In June, when Jumbo Floating Restaurant was towed out to the middle of the South China Sea, where it capsized in a storm, it seemed like a good metaphor for heritage in Hong Kong. After years of progress and investment, something has gone amiss. “This is just the latest example of Hong Kong’s inability to preserve its contemporary history,” lamented conservation scholar John Hanzhang Ye in the South China Morning Post.
Though Jumbo was sometimes considered a tourist trap, and it went out of business at the beginning of the pandemic, few other buildings were as internationally recognised as a symbol of Hong Kong’s entrepreneurial pluck. After it was rebuilt following a devastating fire in 1972, its flying eaves, neon signs and unlikely location in the middle of Aberdeen Harbour drew millions of visitors, including Queen Elizabeth II and a host of other dignitaries. It drew on a long tradition of floating restaurants in Hong Kong’s typhoon shelters, mostly small family-run affairs, and refashioned it into a dazzling reflection of the city’s economic ascendance.
When the restaurant shut down in 2020, then-Chief Executive Carrie Lam suggested that the government would find a way to revive it, in recognition of its cultural significance. Two years later, after news broke that Jumbo’s owners were going to tow it away to Cambodia, her administration changed course: no government money would be invested in Jumbo and nothing would be done to stop the restaurant from being removed. “I find this situation to be of no problem at all,” said Lam at the end of May.
One Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB) member told the media that, from a policy standpoint, the government’s hands were bound: though it may have been culturally valuable, Jumbo did not meet Hong Kong’s criteria for built heritage. It was too recently built and too ambiguous in form. Was it a building? Or a maritime vessel? “There is an inherent weakness in our system that needs to be addressed immediately,” says heritage conservationist Fredo Cheung. “If we don’t diversify what we consider as built heritage, we’ll be stuck.”
It’s a new twist on a familiar story. For years, Hong Kong ignored its heritage, allowing the entire city to be transformed beyond recognition as 19th century terrace houses were razed for concrete high-rises and early 20th century shophouses made way for modern tong lau. Ornate landmarks like the original Hong Kong Club and first-generation General Post Office were bulldozed; so were beloved attractions like Tiger Balm Garden and Lai Yuen Amusement Park.
Awareness came gradually. The Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance, passed under the administration of Governor Murray MacLehose in 1976, established the Antiquities Authority and a system for grading historic buildings with an eye to conservation. One arm of the authority is the AAB, which provides expert advice on which buildings to grade. Another is the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO), which oversees and manages graded buildings, and conducts research into potential candidates for grading. If it does receive a grade, it is one of three, with various conservation requirements imposed on property owners. Grade I offers the most stringent protection, Grade III the least.
This was modelled on the grading system used in the UK, but unlike that scheme, Hong Kong offers no statutory protection to graded structures: their owners can still alter or redevelop them if they want. The one exception is for Declared Monuments, the only category protected outright from demolition. The very first such monument wasn’t a structure at all, but rather a prehistoric rock carving at Big Wave Bay that was protected in 1978. It was eventually joined by 131 other Declared Monuments, including religious structures, educational institutions, government buildings and archaeological discoveries.
As urban geographer Lachlan Barber noted in a 2014 article for Urban Studies, this system had serious limitations. “The policy was designed to celebrate pre-colonial history and a revised colonial history for educational purposes and tourism without infringing on the redevelopment potential of centrally located lands,” wrote Barber. With no statutory protection for graded buildings, it served mainly to protect the most obvious or convenient examples of Hong Kong’s built heritage—such as walled villages on the fringes of the New Territories, or religious landmarks like St. John’s Cathedral—while leaving most of the city open to the real estate machine that powered Hong Kong’s economy.
It also set up a significant hurdle for heritage status: in order to be considered, a building would have to be at least 50 years old. The consequence of this came to light in 2006, when the Central Star Ferry pier was slated for demolition in order to make way for land reclamation along the harbour. As we noted in our recent article on Hong Kong’s ferry piers, the public backlash marked a turning point in Hong Kong culture and politics: suddenly heritage was something that ordinary people cared about.
It wasn’t just the Star Ferry pier that became a cause célèbre. Heritage advocates and neighbourhood activists fought to save the former Police Married Quarters on Staunton Street from demolition, along with the nearby cluster of 1950s tong lau on Wing Lee Street. More recently, community activism led the State Theatre to be saved from redevelopment. “Public connection to [heritage] has increased dramatically,” says Steve Phillips, who leads the Hong Kong office of international conservation architecture firm Purcell, which has worked on a number of high-profile local projects including Tai Kwun. “You feel there is a lot more emotion attached to it by the general public. It’s a deep connection.”
This groundswell of concern for heritage prompted the government to launch the Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme in 2008, which allowed non-profit organisations to bid for the restoration and management of government-owned historic properties. “The revitalisation scheme is fantastic. It creates a lot of potential for creative reuse of buildings,” says Ho Puay-peng, a former Hong Kong conservation architect and former member of the AAB who is now the head of the National University of Singapore’s Department of Architecture. It has generally been considered a success, giving a new lease on life to the Blue House, the Old Tai Po Police Station (now the Green Hub), the former Tai O Police Station (now the Tai O Heritage Hotel), the former Police Married Quarters (now the PMQ) and many more.
But it has recently run into challenges. Some building operators have gone out of business, leaving the historic property once again empty and idle, which was the case when the Savannah College of Art and Design abandoned the former North Kowloon Magistracy when it withdrew from Hong Kong in 2020. And many of the remaining buildings in the government’s “R scheme,” as it is known, have failed to attract suitable bids.
“If you look at the list of R scheme buildings you will come to the realisation that the sites which are available are becoming more and more remote,” says Fredo Cheung. “In many cases they’re in the middle of nowhere. At the very start, the odds are stacked against that project, unless you come up with a situation that is quite innovative.”
There are a few other vehicles for heritage conservation beyond the R scheme. Some private developers are bypassing the government outright and launching their own private conservation initiatives, like the State Theatre, which is being restored by New World Development. The Urban Renewal Authority is tasked with maintaining heritage properties in its various initiatives, such as the former Woo Cheong Pawn Shop and the rows of historic shophouses on Shanghai Street and Prince Edward Road, but it is required by law to be financially self-sufficient while also collaborating with property developers, which leads to what critics have called a profit-first model of conservation.
All of this creates a complicated situation in which some pieces of heritage are saved, either through government or private effort, while others languish until they disappear – as was the case with Jumbo and countless other buildings, including a landmark 80-year-old pawnshop in Wan Chai and a 1920s commercial block in Tsim Sha Tsui that may be demolished by its new owners, despite having been carefully renovated a decade ago.
In the meantime, the very nature of heritage keeps shifting and evolving. There are significant buildings at risk, such as the 1970s-era General Post Office, that are unlikely to receive protection because they are less than 50 years old. There’s also the question of what to do with more ephemeral heritage assets like neon signs or the interiors of landmark businesses. Just recently, Mido Café closed up shop after 71 years, Lin Heung Tea House closed its doors after a century in business, and Hoover Cake Shop is shuttering its 45-year-old family-run location in Kowloon City and selling the brand to Coffee Academics, which may move the business to the airport. In both cases, Cheung notes that the loss to Hong Kong would be both material—vintage decor and signage—and intangible, because these family-owned businesses selling traditional Hong Kong and Cantonese fare represent an important part of the city’s cultural heritage.
He points out that the Hong Kong government set up an Intangible Cultural Heritage Office in 2015 with a mandate to research and catalogue these kinds of things, but it has no connection to the Antiquities Authority. “There’s no communication,” he says. As a result, Hong Kong is missing out on protecting an important part of its heritage. “It may not actually be practical to grade [restaurants or businesses] as historic buildings, but we need to examine them as intangible cultural heritage. If the correlation between the tangible and intangible is very robust, maybe we can provide them with a heritage grading.”
Other conservationists agree that Hong Kong needs to reform and broaden its existing legal tools for dealing with heritage. “Right now the AMO is not very effective as a unit,” says Cecilia Chu, director of the architectural conservation programme in the University of Hong Kong’s landscape architecture division. “Even the name of it”—Antiquities and Monuments—“is such an old-fashioned way of looking at heritage.” More than just distinguished buildings and historical relics, heritage is about culture, which is why a lowly shophouse can be just as worthy of conservation as a one-of-a-kind church.
Steve Phillips says a big step towards adopting a broader and more holistic view of heritage would be to adopt the concept of a historic district, which has been the practice in many other countries for decades. It’s the reason why Singapore has been able to conserve entire neighbourhoods of historic shophouses, including architectural details like signs, while similar districts in Hong Kong were razed to the ground or altered beyond recognition. “It’s important that we start to think of heritage protection in terms of an area and stop thinking about it in terms of specific buildings,” he says.
Phillips and his team at Purcell have been studying the possibility of doing this for years, something they are exhibiting at the Hong Kong Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB), which is taking place at the North Point ferry pier until November 26. Purcell has envisioned a Heritage Action Zone for Sai Ying Pun, modelled after a government-funded British initiative that connects local councils and communities to revive neighbourhood high streets with respect for their heritage. “It involves the community more in the development of the area in which they live,” says Phillips. “We’re looking for potential future heritage.”
The exhibition builds on work done by Purcell after it conducted a report in 2020 for the Central and Western District Council about the possibility of creating a heritage conservation zone on Government Hill, the cluster of green spaces and historic structures that dates back to the earliest days of British colonial rule, including St. John’s Cathedral, the Former French Mission and the former Central Government Offices. The future of that project is unclear after the upheaval of the National Security Law passed in July 2020, which led many district councillors to resign their seats. Many of the duties performed by the elected councils have since been supplanted by appointed committees.
Despite the political uncertainty, Phillips still hopes conservation areas can one day be introduced to Hong Kong, to avoid the piecemeal way heritage has been dealt with until now. In theory, if imposed on an area like Government Hill, or a neighbourhood like Sai Ying Pun, it could help guide new development in a way that is respectful of existing heritage, and it could manage historic properties with an eye to their value as a group, not just as individual properties. “The conservation area approach works really well overseas, particularly in the UK,” he says. “It enables a number of parameters and guidelines to be imposed in a particular area. That’s one of the things missing from Hong Kong.”
Conservation areas are just one item in a laundry list of improvements Phillips would like to see in Hong Kong’s approach to heritage. He would like to see more protection afforded to graded buildings to protect them from alterations and redevelopment. He’d like to see fast approvals and more coordination between stakeholders on heritage projects so they don’t drag on for years – in contrast to many other areas of life, Phillips says heritage projects in Hong Kong take far longer than their equivalents overseas. (Tai Kwun took a decade to finish.) He’d like to see more consideration for modern heritage less than 50 years old. And he thinks Hong Kong needs a separate building code for historic structures, similar to what is done in the UK, so that converting a heritage building to new uses is less complicated and expensive.
That’s a lot of potential for improvement. Fredo Cheung thinks the government is well aware. He notes that some of the newest structures graded by the AAB are historic steps and retaining walls, like those on Pound Lane in Sai Ying Pun and Battery Path on Government Hill, despite insistence from some AAB members that Jumbo could not have been graded because it wasn’t a building. “If you look at some of the recent items they have actually appraised, it is contradictory to what they are saying to the public,” he says. “We need to start diversifying what we consider built heritage and I believe that AMO and AAB are fully aware of this need.” They just don’t have the policy tools to do it.
There’s a lot of heritage at stake. Jumbo is gone and it may never be coming back – four months after it capsized, it’s still not clear how much of the structure remains and whether it can be salvaged. But there are other parts of Hong Kong that could yet be saved.
Photos courtesy of @lamyiks, @hkreminiscence, @inmemoryofhk, @siuming_ph, @tomtomjenny, @Anestalmoudi