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Saved from the wrecking ball: old Hong Kong buildings given a new lease of life

Saved from the wrecking ball: old Hong Kong buildings given a new lease of life

Originally published at the South China Morning Post on June 26, 2016.

Having transformed a police station into a hotel and a hospital into a Chinese centre – the Hong Kong government’s scheme to preserve and repurpose historic buildings has saved several heritage structures in recent years.

Yet experts say that such efforts now need to be drastically expanded and scrutinised as the city continues down a road of rapid development.

Established in 2008, the revitalisation scheme is run by the Development Bureau and aims to conserve government-owned historic buildings that are vacant and have limited commercial viability through repurposing them as social enterprises.

Although the programme has been hailed as a rare success for the government by some experts, others say too few buildings are covered by the scheme and call its emphasis on ensuring projects become financially sustainable in the long run “problematic”.

“If you think that just by keeping those buildings in place – which means that you don’t tear them down – [is enough] then it may be called successful,” Conservancy Association senior campaign manager Peter Li Siu-man said. “But if you see what’s being sacrificed – it may not be so good. Almost every building in the scheme has been heavily modified.”

Cultural heritage and the preservation of historic buildings have become hot-button issues in public discourse this past decade. Most recently, the collapse of a structure at the former Central Police Station compound last month raised concerns about the handling of heritage buildings, as well as government commitment to effectively preserve historic structures.

Since its launch, the scheme has allocated properties to 15 NGOs that have received approval for their development proposals. Non-profit organisations apply to operate the buildings, and the government provides support in the form of a one-off grant covering renovation costs, nominal rental and a one-off grant with a HK$5 million ceiling to meet starting costs and operating deficits for the first two years – after which they are supposed to be financially sustainable.

Should the projects fail to become financially sustainable or not operated “to the satisfaction of the government” – operators will be asked to “rectify the situation” within a specified period or the government may terminate the tenancy agreement and repossess the site.

Of the eight projects currently in operation, six have received government subsidies for starting costs for the first two years – two of which also claimed funds for operating deficits. So far, none that has been operating for longer than two years has failed to become financially sustainable.

“After the projects have commenced operation, the [non-profits] are required to submit regular progress reports on the operation of the social enterprises,” a bureau spokesman said. “In addition, government officers conduct regular review visits as well as surprise spot checks.”

According to Li, the requirement for projects to break even after the first two years misses the point as it prioritises commercialisation over conservation. The fact that the government selects buildings with limited commercial viability yet expects operators to turn a profit is contradictory, he said, adding that buildings in remote locations, for example, find it harder to become financially sustainable.

“The government is struggling to make every single building financially viable – I don’t think that is very realistic. We need to make it clear that strictly heritage conservation comes first,” Li said, adding that the funds from the commercially successful projects should be used to support those not so successful operations.

“Different buildings have different potential. We have to look at it in a holistic way.”

He cited Mei Ho House – a former resettlement block in Sham Shui Po that has been converted into a youth hostel – as an example of a site that has lost its spirit to commercialisation.

“The style, the atmosphere is simply not the original. That’s the trouble with gentrification.”

Lui Seng Chun, a shophouse converted into a Chinese medicine centre and tea shop, and Fong Yuen Study Hall, now a Chinese cultural centre, claimed subsidies of about HK$1.03 million and HK$1.52 million respectively for operating deficits. But for Li, the study hall in particular is one of the scheme’s few successes.

“It may not be very popular but it keeps the original look quite well. The whole thing is quite good, the heritage tour. From my view it’s quite successful, but may not be very good commercially,” he said. Moving forward, the government should expand the scheme to include all vacant historic buildings it owns, he added.

When selecting project proposals, officials will consider whether plans reflect the “historical value and significance of the building” and attempts to minimise the level of building modifications, the spokesman said.

“For a social enterprise, the pursuit of maximum profit is not the primary objective. Rather, its aim is to bring social value and benefits to our community,” the spokesman said, adding profits will be reinvested into the social enterprise. “There is thus no question of over-commercialisation.”

Yu Ka-sing, a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s division of architectural conservation programmes, agrees the scheme is currently rather limited.

But he points out that the government also has limited funds and professional resources to spend on the preservation and revitalisation of historic buildings in general, and officials in charge of preservation – for instance those in the Antiquities and Monuments Office – are too few.

“It’s not that the government doesn’t want to [do more]. They just don’t have the money,” Yu said. “The projects usually don’t earn good money.”

Although the requirement for projects to be financially sustainable may have some negative consequences, Yu thinks it is necessary as an incentive for ­operators to ­produce quality projects.

Moreover, since many historic buildings of high commercial value are already being leased through the Government Property Agency, it makes sense for the scheme to focus on those that have limited commercial viability.

“Some people are still not accepting the idea of adaptive reuse – they are too tied up with keeping the original source and taste,” Yu said. “But I don’t think this should be the case.”

As of May, 64 out of 114 declared monuments and 242 out of 1,338 historic buildings are owned by the government. The next batch to be included will be announced by the end of this year.

Former North Kowloon Magistracy

The seven-storey building was one of the city’s busiest magistracies until its closure in 2005 and is representative of many civic buildings during the period. Key architectural features include a double-canopied central projecting bay, a grand staircase and a central atrium. It is now the site of the US-based Savannah College of Art and Design’s Hong Kong branch.

Built: 1960

Grading: 2

New purpose: Private college

Timeline: 2009 to 2010

Old Tai O Police Station

One of the earliest police stations on the city’s islands, it was established to defend against pirates. Marine police officers stationed there were responsible for public security in villages and patrolled on sampans. The station also served as an administrative centre to help settle disputes between villagers, and later a patrol post before becoming the nine-room boutique Tai O Heritage Hotel.

Built: 1902

Grading: 2

New purpose: Hotel

Timeline: 2010 to 2012

Lui Seng Chun

Lui Seng Chun is a typical example of a tong lau or tenement building from the 1930s. The ground floor was occupied by a Chinese bone-setting medicine shop while Lui Leng’s family lived on the upper floors, until his death. Now the upper floors of the heritage shophouse are taken up by a traditional Chinese medicine centre operated by Baptist University while the lower level houses a herbal tea shop.

Built: 1931

Grading: 1

New purpose: Chinese medicine centre

Timeline: 2011 to 2012

Former Lai Chi Kok Hospital

Believed to have once been a prison, the building was converted into a hospital in 1938. The hospital’s roof was made using a local Chinese double-tile system, while the utilitarian style blocks in the compound were constructed in the form of rectangular pitched roof structures. It is now the Jao Tsung-I Academy.

Built: 1921 to 1924

Grading: 3

New purpose: Chinese culture and cultural exchange centre

Timeline: 2011 to 2014

Fong Yuen Study Hall

The study hall was first established as a small rural private school that closed in 2003. When the Japanese occupied Hong Kong and invaded Ma Wan, it also served as a station for troops. It has been converted into the Yuen Yuen Institute Tourism and Chinese Cultural Centre cum Ma Wan Residents Museum.

Built: 1920-1930

Grading: 3

New purpose: Cultural centre and museum

Timeline: 2011 to 2013

Mei Ho House

The city’s sole surviving Mark I H-shaped resettlement block – a type of 1950s architectural style made up of six- or seven-storey buildings built in the shape of an H. It was one of the first eight blocks in the Shek Kip Mei Estate public housing scheme. It is now the YHA Mei Ho House Youth Hostel, with a public housing museum, cafe, communal space and garden.

Built: 1954

Grading: 2

New purpose: Youth Hostel

Timeline: 2010 to 2013

Old Tai Po Police Station

The cluster of single-storey buildings date back to 1899 and was the location where the British raised their flag for the first time after taking over the New Territories. The site reopened in November as Green Hub, a sustainable living centre run by Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, with a vegetarian restaurant, organic shop and guest rooms.

Built: 1899

Grading: 1

New purpose: Sustainability centre

Timeline: 2013 to 2015

Stone houses

Built by the Japanese during the second world war to rehouse residents from villages razed for Kai Tak airport, the houses became a squatter area in Kowloon City after civil war broke out on the mainland. Later named Hau Wong Temple New Village, it housed several film studios as well as cottage factories and ateliers. After the squatter area was cleared in 2001, five Chinese vernacular houses became Stone Houses Family Garden.

Built: 1937 to 1957

Grading: 3

New purpose: Tourist and heritage centre

Timeline: 2012 to 2015

Blue House cluster

The cluster of houses in Wan Chai, one of the earliest developed districts on Hong Kong Island, are significant because they showcase the typical configuration of shops on the ground floor and residential quarters in the upper levels of Hong Kong’s 20th century tenement houses. The Viva Blue House project will see buildings revamped to house new tenants – preferably handymen, craftsmen and artists – and include the existing folk gallery and second-hand goods shop.

Grading: 1-3

New purpose: Small Business

Timeline: 2013 to 2016

Haw Par Mansion

Founded by millionaire philanthropist Aw Boon-haw, the mansion survived the Japanese occupation and the demolition of the adjoining Tiger Balm Garden – the city’s first major theme park – and its seven-storey white pagoda in 2004. The three-storey mansion showcases a fusion of East-West design endorsed by the two brothers of the Tiger Balm empire. It is now Haw Par Music Farm.

Built: 1933 to 1935

Grading: 1

New purpose: music-themed heritage and arts education centre

Timeline: 2016 to 2018

Bridges Street Market

It was once part of the site of the former American Congregational Mission’s preaching hall, where Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China, was baptised in 1883. Many of Hong Kong’s oldest newspapers – including the Post – were based near the market, which was the city’s first post-war market building and its first in the Bauhaus style. It is now a news museum, Hong Kong News-Expo.

Built: 1953

Grading: 3

New purpose: Museum

Timeline: 2016 to 2018

Former Fanling Magistracy

The magistracy was originally built to handle offences within the Northern District of the New Territories before it was replaced in 2002. The building has now been taken over by the Federation of Youth Groups and become its Institute for Leadership Development, a project that has been criticised for being too commercial or a potential political tool. The group plans to create a model parliament on the site.

Built: 1960

Grade: 3

New purpose: Youth Institute

Timeline: 2016 to 2017

No 12 School Street

The school was founded by local inhabitants in the late Qing dynasty and rebuilt in 1949 after being destroyed during the Japanese occupation. The former free school has become the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Heritage Centre and will be used to showcase the art of the annual fire dragon dance, which was included in the city’s list of intangible cultural heritage in 2011, and promote Hakka culture.

Built: 1949

Grading: 3

New purpose: Heritage Centre

Timeline: 2017 to 2019

Old Dairy Farm Senior Staff Quarters

The quarters are among the oldest of the remaining Dairy Farm buildings in the city. During the war in 1941, the dairy herd was decimated and the farm’s premises were looted. Most of the farm’s premises were demolished in recent decades to make way for housing estates. Abandoned since the 1980s, the Pok Fu Lam farm site will be restored to how it looked in 1919 and transformed into a living museum. Built: 1887

Grading: 1

New purpose: Living Museum

Timeline: 2017 to 2019

Lady Ho Tung Welfare Centre

The centre in Sheung Shui was the city’s first rural clinic and is a mixed Chinese and Western style building. In its early days, the centre served as a maternity centre and a sanatorium for Indian soldiers before becoming a general outpatient clinic. It will serve as an eco-learning centre, the Lady Ho Tung Welfare Centre Eco-Learn Institute, run by the Taoist charity Sik Sik Yuen.

Built: 1933

Grading: 2

New purpose: Eco-Learning Centre

Timeline: 2017 to 2019

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