Heritage as a microcosm

Today’s news on the heritage front is terrible in the South China Morning Post, where Ho Tung Gardens mansion on the Peak is to be demolished, but wonderful in the Standard, where the West Wing of the old Central Government Offices is to be preserved. However, the fates of the two architecturally unlovable buildings go beyond heritage.

Privately owned Ho Tung Gardens is supposedly valuable because of its ‘Chinese Renaissance’ architecture – common in 1920s and 30s rail stations, colleges and other structures in the Mainland. Essentially it is early 20th Century utilitarian Western style with some cheesy Oriental ornamentation added, often by the first generation of technically qualified Chinese architects.

The real reason it is valuable is of course its redevelopment potential. The government won’t buy it from the owner because she demands that it pay her the billions and billions she could make from building luxury villas on the site. Yes, we’re back to Hong Kong’s real-estate fixation, and the assumption that property rights must include untrammeled redevelopment rights for the owner regardless of any non-financial costs to the rest of the community.

What we need in practice (without getting bogged down in the legal or administrative aspects) is a planning regime that forbids redevelopment unless specific environmental, air flow, traffic, overdevelopment, heritage, etc, etc considerations are satisfied. In other words, the opposite of how the current system seems to work. This would slash the notional redevelopment-linked values of older sites and introduce some common sense into the Big Lychee’s Great National Fetish. A true heritage site would not be worth too much money for the government to save. Remember, there’s always Fanling golf course and Disneyland if we need more space.

(If you suggest something like this idea to an official she will look at you like you’re a Martian who’s just killed her grandmother with a gamma-ray gun and eaten the corpse. Such a planning regime would infringe owners’ rights. In effect, it is ‘unfair’ to owners to protect everyone else’s views, air flow, traffic flow, heritage, etc.)

The government’s decision to keep the West Wing is a victory for a determined group of admirable busybodies. While mainstream pro-democracy parties in Hong Kong shrivel into insignificance, civil society is learning how to adapt to or even use the existing political structure, and bend bureaucrats and policymakers to the will of the people. OK, mainly educated and articulate people – but this is how these things start (for Whigs; the Trotskyists like Long Hair Leung Kwok-hung who think it begins at the bottom don’t do heritage much).

The preservation of the West Wing is a defeat for ‘development’-obsessed officials. They originally wanted high-rise shopping malls and car parks with which to smother Central in yet more air pollution and Mainland tourists. They don’t back down. But tenacious activists forced the bureaucrats to make a strategic withdrawal or two, and eventually broke them, though the ending of Donald Tsang’s term as Chief Executive must have helped. In its own way, this one can be filed in the same drawer as Article 23 and National Education.

One of the winning tactics of the coalition of activists was to create a previously non-existent brand in the form of ‘Government Hill’, which we could all envisage as a distinct place that we have ownership of, compared with the old label of ‘CGO’. So what will happen to the shady leafy courtyard, and the flying buttresses, Corinthian columns and magnificent marble spiral staircases of the building itself?

Mindful of the need for magnanimity, the conservationists seem to have graciously allowed our Beijing-appointed government to choose a mind-numbingly unimaginative role for the saved site, to save a bit of official face. Thus the place will become a sort of legal themed zone, with Department of Justice offices and facilities for international legal organizations (whatever they are). It will also house international arbitration and mediation services – one of those snore-inducing trendy ‘hub’ concepts that ranks down there with Yuan bonds, eco-tourism and Kate Middleton on the World’s Least Exciting Things list. Boring. But that shouldn’t diminish the importance of the West Wing episode in helping us answer the big question of our times: (maybe it’s just me) but why are we constantly being told how the undoubtedly otherwise charming and talented Kate Middleton is a great beauty when she is, to put it perhaps a bit brusquely, about as visually attractive as a late 1950s government office block? who really runs Hong Kong?


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19 Responses to Heritage as a microcosm

  1. Failed Alchemist says:

    Both buildings have certain things in common – both have no aesthethic value and down right ugly. Second both save taxpayers big money by not paying a ridiculous sum held at a king’s ransom and the other, knocking off the functional building to add another eyesore.

    HK learn, learn. Learn from our mistakes. In juxtapose to these two buildings is the monstrous 1881 Heritage that pays homage to the altar of unbridled capitalism. The other is the Tamar site, acknowledging the hubris of an individual that is true and true Anglophile but tries little to hide his exterior distaste for his roots (even HK’s). Devonshire tea anyone? Wakakaka

  2. The Quifth Beatle says:

    f**k ‘specific environmental, air flow, traffic, overdevelopment, heritage, etc, etc etc etc….’

    All of Hong Kong would have looked like Hemel Hempstead if we had rules like that in the past. But maybe that look appeals to people like you.

  3. PropertyDeveloper says:

    Of course the real heritage is in the villages, with traditional houses that would be treasured, even restored, in any caring society. Here they’re simply torn down to make room for the “indigenous” “small houses”.

  4. Darovia says:

    “What we need in practice (without getting bogged down in the legal or administrative aspects) is a planning regime that forbids redevelopment unless specific environmental, air flow, traffic, overdevelopment, heritage, etc, etc considerations are satisfied.”

    But surely that would undermine HK’s competitiveness, put us behind Singapore and Shanghai, cause mass unemployment of low-income groups, destroy our reputation as a money-laundering hub and reduce the need for a third runway – Have I missed anything?

  5. Failed Alchemist says:

    “On the wish lists of Americans: A fully operational Death Star, a nationalized Twinkie industry, and motorcycle-riding “judges” who also act as jury and executioner” http://news.yahoo.com/11-ridiculous-white-house-petitions-125600140.html

    Okok. And I thought HK was the only place in trouble. Looks like humanity suffers the same malady. Hong Kong’s (read politicians) wish list? Wakakaka

  6. Lois Beluga says:

    Stanley is the perfect place to reconstruct the Gardens.

    We are a dumping ground for old buildings after all. Looking from my window I see Blake’s Pier and Murray House. They look incomplete and alone.

    Can I suggest they dump Ho Tung Gardens on top of that insidious green PLA reconnaissance tower at the harbour entrance?

    William…the nascent jowls, the glass jaw, the baffled eyeline expression, the English grouse shooting smile (upper lip to the gum line, the too long and slightly too broad teeth)…a perfect Upper Class Twit!

    Kate is exactly what William deserves…

  7. Stephen says:

    After searching my “collective memory” it pains me to say that I couldn’t care less about The CGO. But we need more commercial office space in Central. Now I know as things stand redevelopment will hugely benefit the usual suspects (The four Developer Families). But how does keeping this gawd awful structure, which will undergo a massive internal renovation, benefit anyone?

    The air will still be disgusting and the Government will still collude with the Developers – same old same old.

    However remember it could be you next to read the disturbing memo from HR enthusing “how excited they are to announce the firm is moving to CBD 2 (read Kwun Fucking Tong) going forward … “

  8. Vile says:

    “Paul Chan, while declining to comment on whether the board should be reformed or given more power, said it was too early to say if the ordinance needed amendments. The government has yet to disclose the results of a study on setting up a heritage trust.

    ‘We’re hoping to drag this stuff out for a few more years. By that time we hope there won’t be anything with even a hint of heritage value left standing, so the problem will go away without placing any government officer in the untenable position of having to make a decision, ever,’ Chan was quoted as thinking.”

    Heritage aside, many slightly less benighted planning departments have rules to the effect that you can redevelop a site, but you can’t build anything bigger than what was there before. Of course we have a marvellous Environmental Impact Assessment process which assures us that adding 75 storeys to a block in Wanchai will have no negative impact on traffic or air quality, nosireebob. However, in the real world, it is sensible to assume that any place with an already inadequate infrastructure will not benefit from quadrupling the number of people using it. That applies to the Peak as much as it does to Wanchai.

  9. Oik says:

    Hemmers, ask 100 blokes and 99 of them would tell you that Kate is a classic stunner. Odd man out again!

    Lois, you obviously haven’t got a scooby’s about Prince William who’s one of the most down to earth and decent blokes you could hope to meet. And he’s a chopper rescue pilot to boot.

    I can’t abide most toffs (the banker spelt with a ‘w’ type who pollute our financial district for example) but the Royals are the business as far as Brits are concerned. More integrity & character in their little fingers than the entire political community here (or anywhere else for that matter).

  10. colonelkurtz says:

    West Wing (when did it acquire this grandiose name) is ugly, non-descript functional architecture. In a place where better old things were left standing, I don’t think there’d be any regret over its loss. The only case for its retention seems to rest on what would be built in it’s place on one of the few pleasant, relatively forested and low rise parts of Central and some nostalgia as to it’s function (among whom, I’m still puzzled, maybe cardigan wearing civil servants?). Demolish it and build a park seems an equitable solution. No commercial development, no ugly toilet block like existing building and more public space. That idea seems to confound the government.

    Kate is slightly better than average at best. Her allegedly sexier sister, Pippa, no better. I’ve never heard anyone other than the English rave over either. A few children will lower either to average, broad-hipped, English spouse who turns ash blonde as soon as middle age hits. (Repulse Bay and Stanley are full of them if you don’t know what I mean.) William seems harmless as far as royals go – nice, but probably gormless and a bit dim. Harry is just a wealthy yob without the redeeming porn-star dating, laddish 70s charm his uncle Andy had. However, I think the 18th century French had the right idea for royal families. The UK needs a French Robespierre to bring on the guillotine.

    Justifications for maintaining the UK royals always amuse me – they’re either the rock solid core of the English constitution (the political stability of the UK would seem to me to depend more on sound legal institutions and a reasonably phlegmatic, common sense electorate) or they’re a type of tourist-attracting disney land substitute (in which case, surely the more lurid and Kardashian like their antics the better – in which case you should hope Harry marries Paris Hilton or Snooky or the UK equivalent and replace William and Harry with Justin Bieber and Robert Pattinson or the like).

  11. Joe Blow says:

    Oik = Sir David Tang (btw, what did that man ever do to be called ‘Sir’ ?)

    Solly Oik, I mean ‘Sir David’, but Kate is NOT a looker. You will find a Kate in every hair salon, pet shop or supermarket in England.

    Willie seems a nice lad. Well, so I am. So what ?

    Royals….integrity….character: I dunno. What makes you the expert ?
    However, I do remember that the way Charlie Si treated that sad woman Di did say 1 or 2 things about his integrity and character.

  12. Lois Beluga Brook-Hampster says:


    Trust your eyes, not the press releases. And watch Monty Python again.


    William is good at Getting The Bra Off The Deb for sure.

    Harry does the Car Door Slamming, Insulting The Waiter and Kicking The Beggar (read the Sun more closely for updates).

    The first crowd shot left..the spitting image of Kate!

    Not one Royal ever got an Oxford interview. Inbred Tory parasites. Dump them!

  13. Hendrick says:

    Was particularly fond of the Ritz-Carlton in Central. Not so much the inside – too expensive a drinking hole for me. Perfectly good, attractive, mid height ‘scraper. That was its problem. Disgraceful vandalism.
    I couldn’t give a hoot for the ugly, characterless, featureless, utilitarian, communist style stained concrete eyesores in Wanchai, etc.

  14. Oik says:

    I never got an Oxford interview either. Did get the grades to go but seem to remember choosing a grim Northern metropolitan city Uni based on the fact that it offered 3×10 week terms of great nightlife & sporting entertainment instead of 3×8 weeks of academic slog with lots of very bright but posh folk at Oxbridge. It’s all about priorities!

    Always been unshakeably Royalist to the core. One of the few things that still makes me proud of old Albion after the last 50 years of dismantling all the stuff we were once good at (cue rabid pinko frothing at mouth about the evils of colonialism etc etc….) 😉

  15. Vile says:

    It’s always amusing to see the peasant reflex kick in when the British royal family are mentioned, yes indeed m’lud. They do their bit by squatting in the palaces and discouraging tourists, I suppose, unlike those awful continentals who turn their aristocratic piles into museums open to all (thus drawing magnitudes more tourists to, say, the Louvre than Buckingham Palace). Otherwise they’re an anachronistic, wealth-absorbing bunch of over-privileged hereditary land thieves.

    There is no shortage of young men and women who would do anything to be able to fly a rescue helicopter. Odd how no royal ever seems to fail their admission tests, with something like only 1 in 300 applicants making it into the RAF. Perhaps they really are better than us.

    Then, I was always moved to tears by the selflessness of Di in attending all those charity balls to raise perhaps 0.1 to 0.2 pence in the pound for charities. Charities, of course, have expenses, too, but they usually manage far better and only use 98% of donations to sustain themselves. The idea of Royalty actually using their own vast wealth to accomplish charity works instead of asking the oiks to dig into their pockets is, of course, laughable.

    That “Middleton bird” probably is a “stunna” according to most “blokes”. Perhaps they need to get out of the pub more often to develop a sense of perspective (and possibly out of the country).

  16. Oik says:

    Proud to be a peasant!

  17. Hendrick says:

    Gosh! Surprising to see so much easily provoked bile being spat at royals. It’s clearly clouding your perspective on the attractive Kate. You should have that seen to.
    No strong feelings one way or the other for me. Maybe I need to subscribe to The Sun. And support Murdoch. Nah, give me the Windsors any day.
    6pm : Bottoms up.

  18. EDB says:

    Don’t you mean Saxe-Coburgs, Hendrick?

  19. Big Al says:

    The Sake-Coburgs. Reminds me of that old Blackadder IV sketch in which Blackadder is interrogating Capt Darling and accusing him of being a German spy. Darling replied “I’m as British as the Queen Victoria” to which Blackadder responsed “So, your father’s German, you’re half-German and you married a German”. Classic.

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