Heritage buildings have witnessed the development of our city, and are no doubt valuable and unique assets of our community.
Mr José Yam Ho-san, Commissioner for Heritage, HKSAR Government’s Development Bureau.

Against the tide of modernity and capitalism, the territory has enhanced its efforts to conserve and revitalise its historic buildings.

Hong Kong’s gleaming buildings packed around Victoria Harbour creates one of the most recognisable skylines in the world. Yet nestled within this modern skyscraper city are many older buildings that have stoically remained as the territory flourished from a fishing village to an international financial centre.

These historic buildings range from traditional Chinese ancestral halls and Western residences to waterworks structures within pre-war reservoirs. Over the past decade, the government has channelled its efforts and resources towards conserving and revitalising the city’s heritage.

“Heritage buildings have witnessed the development of our city and are no doubt valuable and unique assets of our community,” says José Yam Ho-san, the Commissioner for Heritage from the Hong Kong Government’s Development Bureau.

“Through preservation of these historic buildings, we can learn more about our past and the evolution of our society, which in turn helps us develop a sense of identity and belonging to our community. This inheritance is something that we cherish, and we will continue to devote time, effort and resources for the conservation and revitalisation of our historic buildings.”

The demise of the old Star Ferry terminal in Edinburgh Place, in the Central district of Hong Kong, in November 2006 was a turning point that unleashed a wave of nostalgia and resulted in much soul-searching about the need for heritage protection.

In reaction to rising community expectations, the government announced the first clear heritage conservation policy in 2007 which led to the implementation of a number of initiatives. These include the “Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme”, which allows non-profit organisations to apply for the adaptive reuse of government-owned historic buildings to run social enterprises, with public funding for the revitalisation works, as well as providing economic incentives and maintenance support for privately owned historic buildings.

So far, 19 projects have been launched under the rrevitalization scheme. Eight have started operations in creative reuse such as a hostel, cafe, higher education institute, hotel, training camp and cultural centre. More than 3.4 million people have visited the eight sites and the projects have won four UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.

At last count, the Antiquities and Monuments Office, the government body responsible for conserving Hong Kong’s archaeological and built heritage, listed 114 declared monuments – which receive the highest level of protection – and 1034 historic buildings graded either 1 (outstanding merits), 2 (special merits) or 3 (some merits).

Here’s a closer look at three preservation projects in Hong Kong that have received a new lease of life.

PMQ

Constructed in 1951 as the first dormitory for Chinese rank-and-file police officers, the former Police Married Quarters on Hollywood Road in Central has become a hub for design and creative industries.

It is one of eight projects under the “Conserving Central” initiative announced in 2009, which preserves many of the important cultural, historical and architectural features in the heart of Hong Kong Island while adding new life and vibrancy to the area.

A Grade 3 historic building, its architecture represents the typical modern style commonly found in the post-war period, which has a functional and pragmatic approach on elevations and interior layout, with minimum decoration.

Its three blocks have been refurbished and upgraded for new uses. Former residential units which housed 165 families have been converted into studios, shops and offices, housing nearly 100 design and creative enterprises. The top floor of Block B is now a rooftop restaurant with a mezzanine floor.

Tenants are from various sectors including fashion, household product design, food, furniture, jewellery, design services and galleries. Exhibition space and event facilities are also available.

The site itself has several layers of historical significance, having originally been the location of Central School in 1889, the first government school to provide upper primary and secondary Western education to the public. The remains of this institution, such as granite steps and rubble retaining walls, have been preserved.

Lui Seng Chun

The strong smell of traditional Chinese medicine herbs still wafts through the verandahs of Lui Seng Chun, more than 85 years after the tong lau, or Chinese shophouse, was built in 1931. These days, however, the Grade 1 historic building in the Yau Tsim Mong district in Kowloon is a clinic of the Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Chinese Medicine.

Designed and built by architect W.H. Bourne, the four-storey shophouse features a verandah-style of construction that was common before World War II. Owned by Mr Lui Leung, the ground floor was occupied by a Chinese bone-setting medicine shop named Lui Seng Chun, while the upper floors were living quarters for the Lui family.

In 1980 the building was vacated and its ownership eventually transferred to the government in 2003. In 2008, the Baptist University, with financial aid from the government, transformed it into a centre dedicated to the practice of Chinese medicine.

Glass panels were added to the semi-open verandahs to increase internal usable space, create a barrier against noise and dust, and allow air-conditioning in the building. The ground floor, which is open to the public, has a herbal tea shop and a display about the history of the old Lui Seng Chun.

“The preservation effort was to conserve the character of the building and at the same time to meet the end-user requirements and the current building regulations,” says Samuel Tam, who works in the university’s Estates Office.

On the importance of heritage conservation, Tam adds: “There are different values of preserving heritage, especially in Hong Kong. In the age of globalisation, we need to have local character in order to distinguish ourselves from others.”

Fringe Club/Foreign Correspondents’ Club

The cold storage warehouse of the Old Dairy Farm Depot at Lower Albert Road in Central, that once stored and distributed ice and dairy products to the public, had been left derelict for close to 10 years after the company moved out. Built in 1892 in a late-Victorian architectural style with alternating red and white brickwork known as “blood and bandages”, it was marked for demolition.

“By chance, we got it for a temporary venue for the Fringe Festival launched in 1983,” said Benny Chia, founder and director of the Fringe Club, a non-profit arts organisation. “We converted it into an arts space, stayed on and coincidentally preserved it until this day.”

The Grade 1 historic building now has two tenants: the Fringe Club in the South Block, which was the original depot, and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in the North Block, which was built as a series of extensions in 1913, 1917 and 1925 as Dairy Farm’s business thrived.

The building’s architecture has a strong neo-classical influence with moulded cornices, bull’s-eye windows, architraves, keystones, pilasters and pediments combined in eclectic profusion. With its unique shape due to the difficult corner site, its architectural style is now rare in Hong Kong, and therefore of considerable heritage value, and externally at least remains fairly authentic in appearance.

Both tenants have invested heavily to accentuate the architectural merit of the building. Last year, for the second time, the Fringe Club was awarded the Chief Executive's Community Project Grant to renovate and restore the facade and architectural features of building.

“We've done 12 rounds of renovations, big and small, without once interrupting our operations. Our conservation efforts have been guided by practical use tempered with our love and respect for the building,” says Chia.

“At the same time, we complement the capital works with a programme of exhibitions and site-specific dramatisations of the stories about the times and characters related to that of the building. We believe this is just as important as our conservation of the physical features of the building.”

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, founded in 1943, had several homes before being granted the use of its present premises. Since then, the club has faithfully and enthusiastically fulfilled its duty to upkeep the treasured building while establishing itself as the premier meeting place for the international media and other like-minded associates.

Simon Pritchard, the club’s secretary, said the premises had two main phases of development. “Between 1982 and 2002, the Main Bar developed as one of Hong Kong’s great watering holes, but by 2002 its fading carpets and cigarette-stained walls had become tired,” he says.

“The 2002 renovation took the walls back to the original bricks, while carpet and layers of old lino were peeled off to reveal the original mosaic tiles from the 19th century. The refresh breathed new life into the club and we have gone from strength to strength.”

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