A handful of old colonial-era houses stand hidden among Hong Kong’s towering skyscrapers, the last surviving remnants of a generation that transformed the city from a tiny fishing village into a trading hub in the 19th century. One of them is a 1920s Anglo-Chinese-style mansion with a square tower topped with a sloping tiled roof. It sits inside Ho Tung Gardens, a 12,000 sq ft estate – named after its original owner Sir Robert Ho Tung – in the exclusive neighbourhood called The Peak.
The house once embodied the union of European and Chinese societies. Today, it is caught up in a post-colonial identity crisis that is causing angst among the people of Hong Kong. Younger generations, especially, fear the city is losing its unique culture after launching headlong into economic integration with mainland China, which has controlled Hong Kong since the departure of the British colonial government in 1997. This has led to an unprecedented clash between the owner of the house and the government over the public’s right to determine the fate of historic properties.
Ho Min-kwan, the septuagenarian granddaughter of Sir Robert, wants to tear down her home of 60 years and replace it with 10 smaller, modern cottages that she says will be much easier to maintain than the vast, crumbling pile. She has adamantly declined the government’s offer of a land swap, saying she has “feelings for the land”.
The government is out to stop her and is planning to unilaterally declare the house a heritage property that by law has to be preserved.
Previous administrations wouldn’t have dreamt of attempting such a blatantly anti-free market exercise – after all, Hong Kong is often seen as the poster child of unbridled capitalism. However, the government is responding to a shift in the public’s attitude, which requires it to be more active in preserving heritage.
Ho underplays the architectural value of the house, saying the government would be wrong to spend public funds on a building that has been much modified inside. However, architecture historians say it is one of the last surviving examples of the Chinese Renaissance style in Hong Kong. Regardless of its architectural worth, many say that it is the historic importance of Sir Robert, who had the house built in 1927, that makes it so special.
He was the most famous of the Eurasian middlemen facilitating trade between the English and the Chinese, a group that became a pillar of Hong Kong society in the early 20th century.
Son of an English father and a Chinese mother, Sir Robert was the first person of Chinese descent to be allowed to set up home in The Peak.
“It said a lot about the elevation of the status of the Chinese majority living in Hong Kong then, and Sir Robert broadcast his arrival on The Peak by picking the Chinese-style design by Palmer & Turner, the city’s most prominent architects of the day,” says Professor Lee Ho Yin at Hong Kong University’s faculty of architecture.
By 1927, Sir Robert was probably the wealthiest man in Hong Kong. Nicknamed “Hong Kong’s grand old man” by contemporaries, he started his career as a comprador (manager) at Jardine Matheson, the British trading company initially set up to sell opium to China in return for tea and other commodities.
Sporting a western haircut and a well-trimmed moustache but always wearing traditional Tang suits, Sir Robert’s ability to navigate Chinese and English societies with ease made him the ideal, and very valuable, go-between for two cultures.
Sir John Bowring, the fourth governor of Hong Kong, described the icy relationship between the colonisers and the local population in 1858: “ ... the separation of the native population from the European is nearly absolute. Social intercourse between the races is wholly unknown ... I do not believe there is a single merchant or tradesman in Hong Kong who speaks or understands the native dialect, who has seen a Chinaman at his table, or admitted him to the slightest confidential intimacy.”
This was still more or less how things were in Hong Kong when Sir Robert built up his own trading empire. His business acumen turned him into a powerful voice and he was knighted – twice – in recognition of his status in Hong Kong society.
Sir Robert didn’t spend much time in Ho Tung Gardens, however, since he lived in another house that was much closer to the business district. However, he did entertain visiting grandees such as US vice-president John Nance Garner and playwright George Bernard Shaw there.
It was his second wife, Clara, who lived there with some of their 10 children. Clara was an ardent philanthropist and a devout Buddhist who built an important seminary for Buddhist nuns in Hong Kong, and her admirers say there is good reason to preserve the house if only in her honour.
It is a house stuffed full of Hong Kong stories but Carrie Lam, the secretary of development, faces a long battle ahead that heritage experts expect to culminate in the government paying Ho a substantial compensation in exchange for the house.
There is little precedence in Hong Kong for the conservation of private properties. Most protected properties are public buildings, temples or schools – either owned by the government or with limited redevelopment value due to land-use restrictions.
But Lee says it’s a battle worth fighting. The price of land and property in crowded Hong Kong is among the highest in the world and the financial reward for redeveloping old buildings is often very high. The constantly changing landscape, where many prewar residences and family-run shops are demolished to make way for tower blocks and shopping malls, have taken away a sense of continuity, he says.
“Young people complain that most of the landmarks that their parents tell them about are long gone,” he says.
“The government needs a policy that says there is intangible value in the preservation of our heritage. Conservation has a stabilising effect on a community,” says Margaret Brooke, chair of Heritage Hong Kong Foundation, an independent charity founded – rather ironically – by Ho’s estranged brother, Robert Ho. A family rift developed 10 years ago but the foundation, which has long been involved in conservation issues, is neutral on the issue of Ho Tung Gardens.
At the end of the day, the real test of public support for the preservation of historic buildings will come when it becomes clear how much it will cost taxpayers to save Ho Tung Gardens, says Lee. A natural approach, perhaps, for a city that grew up from trade.
Hong Kong hangs on
Hong Kong may have very little left that is old but the government has managed to save a varied mix of properties from being bulldozed in recent years – from Chinese-style mansions such as King Yin Lei to the humble 1950s Bridges Street indoor market. But there is a growing desire for the preservation of the city’s famous street life. More outdoor hawker markets are giving way to redevelopment and locals and tourists are mourning the loss of these quintessentially Hong Kong features.
China’s ‘disappeared’ heritage sites
China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage recently published the third and largest heritage site census since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Of 766,722 registered sites, 44,000 have “disappeared”. The worst affected district is ironically Shaanxi province, home of the famous terracotta warriors, where more than 3,500 cultural sites have vanished.
The obvious cause is development, but Hong Kong and Shanghai have faced a particular antipathy to colonial and urban heritage, according to Edward Denison, author of Building Shanghai: The Story of China’s Gateway.
“There is a whole chapter of China’s 20th-century history that has gone unwritten because many architects, builders and engineers fled mainland China for Hong Kong before 1949 and therefore have not been included in the ‘official’ history since,” according to Denison.
Many were instrumental in transforming Hong Kong into a modern metropolis but much of their work has since been demolished to make way for high-rise developments.