27 October 2016
The Victoria Road Detention Center, better known as the "White House", will soon undergo a drastic facelift despite opposition from heritage conservationists. Photo: HKEJ
The Victoria Road Detention Center, better known as the "White House", will soon undergo a drastic facelift despite opposition from heritage conservationists. Photo: HKEJ

There is also a White House in Hong Kong

While many commentators and politicians are drawing parallels between the recent Mong Kok clashes and the 1967 leftist riots, another development that is also associated with those notorious riots that took place almost 50 years ago has largely gone under the public radar.

It’s the commencement of the controversial revitalization project of the “White House” at Mount Davis.

Situated at the top of Mount Davis on the west of Hong Kong Island, the “White House” looks like an elegant mountain resort hotel that enjoys a panoramic view of the western Victoria Harbour. It has been used as the filming location of several blockbusters such as “Lust, Caution” by Oscar-winning director Ang Lee.

However, to many old leftist activists and dissidents who are still alive today, the compound was once hell on earth, and still serves as a haunting reminder of the dark age of British colonial rule even to this day.

Officially known as the “Victoria Road Detention Center”, but often dubbed the “White House”, the compound was originally built in the early 1950s as the clubhouse of the Royal Engineers Association.

Beginning in the late ’50s, the premises were taken over by the Special Branch (SB) of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, the local division of the British MI5, and were later turned into a detention center for political dissidents, underground communists, separatists, leftist activists and spies working for either the Kuomintang or the Chinese Communist Party.

From the late ’50s until the early ’70s, hundreds of thousands of political prisoners were detained in the White House without proper trial, many of whom were interrogated repeatedly, tortured, and on some occasions, even secretly executed by British intelligence.

During and after the 1967 riots the White House was packed with leftist rioters and communist sympathizers. Among them was former Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing, who was locked up there for two years for distributing anti-government leaflets in his school.

As the political atmosphere in Hong Kong began to relax from the mid-’70s, the SB gradually stopped using the White House as a political detention center.

After the SB had been officially dissolved in 1995, the White House was completely abandoned and placed under the management of the Government Property Agency, and the once notorious and fearsome political prison, along with its unpleasant past, soon faded out of the public eye completely.

It wasn’t until around early 2014 that the White House once again caught some public attention, when the University of Chicago Booth School of Business proposed to give the compound a facelift and rent it for 10 years as its first overseas campus in Asia.

According to the renovation proposal submitted by the Booth School of Business, it will spend HK$400 million to rebuild the compound, and under its building plan the entire block C of the White House will be demolished, its floor plan changed drastically and a giant glass ceiling built to cover almost half of the premises.

After completion, both the interior and exterior of the White House will have been changed almost beyond recognition.

During the public consultations in early 2015, the Town Planning Board received a lot of objections to the proposal from heritage conservationists, who argued that the White House represents a unique historical period of our city and therefore should be preserved as a historical site or museum.

Its original form and architectural elements should be kept and it should remain open to the public, they said.

Still, the Town Planning Board gave the green light to the Booth proposal, and construction is scheduled to begin later this year.

Sadly, the controversy over the fate of the White House didn’t gain much media coverage or public attention, and the vast majority of the public have remained largely indifferent to what is going to happen to the structure.

It seems inevitable that soon our city is going to lose yet another historical heritage, just like we lost the Old Star Ferry Pier, the Queen’s Pier and the Ho Tung Gardens.

Even though heritage conservation doesn’t necessarily mean freezing or fossilizing a historic building in time or banning its owners from doing anything with their properties, Booth’s proposal obviously doesn’t fulfill the goal of preserving the architectural essence and historical characteristics of the White House.

Some even suspect that the SAR government’s hasty approval of Booth’s plan regardless of public opposition is part of its secret agenda of “decolonization”.

Even more sadly, the majority of the public simply just couldn’t care less about the fate of the White House, and it appears both the government and the public are holding a double standard on heritage conservation.

I believe all historical sites or buildings deserve proper protection and conservation, whether they represent a pleasant or unpleasant period in our past, because they all form the collective memory of our society that makes us who we are today, and leaves behind an invaluable legacy for the coming generations.

It might be up to our children to judge our past, but it is definitely our responsibility to preserve our city’s history in its entirety, even though it might open old wounds, because history should neither be hidden nor distorted under all circumstances.

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