HongKong Life

Public pleasure, private ownership?

By Christopher DeWolf (HK Edition)
Updated: 2010-07-20 07:12
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 Public pleasure, private ownership?

The Lee family ancestral hall in Dragon Garden was designed by Chu Pin, who was commissioned to restore the Forbidden City in Beijing after World War II. Provided to China Daily

 Public pleasure, private ownership?

One of the garden's most recognizable features is a large dragon fountain made from recycled bottles. Provided to China Daily

 Public pleasure, private ownership?

Traditional Chinese decorative items like a tower are found throughout the garden. Provided to China Daily

A family legacy and cultural treasure, Dragon Garden is testing the civic-minded imagination of a granddaughter. How she sees and approaches the challenge of presenting this historic site without losing it is the focus of Christopher DeWolf's report.

When Cynthia Lee Hong-yee found out that her family planned to sell her grandfather's private Hong Kong garden to developers, she returned from the United States to take photos of the lush greenery and eclectic Western-influenced Chinese architecture.

"I was capturing some of the details and I realized I just couldn't capture Dragon Garden's greatness," she said. "It has to be experienced."

She realized the garden needed to be saved - and it was up to her to do it. After a contentious battle with the relatives who owned the garden, Lee managed to persuade her uncle, Lee Shiu, to save it from redevelopment by purchasing it from his brothers and nephews for HK$100 million. The plan, after that, was to donate the garden to the government, which would then open it to the public.

That was in 2006. Since then, the garden, which is located on the shores of the Rambler Channel just west of Sham Tseng, has sat in limbo, free from the threat of demolition but with no concrete plans to restore it and open it to the public. The Lees' original offer to donate the garden was rebuffed by the government. It later changed tack and said it could take over the site, but would not guarantee how it would be used in the future.

As Hong Kong debates how best to preserve its heritage, the case of Dragon Garden poses a question that has proved surprisingly hard to answer: once you've saved an historic site, what do you do with it?

"Once you decide to keep something like this, you need a lot of money to preserve it, and there has to be some kind of public contribution to deal with it," said Lee Ho-yin, the director of the University of Hong Kong's Architectural Conservation Programme.

The problem is that Hong Kong's heritage conservation policies make little allowance for a privately-owned site whose owners want to open it to the public, he said. Roughly HK$30 million would be needed to restore Dragon Garden. While Lee Shiu is considering setting up a trust that would fund the garden's day-to-day management, Cynthia Lee said the government would need to provide money for the capital works needed to restore the garden and bring it up to code.

In 2007, the government offered to include Dragon Garden in a new revitalization scheme for historical buildings, one that also includes the Blue House in Wan Chai, a block of the former Shek Kip Mei Estate and a former police station in Tai O. In order to take part in the scheme, however, the government would need to take ownership of Dragon Garden and award its management to a non-governmental organization. The Tai O Police Station is currently being converted into a boutique hotel and the Shek Kip Mei housing estate will eventually be home to a youth hostel.

"The revitalization scheme is a step in the right direction, but it has its flaws," said Lee. "With projects like these, there's a danger that our heritage is being used for private uses. We want to open a private heritage site to the public, not vice versa."

The government's 2007 offer still stands, and Lee said her uncle will soon begin negotiating a different arrangement that would allow him to retain ownership of the site even as the government provides financial support for its restoration. In the meantime, Lee will focus on planning ways to build a future for Dragon Garden by drawing from its past.

The garden's story began with Lee Iu-cheung, who was born in Hong Kong in 1896 to a migrant family from Zhongshan, Guangdong. Lee grew up in Sheung Wan, where he witnessed some of Hong Kong's more deplorable living conditions, an experience that gave him "a lasting compassion for the poverty-stricken," according to his childhood friend Shum Wai-yau, who published a short biography of Lee in 1967.

Lee eventually became what newspapers refer to as a tycoon - a wealthy, powerful businessman with interests ranging from trucking to cinema to construction. But Lee's true passion was philanthropy, and he put his considerable influence to good use on the boards of several hospital groups and charities.

When Lee bought a barren hillside near Sham Tseng in 1949, his intention was not only to create a garden for his family, but something he could share with the whole of Hong Kong. The first thing he did was build a swimming pool, which he opened to the public, nearly a decade before the first public swimming pool opened in Victoria Park.

"He had read that some children had drowned at the beach and he said, 'I'm going to build something big enough for the schoolchildren to come use it,'" said Cynthia Lee.

In 1958, Lee hired renowned Chinese architect Chu Pin to build an ancestral hall, mausoleum and pavilion. Waterfalls, ponds and a stream were built in the garden, flowing toward the ocean in accordance with feng shui principles. Statues representing Buddhist, Taoist and Christian traditions were scattered throughout the site.

The same mish-mash of Chinese and Western styles is found throughout the garden: Qing Dynasty-style buildings covered in mosaic tiles, for instance, or stained glass windows depicting traditional Chinese scenes.

The garden's architecture was interesting enough to catch the eye of Hollywood film producers. In the 1974 James Bond movie The Man With a Golden Gun, Dragon Garden serves as the estate of a nefarious Thai-Chinese businessman, Hai Fat, who intercepts Bond after he sneaks into the garden and tries to join Fat's girlfriend as she skinny-dips in the pool.

"It somehow captures the environment of Hong Kong during the 1960s and 70s, which was a combination of different styles and influences," said Marisa Yiu, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Hong Kong.

Even more remarkably, the garden was built using techniques that are today considered environmentally-friendly, with plenty of recycled materials. Footpath curbs were made with ginger beer bottles, as was the large dragon fountain that serves as the garden's centerpiece. Granite slabs were salvaged from demolished buildings in Central. The pool water was pumped in from the sea. Rainwater was recycled to supply the garden's water features.

For all its ingenuity, though, it didn't take long for the garden to fall into disuse after Lee died in 1976. In the late 1990s, part of its front section was lopped off by the widening of Castle Peak Road. The government built a large concrete wall to shield the garden from road noise. After the family decided to sell the property, it was left to decay, and Hong Kong's heat and humidity took its toll on the garden's buildings.

But the vegetation thrived, and today's garden has an unruly appearance that complements its eccentric atmosphere. "The most amazing thing is the calmness and the nature of it," Yiu said. "There's really something quite powerful about that space. I don't know if it's the different components, the way the trees are or the water space, but there's something very magical. You can't capture it, not through film or photography or writing about it. You just have to be there."

Finding a way for the general public to experience that sense of magic is something that Cynthia Lee has been trying to do for most of the past four years. After the garden was saved, she set up a charitable trust to promote dialogue about heritage conservation. The garden is now open once a month for public visits and it often plays host to group tours.

Lee has also invited artists and students to study the site. Earlier this year, Yiu made Dragon Garden the focus of her graduate architecture seminar on cultural landscapes. Seven groups of students made installations that raised questions about different aspects of the garden. One used LED boxes to literally shed light on some of the garden's easy-to-miss details; another explained the history of the ginger beer bottles used in the garden.

"These kinds of private spaces are rarely discussed in Hong Kong," said one student, Choi Kit-wang, whose group made Where the Dragon Lies, an installation that used lights, recycled bottles and a fish pond to depict the new residential development that surrounds the garden and once threatened to destroy it.

"If you put it in context with new development, it forces people who move to the area to rethink their relationship to heritage and the garden," he said. "It's a good example of how residential development has grown rapidly without anyone caring about its impact on heritage," said his groupmate, William Lai Wing-fung.

Similar themes were explored by another installation, Resonance, which strung LED lights over the wall built when Castle Peak Road was widened. The lights blinked according to the level of sound emitted by cars passing by and planes flying overhead, a reminder of how Dragon Garden, once isolated, now finds itself on Hong Kong's urban fringe.

"There are quite a number of levels (at which) to enjoy the garden," said Bill Chan Yiu-kwan, one of the students behind Resonance. "You can just enjoy the nature of it, but if you get some information on the history of the garden, and the concepts and ideas behind it, it becomes more fascinating."

That is perhaps the biggest challenge in opening Dragon Garden to the public: making sure it remains relevant to the public. "There's so much potential for education in this garden," said Cynthia Lee. "It's not about commemorating my grandfather - it's about understanding Hong Kong in the period of time that the garden was built."

Lee said that a recently-completed feasibility study suggested dividing the garden into a mix of zones, some for public recreational use and others for educational use and research. The emphasis would be on showcasing the garden's history through new media and interactive experiences.

"We want to take a 21st century approach, which is about how the visitor engages with the garden and what they take away from it," said Lee. We don't want to put some objects behind glass for people to look at."

Of course, for all of this to be possible, there needs to be a way to pay for it all. The success of Lee's plans hinges on convincing the government to lend financial support to the garden without taking ownership, and then on finding private donors to sustain the trust her uncle has considered setting up.

That's no small task, said Lee Ho-yin. "I have no idea what a trust can do. Where does the money come from? From the public? Through donations? That would be very tricky. I don't know if it can happen."

But Cynthia Lee is confident that it can be done. She points to private gardens in Europe and North America, which are managed by trusts that raised money from the public, businesses and the government.

"It could be a win-win situation for the government and the people if we think outside the box and come up with an original solution," she said. She recalled how, four years ago, everyone told her that it was impossible to save Dragon Garden from redevelopment.

That turned out to be far from the truth. "It just goes to show that nothing is impossible if you take the right approach," she said.

 Public pleasure, private ownership?

Cynthia Lee considers herself the guardian of Dragon Garden. Provided to China Daily

(HK Edition 07/20/2010 page4)