Preserving Hong Kong's historic buildings

February 25, 2019 12:33
City Hall was considered very modern when it was built in the early 1960s. Its architectural style is no longer rare, but it is the first of its sort in our city. Photo: GovHK

Over the years, I have been involved in several bodies concerned with Hong Kong’s built heritage. I have served on the Antiquities Advisory Board and the Advisory Committee on Revitalization of Historic Buildings. I also sit on the advisory committee for Tai Kwun, the revitalized Central Police Station Compound.

Many old buildings I remember from my childhood have disappeared as Hong Kong has developed – and for much of the time no-one cared.

But awareness and appreciation of built heritage has increased significantly in the last 10 years or so. Many people now look back and regret that Hong Kong did not do more to keep some of its history. This is especially the case with late 19th and early 20th century structures like the old General Post Office and Hong Kong Club in Central.

People look at Singapore as an example of how we could have done it.

While it is too late to save the lost buildings, we can always think ahead and ask whether future generations would want us to preserve some more modern buildings that are still standing.

We are already doing this. Thirty years ago, the police married quarters on Hollywood Road were just a regular part of the landscape. Most passers-by would have said the architecture was boring and of no interest. Today, the site is repurposed as a creative and design hub, and the buildings are seen as part of our history and collective memory.

Central Market, currently being refurbished as a leisure spot, is a similar case. It was opened in 1939 and is in a style called streamline modern – related to art deco and Bauhaus. The thing to look for is straight lines (as in the windows) and curves (as in the corners of the building). The feel of this design was inspired by aerodynamic shapes of 1920s and 1930s aircraft and cars.

A few decades ago, many people didn’t care and would have been happy to see it torn down. Now it is valued as a rare example of the architecture, and as a reminder of the city’s past.

Moving forward in time, we have City Hall – built in the early 1960s. Architects call this modern or international style, with its clean straight lines. For Hong Kong at the time, it seemed very modern. Since then, maybe hundreds of buildings (especially government offices) have been constructed in a roughly similar style.

Until recently, people might have said that City Hall just looked like a couple of boxes. But things are changing. The architectural style is not rare, but it is the first of its sort in our city.

More important, the building’s function reflects a major shift in how Hong Kong sees itself.

Previous government buildings were purely for administration (a 19th century City Hall had been built with private funds for colonial and social elites). The current complex was designed as a civic center with a library and performance venues for the use and enjoyment of the whole community.

City Hall is part of modern Hong Kong’s history. The idea of redeveloping it is now unacceptable (it will be refurbished in the next couple of years).

Since the controversy over the old Star Ferry building, we can see a trend of “historic” buildings that are not really very old. Where does this lead?

Back to Singapore. The city is now in a debate about the future of the Golden Mile Tower – a mixed commercial and residential complex in the Kallang area. It is a 1970s-era terraced building in the brutalist style, with a plain concrete exterior. It was once a bustling shopping mall, but today it has gone down-market, even sleazy.

Many owners plan to sell up so the site can be redeveloped into yet another glass-clad office tower. But some Singaporeans feel it is a reminder of a different time and it should be preserved.

A very approximate Hong Kong equivalent to Golden Mile might be Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui. But there must be dozens, maybe hundreds, of buildings that were modern and classy at first, then became dull and faded – and yet somehow became iconic and memorable in the process.

Which ones will our kids want us to preserve? Maybe now is the time to start asking this question.

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Executive Council member and former legislator; Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress