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Last Updated: Monday, 4 December 2006, 12:39 GMT
Hong Kong wakes up to heritage
By Vaudine England
BBC News, Hong Kong

Hong Kong's Star Ferry - picture by Kees Metselaar
Local people feel strongly attached to symbols of the past
When the piers for Hong Kong's famous Star Ferry and Queen's Pier were closed last month, thousands of ordinary Hong Kong people came to bid them farewell.

The buildings are not so special - just 48 years old and usually described as "functional".

But the outpouring of emotion has alerted Hong Kong's planners and developers to a growing movement to save Hong Kong's heritage.

Some of the feeling is focused on the harbour, the spectacular but ever-shrinking stretch of water which is why Hong Kong thrived.

The larger concern is the government's apparent tendency for more land reclamation, roads and shopping malls, as opposed to preservation.

"In the past few years the government still uses the policy on land development and so many pieces of history, of so many cultures, were demolished. It is time for us to tell the government it is enough," said Patsy Cheng, organiser of a protest to save the piers.

Conservationist Christine Loh says she sees a growing gap between these feelings among people, and the concentration of government planners on getting the maximum income out of every square foot of Hong Kong land.

"It's really about how people who make decisions about what the city should look like are completely disconnected with how people actually feel. Hong Kong people feel actually extraordinarily attached to places which represent collective memory and history for them, like the Star Ferry. But our government has just assumed that this is something not worth keeping," said Ms Loh.

Sadness

One of the most controversial demolitions is of Lee Tung Street, also known as Wedding Card Street, once home to the printing and selling of wedding and other cards.

Central Police Station
Developers have their eye on Central Police Station

The Urban Renewal Authority plans to replace the densely inhabited street with new residential towers and shops. A three-year long battle by residents to keep their vibrant community alive is nearing its end.

"We are so sad," said Winnie Ng, one of the last residents to leave the street, now working from a shop nearby.

"Feelings of course are so many, because my whole family, my mother, my brothers, sisters also living there. Before, it was very close together, but now we are separated. The government will pay money back to us but we're very unhappy because it's not fair."

Across the harbour in Kowloon, the Marine Police Station, a colonial-era building on a hill protected by trees, is currently being redeveloped by private developers.

Local reports revealed that the government chose a development plan which made most money for the government, instead of the one plan which would have saved the hill and trees.

Back on Hong Kong Island, the Central Police Station and Victoria Prison include some of the oldest buildings in Hong Kong, dating back to 1864.

The massive, prime site has stood empty for years as government, developers and conservationists argue over what should be done with it.

Christine Loh believes part of the problem in Hong Kong's development is the lack of clarity about what constitutes Hong Kong's heritage.

If government is sensitive, it won't ignore the fact that the people really feel a lot of things and people have something to say
Christine Loh

Just as government is knocking down Wedding Card Street and the old harbour piers, it has spent millions of dollars on new "heritage" attractions.

These include the Ngong Ping Cable Car "Heritage Village", an ersatz collection of shops which are home to a 7-11 convenience store, international chain coffee shops and souvenir stalls.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Donald Tsang recently opened the Ancient Garden at Diamond Hill in Kowloon, which is a newly-built copy of a mainland Chinese, Tang Dynasty garden.

"The government generally believes that since we don't have grand stuff like the Forbidden City, all the little stuff really doesn't matter. They don't understand they do matter because that is our memory, that is our culture, that is our identity," said Ms Loh.

Lively debate

In response, the government says that the promotion of heritage conservation, in the context of limited land resources and rapid urban growth, is an arduous task.

"In some cases, it even surrendered the right of development and gave up the option of re-development in prime areas," according to a statement from the Home Affairs Department.

Another opening was held recently, of the renovated Bethanie House - one example of government funds used to bring back into productive use a colonial-era building. Once the home to the French Mission, Bethanie is now a second campus to the Academy of Performing Arts.

The nearby cow-sheds, the first source of real milk in the colony, have also been renovated for use by the Academy.

In the increasingly lively debate over issues of heritage and identity, of culture and belonging, there is little doubt that more Hong Kong people are beginning to show that they care.

The government admits concern is growing about the impact of urban renewal on "the historical and cultural ambience of old districts of Hong Kong", and says it is doing its best to meet rising expectations.

"We don't have the sort of political system where this sort of movement can lead to a change of government. But nevertheless I do think that if government is sensitive, it won't ignore the fact that the people really feel a lot of things and people have something to say. They should be listening," said Ms Loh.


SEE ALSO
Hong Kong landmark piers closed
12 Nov 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Crowds march to save HK harbour
21 Mar 04 |  Asia-Pacific
HK harbour reclamation reprieve
09 Jan 04 |  Asia-Pacific
HK pollution protest dims lights
08 Aug 06 |  Asia-Pacific

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