Written by Candy Kei Yue Law and Anna Wai Yu Yau
The time period of Colonial Hong Kong began after the First Opium War in 1841 and was ruled by the British until June 30, 1997. Hong Kong, like any other colonial city, was not a “barren island”. Farming and fishing villages were certainly well-established in settled communities long before 1841. The governance of Colonial Hong Kong took few decades to overcome the resistance by the local Chinese; nevertheless, cultural differences have always been an issue for society. Benefitting from its geographical location, Hong Kong has become an important trading hub in Asia. Apart from economic development, the advocacy of freedom turned Hong Kong into an escape zone. Many wealthy and educated Chinese migrated to Hong Kong during many important historical events such as the Republican Revolution in 1911, the revolutionary nationalism of the 1920s, WWII and the Cultural Revolution in 1950’s. The influx of wealthy and educated Chinese immigrants formed a group of Chinese bourgeoisie and accumulated complex cultural layers in Hong Kong.
Under the early colonial government policy, there was no plan for the protection of heritage and localism. Over the years, however, apart from local Chinese, groups of foreign scholars with great interest in local Chinese culture promoted the local Chinese heritage. In 1974 this fostered the formation of the Antiquities and Monuments (A&M) Ordinance, aiming to protect archeological findings and monuments. This was the period when the bloom of economic development put both colonial and vernacular buildings under threat. In order to meet the expansion of the population, more land was acquired in order to develop and urbanize rural areas and to redevelop urban areas. Many iconic colonial buildings in urban areas and local villages with hundred years of history were demolished. The enforcement of the A&M Ordinance could not save historic buildings from demolition, because the grading historic building system is not statutory. As a result, premises connected to historical events and important persons were demolished.
Just before the handover in Hong Kong, a historical trail of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the leader of Republican Revolution in 1911 and the first provisional president of China, was set up to commemorate his contribution. After 95 years of revolution, most of the places along that trail, such as the site where he studied or lived, where his fellows were assassinated, or the meeting place of the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance, no longer exist. Instead, only an interpretation with text and photo are shown along the trail. A question still to be answered is why the places related to such a nationally important person, known as the Father of the Nation, were commemorated in such a way in the politically sensitive timing.
In 2006, the demolition of the Queen’s Pier in Central district triggered a new wave of conservation movement in Hong Kong. The Queen’s Pier was named after Queen Victoria, the pier was in the heart of Hong Kong inside the Victoria Harbour. Since 1925, this pier had always been a ceremonial landing area for the British Royal Family and for successive governors to assert their authority on arrival in Hong Kong. Although the original pier has been relocated for reclamation in 1954, it still has a symbolic meaning for colonial Hong Kong. At the time of 2006, the Queen’s Pier building itself was a functional modern building built in 1954, and has always been a part of the harbour front facilities for public use. This landmark was to be demolished to give way to the harbour front reclamation. Hundreds of protesters occupied the Pier but could not stop its demolition. After this incident, the discussion about heritage values and collective attachment arose in the contemporary society and kick-started a new conservation policy in Hong Kong.
Heritage resources embody layers of values and significance. Heritage is the evidence of the evolution of historical, cultural and social changes. Heritage also embraces both tangible and its associated intangible aspects including traditions, beliefs, practices and identity, which are closely connected to its stakeholders and the host community. Conservation and protection of heritage are crucial to pass these values on to its descendants and are considered to be an essential part of sustainable development. Threats to heritage are therefore also threats to the continued healthy development of a society.
The cases discussed above highlighted the challenges of cultural heritage conservation and management in Hong Kong in the past decades, where the conflicting understanding of heritage got more intense after 1997. A change of political condition – the handover of Hong Kong from British Colonial Government to China on 1 July 1997 – was one of the critical events that sparked heated debates among the general public. Such political change is most influential to the young generation who beholds a two-folded identity – British Nation Overseas as the official nationality and Chinese as the ethnical origin. The outcries for national identification embraced the generation of the 70s, 80s and 90s in Hong Kong; many Hongkongers became proud of its hybrid status, its blend of Chinese and Western culture and its emphasis on both traditional Chinese values, such as family and education, and modern western values, such as economic freedom and the rule of law. The conflict between the heritage of colonialism and nationalism did not end after the transition to sovereignty. The handover back to China and China’s stronger and stronger political influence on Hong Kong’s affairs induced an increasing struggle to the multi-cultural identity. This struggle was revealed through movements to safeguard heritage.
In the field of heritage conservation and management, heritage of any ages or affiliation should be kept as far as possible as a part of the city’s sustainable development for future generations. However, heritage is often being utilized to strengthen one’s cultural history, background and identity, or, on the other hand, used as a tradeoff for revenue return. From various cases in Hong Kong, it became more and more obvious that considerations to conserve the heritage of Chinese ethnic roots have been much easier than the colonial heritage in recent years.
On the other hand some heritage sites, such as modern architecture or colonial heritage, were often threatened by new development. Despite of vigorous voices from the public and professional institutes, safeguarding these heritages in situ and at their best setting and condition is becoming more challenging. Conflicts between pro-conservation organizations, private owners, developers and the government have escalated to divide the society. The conflicts do not result in better solutions; in contrast, they induce a faster rate of redevelopment and demolishment, in particular among privately owned heritage properties. Heritage becomes the victim.
Significance of heritage changes with external conditions and circumstances, the assessment of the values of a heritage site at one time may not be valid at other occasions. While the values of heritage largely rely on subjective interpretations constructed by people at any given moment, setting up standard policies and criteria to safeguard heritage is sometimes not more efficient than that by the stakeholders and public. As a young heritage professional born under such complicated circumstances with multi-cultural identity, we are the victims of losing valuable heritage. Looking forward for a way out to resolve conflicts between people by recognizing root causes of conflicts is crucial. If a common sense of respect, protection and stewardship, i.e a united force, can be achieved amongst stakeholders to safeguard the heritage, no heritage would be the victim of conflicts anymore.
1. Carroll, J. M. (2007). A concise history of Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
2. Ye, Y. (2010). Wei dang xia huai jiu: Wen hua bao yu de qian shi jin sheng. Xianggang: Xianggang Zhong wen da xue Xianggang Ya Tai yan jiu suo.
About the authors:
Candy graduated with a BA in Architectural Studies and a MSc in Conservation from the University of Hong Kong. She now works as a Heritage Officer at the Antiquities & Monuments Office of Hong Kong Government. Previously she worked for one of the oldest architecture firms in Hong Kong which is involved in conservation and architectural design projects in Hong Kong and overseas. Moreover, her working experiences include managing conservation projects, as well as providing technical advice and assessment to the government grants scheme for historical buildings in Hong Kong. Her interest covers vernacular architecture conservation. Some of her articles have been published in academic journals in China.
Anna graduated with a BA (Japanese Studies) and an MA (Cultural Management) from The Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Cultural Heritage Management from HKU SPACE. She is an accredited heritage conservationist (HKICON) and Project Management Professional (PMI). She was the project coordinator of a 2015 UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Conservation Award winning project. Anna is currently working as a programme manager in Cultural Heritage Management Training and Education field. Her research interests include cultural tourism management, heritage interpretation, exhibition design and heritage sustainable development.