Recently, a well-know movie "Echoes of the Rainbow" has once again arouse the public's awareness of heritage conservation. The government planned to redevelop Wing Lee Street as a dwelling house in order to advance the urban development. However, after "Echoes of the Rainbow" was filmed at that street and won the award at the Berlin Film Festival 2010, that plan was discarded. (Apple Daily) This time, the government held the totally different view point than before. Three years ago, in spite of the intense protest, the government still destroyed Star Ferry Pier, Queen's Pier and Wedding Card Street for achieving more new developing areas. From my point of view, I strongly think that if the heritages can be well conserved, it can also boost Hong Kong economy. Balancing both our collective memory and urban development are the job of the government and the real purpose of heritage conservation.
Preserving the heritage is very important as it has lots of advantages. Firstly, local heritage possesses symbolic meaning to the unity of a society. Undoubtedly, historical heritage is memorable to the local people in a city. (TV programme'Hong Kong Story' of RTHK). As urban theorist Aldo Kossi says, 'the city is the collective memory of the people' and 'memory is the basis of self identity' (Betty S F Ho, 2000). Local sentiments for the home city bring up self identity and the unity of a society. Destroying historical heritage could mean pulling down unity within a city since the sense of belonging is deteriorated.
Keeping the historical heritage can also maintain cultural diversity for the future generations. As suggested by the Conservancy Association, heritage conservation is also a matter of sustainable development and cross-generational equity. We do not have the right to deplete our natural or cultural resource, especially if they are non-renewable, to the detriment of our future generations (The Conservancy Association, 2003). Our education system mainly focuses on logical training but this is not enough. Creativity is important for sustainable development. However, the development of creativity is not just about reading different books, but also to experience in person. We cannot count on imagination only. By keeping the historical heritage, the new generation learns that a society can accommodate different culture and also the development from the old Hong Kong to the new one.
In an ecological point of view, heritage conservation is an environmental friendly act. Pulling down old buildings for renewal produces tons of waste. As pollution problem in Hong Kong is getting more and more serious in recent years, we should learn to conserve our resources when they are still useful. Renewal of the old buildings would be better for the earth and cost-efficient than pulling down them.
The advantage of urban renewal
On the other hand, urban renewal and buildings brings advantages. It definitely provides more land use, and there would be less need for landfill areas, which might further narrow our Victoria Harbour. As a crowded city, a more spacious living environment would improve the living quality of Hong Kong residents. People will be more happy and healthy when their living space expands.
Renewal of old areas provides better living conditions for residents. According to the Development Bureau, Planning and Lands Branch of the HKSAR Government, at present there are about 9,300 private buildings in the Metro Area (i.e. Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, Tsuen Wan and Kwai Tsing) which are 30 years' old and above. In ten years' time, the number of buildings over 30 years' old will increase by 50%. The problem of ageing buildings is most serious in older urban areas (Planning and Lands Branch Development Bureau, 2008). Old buildings do not only affect the outlook of a city, they can also be a threat to the residents' safety. Occasional accidents caused by old buildings can be a proof of this. Apparently, there is an urgent need to work on this issue to avoid similar accidents.
Urban renewal creates a new outlook for Hong Kong as a cosmopolitan city. Pollution problem in dilapidated urban areas in Hong Kong is rather serious, which is a big contrast comparing with the developed urban areas. To build up and sustain the 'Asia's world city' image, urban renewal sounds to be a necessary action to be taken.
The ways to balance heritage conservation and urban development
Heritage preservation and urban development may go hand in hand.
The best thing is we can be able to strike a balance between heritage conservation and urban renewal and buildings. For example, more frequent and careful check and renovation can be a way to avoid accidents caused by urban decay. Or we can develop different areas according to their existing unique characteristics, instead of characterize different districts in one style. It is grateful to see the government has been putting more efforts in listening to the citizens' voices when executing policies concerning urban renewal in recent years. But it's a long way to go, more channels can be opened to collect and encourage more valuable opinions. I believe, with our care and attention, the old buildings can be attractions of the city, but no longer dilapidated areas and buildings.
In recent years, the government has been proposing different development plans of the city and many of them involve the areas, where some historical buildings or backstreets are situated, therefore the demolition of the buildings or backstreets become necessary for the plans. For instance, according to the Conservancy Association, the "Woodside" in Quarry Bay was planned to be pulled down in 2005 for the development of high rise residential uses. Luckily, due to the request of the Conservancy Association and the support of the community, the "Woodside" was preserved in the end (Conservancy). Another example is the demolition of the Queen Pier. Due to the Central and Wan Chai Reclamation Project of the government in the 1990s, the Queen Pier was planned to be pulled down in 2006. The aim of the project is to extend the waterfront from Sheung Wan to Causeway Bay, so as to improve the traffic in these districts. But it arouses lots of public concern and objection when it came to the step that the 50-year-old Queen Pier had to be pulled down. As Hongkongers can see that, the government is having different kinds of redevelopment plans in the city so as to boost the economy and competitiveness of Hong Kong. But once these plans are announced or progressed, objection and negative comments come quicker than the ultimate result as all these plans have one common requirement - the scarification of the heritage sites. It seems that this is a big problem that all these plans bring along. It is time for the Government and citizens to think about whether economic development and preservation of heritage sites are mutually opposed, or can be mutually beneficial.
Economic development and preservation of heritage sites can be mutually beneficial, because historical buildings and backstreets can help boost our tourism industry. As they are all of high historical value and characteristic of our culture, they can, in fact, attract a lot of foreign visitors. The foreigners would love to understand Hong Kong culture and history more through looking at these buildings and backstreets. Some of these buildings and backstreets may even show some of the unique Chinese traditional practices and customs, such as the Wedding Card Street that do business by helping people to design traditional but special wedding cards (Tourism Board). If these heritage sites are successfully restored and much better preserved, they could be converted into more popular and attractive tourist's spots, such as the Wedding Card Street, Queen's Pier, Ladies Street, etc. In this way, it is an important economic pulse and we would all benefit from it. On the other hand, if the historical buildings and backstreets are demolished, the foreigners would then lose the opportunity to understand the culture of Hong Kong and thus they may lose their interest in visiting Hong Kong. Hence, it harms the tourism industry and the economy of Hong Kong as well.
A good example about a better policy in preserving the heritage sites so as to make them become famed and attractive tourist spots is Macau, as more than 30% of its economic income comes from the hotel and catering industry (Macao). On the other hand, only around 20% of Hong Kong economic income comes from the hotel and catering industry (Census statistics). According to the Conversancy Association in Hong Kong, the Macau Government has been giving much attention to heritage sites' conservation since the 1970s (Conservancy). The authority looking after conservation policy and implementation is the Cultural Institute (Conservancy). In the policy, not only the individual heritage site is preserved, but also the whole district around a central square, or along a street, and all these historical interests are then linked up with pedestrian walkways (Conservancy). In that way, tourists and visitors can check out all those historical buildings or backstreets one by one according to their own interest and thus understand more about Macau's background. While Macau and Hong Kong both rely much on their tourism industry, Macau has already proved that preserving its own heritage sites does benefit to the tourism industry and thus help boost the economy. Therefore, Hong Kong Government should really start learning from Macau.
While preserving the heritage sites can preserve the history and culture, help boost the tourism industry and thus improve the economy, the demolition of them, on the other hand, brings objection from Hongkongers and some related problems. Hongkongers object to the idea of demolishing the historical buildings and replacing with new developments. They also object to the Government's view, that the heritage sites are of no importance, and that the value of each heritage site can be ignored. The reason why Hongkongers object to the demolition of the historical buildings and interesting backstreets is that the heritage sites are of high historical, cultural and architectural value and importance (Conservancy). They "witness the changes of Hong Kong" (AMO) and are displaying the history, people behaviour and culture in the past. They represent a bridge between the present and the past of the city. Government House in Central is one of the examples, which is representative in witnessing the political change in Hong Kong. The heritage sites are irreplaceable landmarks that symbolize the image and culture of a city. In other words, they are representing Hong Kong and helping us to build up Hong Kong's image!
Apart from the "historical and cultural value" (Conservancy), these historical buildings and backstreets also help enhance the sense of belongings of Hongkongers. You may be surprised to know that there are lots of historical legacies in Hong Kong and they can be found in nearly every district. For instance, Wong Tai Sin Temple in Kwun Tong district, clock tower in Tsim Sha Tsui, Old District in Tai Po, etc (Tourism Board). Therefore, people living in different districts, are having some special collective memories with different of these heritage sites, which means they share a collection of memories with a common culture about the heritage sites and they would then be able to remember the events related to those heritage sites in the future (Answers). Thus, the historical buildings and backstreets in turn provide people with unique social roots. These built heritage sites also help cultivate people's culture identities and even record some significant historical events. That is why people would have a strong sense of belongings due to their collective memories with these heritage sites and they also pick up their identities through these memories. By preserving what remains, it can also serve education purposes by giving our next generation chances to experience and explore.
Of course, some people, especially the businessmen, entrepreneurs and industrialists, would support the development plans proposed by the Government and think that it is worth to demolish the heritage sites when necessary. The first argument that they would raise is, of course, preservation of heritage sites would hinder the economic development in the city. As a world-class city, Hong Kong should and had better have sustainable economic developments so as to maintain its competitiveness among different renowned trading cities. Yet, as Hong Kong is such a small city with a peculiar and rugged landscape, there are limited places or areas for further economic development. Also, due to the high density of population of Hong Kong, there is a need or demand for more lands. Therefore, these reasons prompt the exploration of lands and development of more high-rise buildings (Conservancy). For certain, historical buildings occupying some potential sites, which are planned to be developed, become barriers. A recent good and controversial example should be the Fa Yuen Street (South), which is commonly called the Sport Shoe Street. It is located on a potential site in Mongkok which has already been planned for the development of a brand new Sports City. However, once the plan was announced, the shop owners and citizens living around immediately showed their unwillingness to be removed. They objected to the plan due to their collective memories related to the street. For this reason, the project is now hindered and couldn't be progressed smoothly. In fact, the project can be cancelled, because it is not necessary to have this redevelopment plan if the Government wants to boost the economy. Better preservation of the Fa Yuen Street and making it become a more popular tourist spot can also help boost the economy by improving the tourism industry, so do the other heritage sites.
In addition to the collision with the economic development, the Hong Kong Government would also argue, that the conservation of these cultural and historical heritage sites makes the burden of the Government even much heavier. As citizens all know, preservation of heritage sites is not an easy or cheap task, it requires loads of money and resources. As there is not adequate outside funding for preservation of the historical buildings and backstreets, the government is in fact paying most of the cost in the conservation process of the historical buildings, including the maintenance fee, repairing fee, restoration cost and management cost. This is, in fact, as well, hindering the development of other aspects in the society, like education or environment protection. While we are talking about spending more on better preservation of those precious heritage sites, there are, as well, inadequate resources available for the development for a better education system, or for better environment protection in Hong Kong so as to fight against the global warming. The Hong Kong Government should, therefore, think carefully about what their final choice should be. Yes, it is true that preservation of heritage sites requires loads of money and resources. But if the heritage sites can be converted into popular tourist spots, they can help boost the tourism industry and thus the economy. Then they are no longer the burden of the Government, since the economic income they bring would far outweigh the preservation fee they require.
In addition to the businessmen, entrepreneurs and industrialists, some Hongkongers are also opposed to the preservation of the heritages and backstreet. The reason behind is that the living condition of them may be adversely affected due to the heritage sites. In Hong Kong, the land use in the historical areas like Sheung Wan, Sham Shui Po and Yau Ma Tei were not well-planned many years ago. Lots of mixed commercial and residential areas can be found in these urban areas. Problems like over-crowding, serious noise and air pollution are commonly found in these districts and are getting worse gradually. In that way, preservation of the historical buildings in these districts does not favour the efficient urban planning of alleviating the poor living condition. On the other hand, demolition of buildings and redevelopment of these areas seem more important and necessary since more open and green areas, and a better plan of land use are needed. Thus, residents in these districts would support the Government proposal of demolishing the heritage sites and redeveloping the area as they would like to have a new and better living environment. While it is necessary to solve the living problems in the urban areas, it does not mean that demolishing the heritage sites for redevelopment is the only solution. Reallocation of the population in the urban districts is a more effective and a win-win solution to the problem, as it can not only solve the problem but also let the heritage sites escape from the fate of demolition.
All in all, whether to preserve the heritage sites in Hong Kong depends major on its influence on the Hong Kong economy. And from the arguments mentioned above, you can see that preservation of the precious and memorable heritage sites would not hinder the economic growth in Hong Kong, but in fact help boost the economy by boosting the tourism industry. Moreover, it can help conserve the history and culture of Hong Kong's past. Therefore, the historical buildings and backstreets are really worth preserving and should be better protected. However, in Hong Kong, there is only 85 historical buildings are well preserved now (AMO), when comparing with about 600 in total. It seems that the organizations responsible for this, which include the Antiquities and Monuments Organization (AMO) and the Home Affairs Bureau, are not doing enough. Other countries and cities in the world, such as Macau, have already established their own system in preserving heritage sites and maintaining a balance between the preservation work and the economy. Hong Kong, as an international renowned and world-class city, should catch up with them and start setting up its own system about conserving the heritage sites so as to meet the international standard.
Economic development is not the only factor that determines Hong Kong future and status, preservation of historical and cultural heritage sites also counts. They can even be mutually beneficial. Hongkongers should try their very best to maintain a balance between these two key factors. It is hoped that Hong Kong Government would soon realize this and do more on preserving the important parts of Hong Kong's past before it is too late!