June 03, 2006:

[achtung! kunst] *preservation* : Hong Kong tries to save a bit of its storied past

iht, june 1, 2006
Hong Kong tries to save a bit of its storied past
By Patrick L. Smith International Herald Tribune

HONG KONG When Stalin's apparatchiks rewrote history books and
airbrushed fallen colleagues out of photos, there was a saying among
Soviet citizens: The future is certain, they would jest, it is the past
that is not yet clear.

Oddly enough, roughly the same can be said today of this most capitalist
of societies. Not quite a decade after the end of British colonial rule
and the resumption of Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong cannot decide what
of the past it wants to preserve and what it wants to drop from the picture.

The debate pits preservationists against profit-minded property developers.

At issue now is a complex of government buildings that included Hong
Kong's oldest jail and dates from the territory's earliest days as a colony.

Although the last prisoners were released a couple of months ago, no one
- not the government, not the property men, not the architects, not the
preservationists - knows quite what to do with the place.

It is an awkward moment for a city long dedicated to the newest,
tallest, most efficient and most profitable. There is widening concern
here over the overall health of a society that has little in the way of
collective memory.

"The price for not preserving history is that we will enter the malaise
of modernity; there's nothing but 'now,' 'today,'" said Leo Lee Ou-Fan,

a professor at Chinese University. "It's the disease of the present. You
get a less coherent society."

Concern for the old, it might be said, is something new in Hong Kong.

During the century and more that this was a port city of transients,
full of traders and refugees and home to very few of them, the question
of remembering and forgetting never arose. The past always made way for
the present; heritage was something people thought about somewhere else.

Now Hong Kong is changing. As nerves have calmed over the resumption of
Chinese sovereignty, many of its seven million people consider the
territory home and want the sense of rootedness that comes with it.

"For all the years of colonial rule we were very confused about our
identity," said Edward Ho, an architect who leads an advisory board that
helps the government evaluate potential preservation sites. "We were
British but not really, Chinese but not really. This question of
establishing our identity has become even more important since the
handover in 1997."

Identity may be more important now, but the problem for preservationists
is that land values are no less important than they always have been.

The government has not altered a long-standing policy that requires
designated heritage sites to be paying propositions. With Covent Garden
in London and Boston's Faneuil Hall as models, the intent is to auction
off sites to private-sector developers that can turn them into shops,
hotels, restaurants or another combination of tourist- attracting

"We have to balance conservation and economic interests," said Esther
Leung, the deputy secretary for home affairs.

In a city dense with glass-and-concrete towers, there are now 80
declared heritage sites.

But the government's policy has brought some of them to peculiar fates
by any measure. One Victorian-era police station was saved by the
government only to be leased to a supermarket chain.

Official policy proceeded in this fashion until recently. What brought
things to a head were plans to recycle a large compound that housed the
central police station, the magistracy courts and Victoria Prison,
complete with dungeons.

You could call this a monument to colonial efficiency: apprehension,
adjudication and incarceration all in one spot. But the two dozen
buildings that form the walled quadrangle tell far more than a tale of
tropical crime and punishment, which is why the trouble started.

The earliest of the buildings, a cell block, dates from the late 1850s.

Nearby is a police barracks of similar vintage, in full-dress colonial
porticos; the magistracy was added in 1914, the police station five
years later, and so on until the late 1940s. The compound, in short, is
an irreplaceable narrative written in brick, plaster, granite and timber.

"A compound like this is an education in how a city evolved, how people
thought and how social values changed," said Alexander Hui Yat- chuen,
an architect and a purist in matters of preservation. "For once we have
the opportunity to conserve something as a whole, and the whole is where
the value lies."

Even a few years ago, Hui's argument would not have earned much more
than polite nods. But a routine public consultation led to a cacophony
of public protests that stunned all concerned into silence.

There are now no active plans for the site, no fixed guidelines as to
how it should be preserved and no developer has tendered for it.

In effect, the territory's past has left it flummoxed.

China, as it often does in Hong Kong affairs, appears to loom in the
background. Architects and scholars here say the mainland views
buildings like the police station not as architecture but as artifacts
of an era it wants Hong Kong to forget about in the name of national pride.

This lends the question of heritage a political tint, these sources say.

"Historical preservation is one expression of civil society's new demand
for autonomy," said Leo Lee, the social critic. "Since there is no
democracy, it's a proxy for politics."




with kind regards,

Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)



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