As Hong Kong demolishes its character

Updated: 2017-08-18 06:34

(HK Edition)

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In the wake of the latest urban development controversy in Central's old town, the rapidly changing character of the city's storied streets is firmly in the spotlight, writes Sylvia Chang.

Housing is the city's leading social sore point - and yet the urgency to trash everything in sight in order to build expensive new high rises is slowly wearing down the things that made Hong Kong, Hong Kong.

When Sylvia Lai returned from her studies in the United Kingdom she was dismayed to discover that the old neighborhood where she lived for more than 20 years wasn't there anymore.

"I hadn't noticed the changes taking place. But one day I found out, ah, they're all gone," Lai said.

Lai lives in the old town of Central. The place where she grew up was dotted with leafy lanes, historical sites, old-style tenements and steps that had been built a century before. Her neighborhood stood as an anomaly against the stark contrast of big money, tall towers and international commerce that dominate Central's landscape.

"My family moved from one street to the next. My dad and I went to the same primary school," Lai said. Both she and her father were born and grew up there.

The neighborhood exemplified the hurly-burly that characterizes so much of Hong Kong. For all that, it was a haven of tranquility compared to the business world that surrounded it.

Some of the historic architecture remains in the shadows of the giants. There's a mix of new commercial buildings and residential buildings. The district is in danger of tipping too far into corporate world and destroying the culture that was shaped during the colonial era and gave it its character.

The printing industry used to flourish in the neighborhood. Lai recalled childhood days, when the print shops were gathering places.

"My mum came here to play cards with the neighbors. I went after her and came to play with other kids," Lai recalled on a wet weekend in June, as rain pattered on the roof of the old bric-a-brac shop.

Lai's shop sits on the ground floor of a tong lau at the end of Wing Lee Street. It faces the granite walkways of ladder streets. Some coffee shops and small businesses still survive under the sheltering canopies of the banyan trees clambering over crumbling walls.

Space invaders

The area was rezoned for "comprehensive development". The Urban Renewal Authority (URA), often criticized for placing "profit" above other considerations, proposed a redrafted redevelopment plan earlier this year. It called for a change in land use to make way for the property developers to come in.

The plan first appeared in 2013, but was set aside later that same year. Then, with about 70 percent of the properties in the area in its sights, the URA put the plan on the table for a second time in April this year.

If the plan were authorized and property acquisition reached 80 percent, the authority could go forward, assuming the remaining properties so that redevelopment could begin.

The plot ratio of the proposed redevelopment was set in 2013 at 3.9. The URA struck that off in its second proposal this year, raising the plot ratio to 7.9. Under the plan, 20 old tenements would be torn down and replaced by a 20-story tower housing 200 flats.

"When the urban core is deficient in housing - while the core area in Central is underdeveloped - I think it's a waste of land," said Michael Ma, executive director of the URA.

Hong Kong has a serious problem with its shortage of affordable housing. The 2016 UBS Global Real Estate Bubble Index showed the city's residential properties are heavily encumbered by the highest price-to-income ratio among 18 global financial centers. Those include London, Paris, Singapore and New York. A skilled service worker would need to save every cent earned over 18.5 years' work to afford a 60-square-meter flat near the city center.

The URA's plan appears quite reasonable for the city's most pressing social issue. But it comes at a price. Public space where people used to hang out is becoming more and more compressed. There are also the other casualties that fall, inevitably, to these ambitious schemes - the small businesses that have been there for generations.

"The print houses on the street all disappeared. At the time when we noticed, the last one had already closed and was ready to move out," Lai said. She drew out a few keepsakes she had saved from the print house.

Development overkill?

"They (the URA) said providing more units in the place would deal with the housing problem. But just think of it, when they get it done and set the price at HK$30,000 per square foot, who can afford that?" said Fung Wing-kuen, Lai's partner and owner of the bric-a-brac shop.

Statistics from Midland Realty show the average price of private property in the district was HK$19,930 per square foot in May. That was a 23-percent increase in just a year. The price is expected to keep going up.

Fung said the money he makes from the shop can't come close to paying the rent on one of the new places. For him, running the shop these days is a kind of labor of love. "I meet people from all over the world, and we make friends," he said.

People see the space outside Lai's shop as a place for taking it easy. Some people bring their dogs and take in the sights, just wandering around. Some sit on the ladder street with a cup of coffee, chatting with friends.

In the evening Fung lights mosquito coils, while people chat amid the whispering of the wind through the trees.

Architectural scholars argue the city needs to give some hard thought to what it's doing in allowing sustainable living environments to be mowed down in the name of urban renewal.

"The most basic criterion for achieving sustainability, whether there's a natural environment or a man-made environment like a city, is always about diversity," said Lee Ho-yin, associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong.

Lee criticized the URA's approach to redevelopment, calling it not only "destructive to the neighborhood" but also facilitating a problem which "is brewing and is going to reach to a crisis level very, very soon".

"We create the crisis through overdevelopment. We're overdeveloping Hong Kong in a way that is not sustainable. We're overdeveloping properties that we cannot afford, that we don't need," Lee said.

Value judgment

The URA has bigger plans in the works. It's not only the buildings that the authority aims to demolish, "the whole environment of the area needs refurbishment", said Ma of the URA.

There are protests from people opposed to the URA plan, who are calling on the authority to compromise and at least preserve the architectural heritage of the buildings at No 88-90 at Wa In Fong West, which opponents say are a link to the history of the neighborhood.

"The government made the effort to revitalize PMQ (the Police Married Quarters) and responded to the public's demand to preserve Wing Lee Street. The houses in No 88-90, on Staunton Street, are a bridge linking the two heritages together," said Charlton Cheung, a local resident and member of Sai Wan Concern Group.

Old photos collected by historian Ko Tim-keung reveal the link. The sites on Wing Lee Street, Peel Street and the targeted houses were demolished at the same time - during World War II - and were rebuilt after the war in the 1950s.

The URA, however, rejects arguments that the photos provide evidence for the buildings' historical value. The two buildings are not graded by the Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB). That means their value is not that high, Ma said.

The AAB in Hong Kong assigns grades to individual buildings according to an assessment of their historical value. Old buildings without grading are fair game for URA's redevelopment projects.

There are also old photos indicating the buildings in the No 88-90 block were once owned by the founder of the Overseas Chinese Daily News and used as a staff dormitory. With the nearby Hong Kong News-Expo, revitalized from the old Bridges Street Market, the buildings reflect a history of the print industry.

The mounting opposition to the URA project led to calls on July 13 for the proposal to be scrapped. The URA revoked the latest proposal sent to the Town Planning Board in April. The URA says it has made no decision on future action.

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As Hong Kong demolishes its character

(HK Edition 08/18/2017 page7)