Quality of life in Hong Kong

 In City Planning, Culture & Heritage, Land, Housing & Transport

A speech delivered at a speaker luncheon of Hong Kong Democratic Foundation on 23 July 2009


Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me here. The subject, the “Quality of Life”, would take more than 30 minutes, so I am not going to drill down into the details but just give you my high-level thoughts.


I’d like first to give you a sense of the journey I have been on in the last seven or eight months. At the beginning of this year, I was appointed by the Government to chair the Antiquities Advisory Board, as well as he Committee on Revitalization of Historical Buildings and the Council on Sustainable Development. These three assignments, following my departure from Exco took up more of my time my work did during the ten years I served on Legco. The position I am in now is clearly on the front line and I have to come up with answers. I cannot keep passing the burden to somebody else.


It has been an amazing experience for me to examine issues such as heritage. I ask myself if I am qualified for the task at my young age. But I have been told that the subjects of preservation and heritage have grabbed the interest of the younger crowd rather than the older generation. Someone in my age group would appreciate that we were not taught a lot about Hong Kong’s past. So when I was first assigned to this area, I found that not a lot of people are like me. When I ask my father how he feels about our heritage, it does not seem to bother him much that we are eliminating our past.


The conclusion I have come to after seven or eight months is that, before 1997 the priority of this city was never about the past. It was all about the future and the uncertainty of the future. In order to secure a future, the answer for many was to make more money, hoping that money would buy security. That has always been the mentality of the city and was what drove people here. Land is the most valuable asset and more development seemed to make everyone, the developers and the home buyers, happy. We paid very little tax and no questions were asked.


After 1997, we were hit by crises, one after another — the Financial Crisis, Bird Flu, and SARS. So the issue of our past was still not our top priority. It was only in the last couple of years that people have started blaming the Government for not doing enough. Frankly, I think Government is to be blamed. But the Government is also a reflection of the people, who did not seem to care about the subject.


So why did heritage and preservation come to be high priority subjects? The AMO (Antiquities and Monument Office) has been here, I am told, since the 1970s. It was only the last couple of years that people start asking what the AMO has done to help preserve our history. So is anyone to be blamed? I think the entire society together with the Government should be blamed. But is it never too late to start doing something — after “Star Ferry”, “Queen’s Pier” etc.


The challenge now is, even though society has put in a lot more resources, except for the younger activists and the preservation groups, the larger community still has the mentality of the past. So how do we balance “Development” versus “Heritage”? How do we deal with “Quality of Life” and the issue of “Sustainable Building Design”? What kind of city do we want?


Grading buildings
Let us go back to the subject of Heritage. One of the things I have been doing in the past months is the grading of historic buildings in Hong Kong. These gradings have always been there. But the grading of buildings – as Grade One, Grade Two and Grade Three – was just an internal reference for AAB (Antiquities Advisory Board), the top Government Advisory Body. About five years ago, AAB decided to invite a group of professionals – architects, surveyors and planners – and survey all the buildings in Hong Kong, which had not been done before, not since the creation of the office. After spending 7,000 to 8,000 hours on the task, a list of 1,444 historical sites were presented to me, with proposed grading, shortly after I took up the chairmanship. The challenge I have is what I do with the list.


I was told the original plan was to release the 1,444 proposed gradings to the community and to embark on a consultation exercise. However, my concern was, if the gradings were released, the media would overlook the “proposed” status of the gradings and would assume that they were final. This could cause anxiety, especially to the people who are owners of those buildings. In the end, I nonetheless took the decision with the board to make the gradings public and the gradings were released to the public and the media immediately after the meeting.


As I had expected, no one recognised that they were supposed to be proposed gradings. So in the last few months of the four months consultation period, I deliberately decided to reach out rather than to wait for people to come to us. The consultation will end at the end of this month. Apart from the first couple of days where we caught the media’s attention, attention died down and very few people now come to us. This gives me the impression that the city is not really interested in analyzing anything, unless a really big issue comes out.


One example was when we were grading the “Queen’s Pier”. The meetings of the AAB have always been open to public but no one ever bother to come. This time the meeting was broadcast live. When the vote was cast, “Queen’s Pier” was graded Grade One. But there is no correlation between an “Internal Grading” and whether a building can or cannot be demolished. The fact is, only “Declared Monument” status, which has a very high threshold, can prevent building from being demolished and only the Government has the right to make such declaration.


However, since “Queen’s Pier” incident, the Government has decided that Grade One building will automatically get onto a “Reserve List”. Getting on the “Reserve List” means that the Government can choose to declare the building a “Monument”. There is no clear strategy. But it seems that the Government will not take such action unless there is a threat of demolition. Take “King Yin Lei” (No. 45, Stubbs Road) as a case study. There was a cost involved in preserving the building, even though it was in the form of a land swap, which amounted to HK$400 million.


Another question in preserving history is, what do you do with the buildings afterwards, particularly if the buildings were owned privately?


This comes to my other hat – the revitalisation of historical building – or proposing the adapted use of the buildings. This is even more challenging. After you take over the site, taking the “King Yin Lei” example again, would you turn it into a club? Would you turn it into a restaurant? Would enough revenue be generated to upkeep the place? Since it costs a lot to upkeep the building, do you allow it to be a high-end membership club? This would surely draw objection from the public: people would ask why taxpayer’s money was used to benefit a few people.


Going back to the Haw Par Villa (also called Tiger Palm Garden) on Tai Hang Road) case, the Government decided to give HK$45 million for the basic repairs. Some Legco members criticized the use of government money to benefit the future business operator. I was asked by a reporter if the Government gave away too much. I said, no, because the cost of upkeeping the building to the level required is high and we would like to be sure that the operator can pay for the costs.


The fact is land value in Hong Kong is so high and a lot of business activities are stifled. Only a few business activities can take place in Hong Kong because of the high land cost. The challenge is not just preserving the building, but ensuring that the building is used. We do not want to turn all historical buildings into museums; this does not necessarily help.


So are there benefits to being graded? Well there are some benefits. Owners of all graded buildings – Grades One, Two and Three – can apply for up to, I believe, one million dollars for the maintenance. But there are constraints if the building owner’s wish is to redevelop the site. A major developer, whom I know quite well, wrote to me defending his right to redevelopment. The problem is worse because there is no money to buy off these rights from property owners.


There is a budget of HK$1.5 billion assigned to revitalise certain historical buildings. But since government money is used, only non-profit NGOs have right to bid for the use of the buildings. Examples are the old Lai Chi Kok Hospital, the Tai O Police Station, the North Kowloon Magistrate and so on. The six sites in the first batch altogether cost HK$600 million. Now I am working on my second batch, which includes some of the older buildings in Wanchai.


So even though it may be a late start, the Government is doing something. The Government has given me full support on the task to walk the journey together with Hong Kong. Even though many of the decisions made in the past were made in the “best interests” of the community, one would always ask whose “best interest” it was.


Another example is a group who is protesting the Government’s decision to turn the Tsimshatsui Bus Terminal into a piazza. The terminal was part of the complex that included the Train Terminal and Star Ferry. The train terminal is not there any more, so it is difficult to argue from a functional view point that the bus terminal should stay with the Star Ferry.


One block away is the former Marine Police Headquarter, which is well on the way to being turned into five star luxury goods complex and a boutique hotel to be opened soon. That decision was made only in 2003, just five years ago. If one were to use today’s benchmark, I doubt if any conservationist or historian would agree to the decision made. The current scheme will be a nice shopping place for tourists, but for someone with a strong interest in history, it would be totally unacceptable. My guess was that in 2003, people focused on revitalisation and the project was driven by the tourism authority, hence the outcome.


Looking forward
Hong Kong is still evolving and moving ahead. Sometimes, Hong Kong is moving so fast that policy cannot keep up. I don’t know what the future holds, but it seems decisions can no longer be made behind closed doors. My wish is Hong Kong is involved in what I am doing, the door to my office is always open and I want to make sure that there is no last minute objection which might derail a well-considered solution.


On the subject of Sustainable Building Design, professional design considerations must be reconciled with the needs of users, who are more likely to be concerned with costs, or perhaps they could not care less about sustainability. But I would like to encourage them to care and take ownership of the issues.


These are subjects that I do care about and I believe in. Quality of life does matter. As well as maintaining the rule of law, we need to be sure we keep up with quality of life issues. Decisions can no longer be made at the top by an elite who decides what is best for you. I am pleased to tell you that Hong Kong is moving towards the right direction.



Bernard Chan (陳智思)

Chairman of the Antiquities Advisory Board, the Advisory Committee on Revitalizing Historical Buildings and the Council for Sustainable Development (古物諮詢委員會、活化歷史建築諮詢委員會及可持續發展委員會主席)

23 July 2009



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