Vincent Ng Wing-shun: the architect bidding to save Hong Kong’s historic buildings
Originally published at the South China Morning Post on March 21, 2016.
Architect Vincent Ng Wing-shun never expected to become known for preserving local heritage.
In fact, Ng – currently president of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects – recalls feeling a distinct lack of emotion when his university professor urged him and other architecture students to go and protest the demolition of the Hong Kong Club Building in Central in the early 1980s. The building was one of the last examples of renaissance architecture in the city before it was torn down and replaced.
“There were so many structures with historical value like the Hong Kong Club, the general post office or even private buildings. One building after another, they were demolished. But back then, no one cared,” Ng said.
He said the course of his career as an architect had slowly pushed him to engage with society and care about the people in it.
“I went from having no feelings [about conservation] to thinking that of course we should do this, we have so many precious items that are disappearing.”
Ng has built an illustrious three-decade-long career that features some of the city’s most iconic structures. Many of these projects represent the collective memory of Hongkongers, including the original preliminary design for the Avenue of Stars and the restoration of Central Market.
As chairman of the Harbourfront Commission’s core group for public engagement and an advocate for preserving local structures with cultural value, Ng has at times helped bridge the gap between the public and the government, as well as monitor the city’s public spaces.
“Once we kept destroying all of our structures, some aspects of unique street lifestyle were torn away to make way for big commercial centres and high rises,” Ng said, adding that he himself played a conflicted role in this process of redevelopment throughout his career.
“If these [new structures] are all the same residential buildings, the same malls selling the same products, the same chain stores – is this the type of society we want?”
Ng is not alone in this burgeoning fight to save the city’s local heritage.
Hong Kong appears to have undergone a cultural awakening in the past decade, with the preservation of historical architecture and management of public space becoming a mainstream and hot-button issue.
A plan to develop an extension to the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront was recently scrapped after a public backlash over the project’s lack of public consultation and transparency. The decision to allow private developer New World – a company whose boss supported Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying during his 2012 election campaign – to manage the extended avenue without an open tendering process sparked controversy last year.
There was also public outcry after an original design for the site of the former historic Central Market, chosen by the public, was scrapped in September in favour of a cheaper plan.
Ng is an architect for the project, and the original involved a design for a rooftop garden.
Meanwhile, 2,000 people signed an online petition in a last-ditch attempt to save a historic pawn building in Wan Chai from being demolished last year.
And after years of consultation, the government last week unveiled plans to resurrect Queen’s Pier, which was torn down almost nine years back amid public outcry.
These controversies symbolise a larger shift in priorities among Hongkongers – a desire to protect local culture and establish a sense of identity in a postcolonial city that has seen nothing but rapid change in the past few decades.
Ng was an active participant in bitter protests against the demolition of Queen’s Pier in 2008 and Lee Tung Street – the famed “Wedding Card Street” that sold traditional wedding invitations and held significant cultural value to Hongkongers – in 2007.
“Actually, Hong Kong has always had an identity crisis, whether it was during times of colonisation or afterwards,” Ng said, explaining that in the 1980s most Hongkongers were too focused on issues of survival to care about local heritage.
“People began to talk [in the past decade] about preserving our original memories, our
roots. Maybe at this moment, everyone started to think about our identity.”
Now one area that Ng is focusing on are efforts to revitalise one of Hong Kong’s most recognisable sights – its waterfront.
He’s advocating to establish a Harbourfront Authority that can streamline and connect the various waterfront areas – which are currently managed by differing jurisdictions – under what he calls a “one stop” system of management.
The current system prevents the city from being able to achieve a world-class harbourside, Ng said.
He said he also wanted to open more channels of communication with the Leisure and Cultural Services Department to revitalise Tsim Sha Tsui’s waterfront.
“Tsim Sha Tsui has so many cultural facilities. Can we bring these out to the waterfront and create appropriate designs?” Ng said.
“Can we have outdoor performances and exhibitions related to culture to allow the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront to retain its own unique flavour as a cultural waterfront space?” he said.
At the end of this year, Ng will step down from his role as president of the Institute.
Despite rumours that he may run for election in the Legislative Council this autumn, Ng – a former member of the Civic Party – said that he thinks the move would be “wasting” his time.
“I have to see realistically where I can spend my time most wisely. But I do have recommendations on today’s political environment,” Ng said.
Although Ng has no concrete plans for the future, he’s far from worried.
“If you take the step right in front of you and do it well, naturally something else will come along,” Ng said.
Vincent Ng Wing-shun
Education: BArch (Distinction) and Master of Urban Design from the University of Hong Kong
Career: Award-winning architect and urban designer who has worked on diverse projects including residential, churches, schools and commercial buildings throughout his 30-year-long career. Ng is currently president of Hong Kong Institute of Architects, chairman of the Harbourfront Commission’s core group for public engagement and director of AGC Design Ltd.