Keeping Hong Kong’s Heritage Alive

Ghosts. That was a problem Ester van Steekelenburg didn’t expect to encounter when she began consulting cities on how to conserve their heritage. Van Steekelenburg was in Jakarta to discuss a project to revamp an historic hotel, but her local colleagues refused to stay there because it was famously haunted. “All the plans for the revitalisation of that building went nowhere because of ghosts,” she says. It wasn’t the last time she would encounter such a problem. “Working in heritage in Asia, there’s a lot of discussion about ghosts,” she says. In many countries, belief that our ancestors continue to live among us is deeply entrenched, and it creates a certain distaste for old structures.

Luckily, not all old buildings are haunted – at least not by ghosts. Many more are stalked by property developers and government officials that see them as impediments to growth, which is something that Van Steekelenburg has worked to change for the past 15 years, when she first began working as an urban planner in Asia. She first noticed the trend when she moved to Xiamen in 1995 to study Chinese. China’s economic boom was rampaging through the city’s tight-knit old neighbourhoods and elegant historic streets, knocking them down for a new stock of generic buildings indistinguishable from those in any other Chinese city. “I just got frustrated with all these beautiful buildings being knocked down,” she says.

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So she decided to do something about it. Since 2004, Van Steekelenburg has been consulting cities on how conserving heritage can actually be a boon to economic and social growth. In 2010, she founded Urban Discovery, a social enterprise that aims to educate government officials and the general public alike on the value of heritage, through advisory services and a suite of interactive app-based guides to Hong Kong’s most fascinating old neighbourhoods.

It goes well beyond the beauty of old buildings. “It’s heritage linked to urban regeneration,” says Van Steekelenburg. Her interest isn’t in preserving old buildings as jewel boxes, but in giving them new life. “I’m never the kind of person who will have an hours-long discussion about the architectural style of a particular building or whether an intervention was the right solution. In all the countries we work with there are architects who are much better at doing that. However, the economic angle – very few know about it, and very few people working heritage know about to speak that language.”

Ester van Steekelenburg - Photograph by William Furniss

Ester van Steekelenburg – Photo by William Furniss

Like many urbanists, Van Steekelenburg’s career started with Lego. She loved to build cityscapes out of the little plastic bricks when she was growing up in Holland. “And geography was my favourite topic in school,” she says. In 1990, she embarked on a degree in urban planning at the University of Amsterdam. Her year-long stay in Xiamen introduced her to Asia and she has been working here ever since.

Here in Hong Kong, Van Steekelenburg has seen the city become more and more concerned with heritage. The 2000s were marked by protests over plans to demolish Wedding Card Street  and the Central Star Ferry Pier. The campaigns failed, but they set the stage for a series of successes, like the push to save the former Police Married Quarters and nearby Wing Lee Street, both of which had been destined for the wrecking ball but have now been preserved. In 2008, the government responded to growing concern over Hong Kong’s loss of heritage by launching a heritage revitalisation scheme that targets old buildings for adaptive reuse by non-profit organisations.

Central Star Ferry Pier failed to stand out for preservation

Central Star Ferry Pier failed to stand out for preservation.

More than a dozen buildings have been given new life through the scheme, among them the former Police Married Quarters (now the PMQ design hub), one of the city’s oldest public housing blocks (now the Mei Ho House hostel, museum and café) and the Blue House in Wan Chai (now being converted into a cultural centre with social housing).

More than a dozen buildings have been given new life through the scheme, among them the former Police Married Quarters (now the PMQ design hub), one of the city’s oldest public housing blocks (now the Mei Ho House hostel, museum and café) and the Blue House in Wan Chai (now being converted into a cultural centre with social housing).

Van Steekelenburg says the scheme is “well executed,” but she can’t help but feel it’s too little, too late. She is now doing advisory work in Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar, whose historic urban fabric is now threatened by an economic boom sparked by the end of the country’s totalitarian military dictatorship. “I just hope they don’t make the same mistakes as Hong Kong,” she says.

The challenge is convincing people in Yangon that there’s value in keeping the city’s decrepit old buildings. Despite the recent boom, poverty is well entrenched in Myanmar, and for many people, the historic landscape of Yangon is a reminder of hard times under military rule. “You can’t really blame people for not seeing the value of the crap they’re living in,” she says. When people lobby to preserve Yangon’s heritage, they are often attacked as elitists  who are standing in the way of the city’s modernisation.

Van Steekelenburg does have a few tricks up her sleeve. It’s easy enough to make an argument for the cultural and historic value of preserving old buildings. But there is also an economic argument to be made, that keeping a city’s historic fabric intact is a long-term strategy for economic success. In Asia, cities like Penang and Malacca have capitalised on their rich pre-World War II building stock to attract tourism and investment. But Van Steekelenburg’s favourite example comes from her home country. “It can be difficult to get the message across – until I get to the story of Amsterdam,” she says.

Though Amsterdam is famous for its canals and intimate streets, these were threatened by a 1950s plan to wipe them out in favour of a modern, car-oriented city. Canals were slated to be filled in and old neighbourhoods destroyed – a strategy that culminated in a series of riots in 1975, when residents battled with police over the planned demolition of their homes. That prompted a change of policy that encouraged the preservation of the city centre through a multi-pronged strategy that included the establishment of a private land trust. “It was the Li Ka-shings of Amsterdam that started the scheme,” says Van Steekelenburg.

2015 0121 logo iDiscover blue1For something like that to work in Hong Kong, the private sector would need to step up and recognise the importance of heritage. And for that to happen, there needs to be a shift in mentality. When Van Steekelenburg lived in Amsterdam, she used to make a point of cycling home from work along a different route every day. The same spirit of exploration is behind Urban Discovery’s neighbourhood tour app, which a packed full of detail about neighbourhoods like Sham Shui Po and Kowloon City. “There’s so much you don’t register with the eye,” she says. Not ghosts, but something even more interesting: living heritage.

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