Ng

“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.”

Tags: Design, Architecture, Hong Kong Heritage