Heritage preservation grips Hong Kong amid building boom

 @ibtimes on September 09 2007 11:18 PM

In the dim confines of the time-worn Wing Woo grocery, a short hop from Hong Kong's gleaming financial towers, Kwan Moon-chiu, 73, quietly arranges supplies of salted-fish and eggs, knowing his store's days are numbered.

This shop is 130 years old, I have deep feelings for it. But if the government wants to tear it down, what can I do? he said.

The plight of Kwan's rickety store, which faces demolition for a massive urban renewal project, embodies the dilemma faced in Hong Kong -- one of the world's most densely populated places with 7 million residents -- of whether to raze or save.

While development has long taken precedent over heritage preservation -- the recent demise of two iconic colonial-era piers sparked widespread public outrage among Hong Kongers tired of seeing their history effaced in the name of progress.

I would see it as a major social movement in Hong Kong and it's an emerging attitude among the young, said Lee Ho Yin, an architectural conservation expert at the University of Hong Kong.

Activists who chained themselves to the doomed piers and who wrote protest banners in their own blood helped foment heritage-preservation an emotive, hot-button civil cause, alongside other long-established Hong Kong issues like the push for greater democracy and social equality.

Our city would be identical to any other, lacking personality. It would just be blasts of glass, steel and concrete blocks, said Hong Kong resident Bonnie Yiu.

Kwan's shop stands to be demolished in a controversial HK$487 million redevelopment that rips the heart out of one of Hong Kong's oldest neighbourhoods centered on Central's last surviving street market on Graham and Peel Streets.

Thirty-seven mostly post-war tenement blocks will be replaced by four 30-40-storey skyscrapers including a hotel and new shops that will displace the quirky, old stores including noodle-makers and incense sellers lining the narrow, sloping streets.

The numerous, boisterous street hawkers selling all manner of produce from broccoli to live crabs in wicker baskets and pig trotters hung on metal hooks also face an uncertain fate.

This market must really be preserved for its historical, economic and social value, said Katty Law, an activist with a network of social and heritage groups who have been campaigning against the project.

Other countries have charters guiding the preservation of old areas but Hong Kong has never done this, Law added.

In the 1950s -- Hong Kong's waterfront was still filled with red-brick Edwardian and Victorian buildings with columns and elaborate facades. These have since been largely demolished.

A historic Victorian building called Murray House was dismantled and rebuilt in 1999 on the other side of the island in a manner which critics say was tasteless and failed to preserve its original character.

Neighboring Macau on the other hand -- which is even more densely populated than Hong Kong -- has managed to preserve much of its historic Portuguese core -- and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The chairman of Hong Kong's Urban Renewal Authority, Barry Cheung, defended the development project by saying it would create more open, greener spaces, resettle residents now stuck in the decrepit buildings and generally gentrify the area.

If somehow through what we do or what we haven't done, that street market dies, then I'll take it upon myself as having failed, Cheung told Reuters. But he said he was also touched by the wave of public concerns regarding heritage preservation and was willing to rethink existing plans for the market.

Not everything has been cast in stone, he said.

MATURING SOCIETY

With Hong Kong marking its tenth anniversary since returning from British to Chinese rule, observers say the city's growing civil activism -- of which heritage preservation has become a part -- is tied to a greater sense of belonging and a desire to preserve the city's cultural roots and unique identity.

Up to 1997, people were not focused on the living environment because Hong Kong had a sell-by date, said Paul Zimmerman, an expatriate activist opposed to the reclamation of large chunks of Victoria harbor for redevelopment.

The whole mentality has changed, he added.

But for activists like Chu Hoi-dick -- who fought to save Queen's Pier -- Hong Kong's heritage activism boils down to a simple lack of democracy and the government's heavy-handed policy-making without adequately involving the public.

I do not deny this is just the beginning of a new political movement. It is a movement to re-establish the identity of Hong Kong people, not controlled by the British and not controlled by Beijing, said Chu.

Hong Kong's Urban Renewal Authority has said it will preserve several older buildings in the area including the facade of the Wing Woo grocery -- but some say the development will still bleed the district of its vitality and color.

What makes Hong Kong such a unique city is all the local markets, otherwise it's just the same as any other city, said Aaron Martin, one of many tourists who flock to the market daily to soak up its quintessential Hong Kong charm.

(Additional reporting by Farah Master)

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