Andrea Yu: The conservation vs. commercialization conundrum

Andrea Yu: The conservation vs. commercialization conundrum

Is selling out a heritage building better than tearing it down?

I’m in the Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre’s reference library in Kowloon Park, an intimate and impossibly quiet location ideal for putting opinionated heritage views on paper.

This building, formerly Whitfield Barracks, once housed Indian soldiers of the British military. Now it’s a venue for historically-themed exhibitions and lectures. With free admission, the closest the HKHDC comes to banking profits is a set of vending machines near the entrance.

But unfortunately not all of Hong Kong’s heritage buildings have escaped the dreaded fate of commercialization.

Down the street from my work haven lies a building that has been the source of much controversy -- the 1881 Heritage complex.

When I first arrived in Hong Kong in the fall of 2008, the process of "rejuvenating" the former Marine Police Headquarters was well under way.

On first impression, I had assumed it was a new building, gaudily designed with a Victorian theme to entice tourists to visit its upscale shops and high-end eateries. Little did I know that there was a genuine colonial building above the gaudy complex, which now operates as a luxury boutique hotel called Hullett House.

To call 1881 a success is debatable. Most tourists who visit the complex seem too preoccupied with taking pictures of their significant other to actually venture into a shop and buy something.

By the time their retinas have recovered from the onslaught of camera flashes from every angle, eager tourists have run off to the next landmark before they can take note of the heritage building above, let alone read one of the many information plaques and learn something.

Before 1881 Heritage was completed, Wong Shui-kwan, deputy director of the Architectural Services Department, stated in 2004 that among the objectives for the former Marine Police Headquarters, the main purpose was to “produce an economically viable reuse of the site, and to exercise control to ensure that the future heritage value would not be diminished by appropriate alteration for added commercial value.”

A tour of the “heritage” hotel (I’m not the first to use quotation marks in this way when referring to 1881) makes me doubt whether Wong’s objectives were met, as City Editor Zoe Li had questioned back when Hullett House opened in the fall of 2009.

While the 1881 Heritage complex is the most recent case of historical conservation gone commercial, it’s far from the only example.

The former Stanley police station is managed by the Government Property Agency, meaning the building’s historical value was given little consideration when deciding on its use.

Having been leased to Dairy Farm International, it now houses a Wellcome supermarket. Relics from the oldest police station in the territory now stand next to value packs of Andrex and Vinda toilet paper. Like there wasn’t an alternative location more appropriate for a grocery chain that has already overtaken the city?

Past Stanley Market you’ll find Murray House, which served as the Officers’ Mess at Murray Barracks (an area now largely occupied by Citibank Tower). Murray House was painstakingly taken apart from its original location in Central and reassembled in Stanley in order to make way for the Bank of China tower.

But were those efforts in vain? The "new" Murray House is now home to an assortment of food and beverage outlets.

In all fairness, the Hong Kong Maritime Museum occupies the ground floor, but it seems a near abomination to have people eating tapas and downing beer by the stein in a place that served as a execution ground during the Japanese occupation.

Thankfully, many heritage buildings are still operating under -- or close to -- their original intended use, such as the Yau Ma Tei Police Station and former Supreme Court (now the Legislative Council building).

But modernization and the need to accommodate the expansion of staff and office activities means that operations of many heritage buildings have moved to newer and bigger pastures, leaving their historical remnants at the mercy of commercialization.

The Commissioner for Heritage’s Office (CHO) was only established in 2008, which means that the policies to ensure a balance between conservation and development weren’t around when key decisions were made on buildings like the Former Marine Police Headquarters.

Luckily for the next batch of historic buildings marked for revitalization, like the Central Police Station, the CHO is here to ensure they will be readapted in a relevant and sustainable way.

That hopefully means avoiding something like 7-Eleven setting up shop in a former jail cell. For revitalizing the Central Police Station, the CHO has enlisted the help (and, of debatably more importance, the finances) of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which plans to transform the complex into an arts and leisure facility.

In their plans, 27 percent has been allocated for commercial use. This seems like an adequate amount to make the building financially sustainable within the three-year timeline stipulated by the CHO, but not so much as to sell it out.

A previous Jockey Club-supported project was the former Shek Kip Mei Factory Estate, now converted into the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, providing much-needed studio space for local artists. I only hope that the Central Police Station can be put to similar good use.

I’m not suggesting we turn every declared monument into a museum, that’s impractical and financially unviable. Historical restoration is a costly endeavor not only to conduct but also to maintain. Maybe we should be thankful that the aforementioned buildings, despite their commercialization, are still standing and haven’t been demolished to make way for the next new apartment block.