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Chris White

How much public money are we willing to spend on Hong Kong’s heritage?


Two announcements on a single day in December 2012 reveal both the new scrutiny under which heritage policy in Hong Kong operates and its limitations.

Two long-running disputes involving heritage properties – the plan to redevelop the west wing of the former government headquarters in Central and plans to preserve the historic, privately owned Ho Tung Gardens – ended in a government climb down and admission of policy failure respectively.

In the case of the former, the government bowed to pressure from, amongst others, the specially-formed Government Hill Concern Group and rather than sell the land for redevelopment will house the Department for Justice and other international legal organizations in it.

Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-wit hailed it as a “victory for civil society” and it certainly represents a major win for built heritage conservation activists in Hong Kong.

In the second case, the government’s failure to persuade the owner of the Ho Tung Gardens to turn the property over to public hands revealed the limitations of the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance in acquiring and preserving properties in private hands.

Following the owner Ho Min-kwan’s application to redevelop the 1927 Peak mansion built by famed Eurasian businessman and philanthropist Robert Ho-tung in mid 2010, the building was declared a Grade I listed historic site by the Antiquities Advisory Board.

In January 2011, the government invoked the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinances for only the fourth time in its history, so providing the Gardens with a stay of execution and moratorium on development for a year to allow negotiations to take place.

Following the rejection by the owner of all the government proposals, its intention to declare the property a monument that would have put them on a direct collision course with the owner faltered at the last minute as, in the words of Paul Chan Mo-po, secretary for development, “We understand that not everyone would agree with spending billions of dollars of public money on private heritage sites.”

Ho had asked HK$7 billion compensation for the site which the government estimates being worth HK$3 billion. Bernard Chan, Chairman of the Antiquities Advisory Board, says that it is time for a discussion about “how far the public is willing to go when it comes to compensation.”

With a lack of public spirit on one side and a tight rein on the public purse strings on the other, the bulldozers are poised to move in to level one of Hong Kong’s most notable historic sites. Is there no possibility of a more creative public-private partnership solution?

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Hongkong Business. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Chris White

Chris White

Chris White is Managing Director at Winkle-picker Ltd and Your Curator.

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