The habit of heritage conservation is spreading across mainland China, with historic districts increasingly being integrated into modern urban development. Could Hong Kong learn something from the mainland?
Article by Stuart Heaver. This story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of The Peak magazine.
￼Anyone visiting a Chinese city, with a few moments to spare, can witness a revolution in the way local cultural heritage is being conserved and protected.
It can be seen in the former foreign settlement of Gulangyu, an island off the coast of Xiamen; in the streets of Sanfang Qixiang district in central Fuzhou; in Shamian island in Guangzhou; around the residential palace in Nanjing; and even in rapidly growing Pearl River Delta towns like Zhongshan. The evidence is apparent – after decades of neglect, effort and resources are finally being invested in conserving China’s old buildings, monuments and historic districts.
“Ten years ago, cultural heritage conservation in China was not even on the agenda and now it’s a national priority”, says Stefaan Poortman, CEO of the Global Heritage Fund (GHF), an NGO that works on built heritage conservation projects around the world, including China.
The motivation is not sentimental nostalgia, but hard-headed economic and political pragmatism, driven from the top. According to state news agency Xinhua, in April this year, President Xi Jinping told a meeting on cultural protection in Beijing that a country’s cultural heritage is a precious treasure.
“We must be sober-minded in saying that we are a country of great culture and are in a period of rapid urbanisation, so cultural protection work remains an arduous task,” Xi told the audience. This endorsement of the policy is helping to create a growing niche industry for architects, restorers, curators, archaeologists, craftsmen and designers.
At the Heritage China trade exhibition and conference held in Shanghai in August this year, organisers told delegates that ￼Shanghai has 4,500 different buildings, architectural ensembles and heritage areas, which are under a preservation order or have been classified as historic. Following the initial revival of the Bund in 1990s, its second restoration is now the subject of a new mega-project.
The organisers also say the Chinese Administration of Culture Heritage has budgeted RMB17.5 billion (HK$20.9 billion) for heritage preservation in 2017, an increase of RMB405 million on 2016. Total spending on national heritage preservation is estimated at RMB80 billion – including regional budgets but excluding private sector and NGO investment.
Private projects that seek to capitalise upon the huge appeal of heritage conservation to customers can also be found throughout the country. The new Amanyangyun by Aman luxury resort in Hangzhou is a case in point. Incorporating 13 reconstructed Ming and Qing dynasty villas, and set amid a forest of ancient camphor trees, the resort uses lashings of modern comfort to reinvigorate these historical structures, introducing them to a whole new audience.
Incredibly, the villas and even the camphor forest at Amanyangyun were originally located in Jiangxi province, some 800km away, and were earmarked to be destroyed during the construction of Liaofang reservoir in 2002. But when Shanghai businessman and philanthropist Ma Dadong witnessed the felling of the huge trees during a visit to his home province, he was shocked into action. Ma put together a team of experts to move the trees and disassemble the houses ready for relocation. In 2009, Aman resorts began a plan to incorporate the ancient houses into what is now the brand’s fourth Chinese property.
SPURRING NATIONAL PROGRESS
Even the very highest voices in the country have spoken out on the issue of heritage conservation as a national priority. “President Xi understands the importance of cultural heritage for instilling national identity and pride – the state is trying to use cultural heritage to counter the impact of mass urbanisation and globalisation at a regional level,” says Kuanghan Li, director of GHF’s China Heritage Programme.
Li admits that cultural heritage preservation in China is certainly far from perfect, though she insists it is changing rapidly. In the more remote regions where GHF tend to run their projects, such as the Pingyao Courtyard Houses project in Shanxi province, she says the allocation of funds is sporadic and there is often little expertise or planning in place.
Pingyao is an urban conservation project designed to ensure the long-term preservation of privately owned historic houses, in what was once regarded as the banking capital of China. The project won the 2015 Unesco Asia-Pacific Conservation Award of Merit.
But, as Li points out, “China is still a little too fixed on hardware and infrastructure and not communities.” In August, the South China Morning Post reported that residents in the old town of Chikan in western Guangdong province were facing forcible eviction from their homes so a private developer could transform the town into a cultural heritage visitor destination, complete with fancy boutique hotels and teahouses.
Despite this, in many Chinese towns and cities cultural heritage zones have already established themselves as successful visitor attractions, creating tourism revenue, generating urban renewal and acting as a catalyst for local enterprise. On a recent visit to the 11th century Confucian temple complex in the southwestern section of the walled city of Nanjing, the entire sprawling site of restored narrow lanes, restaurants and religious buildings was packed with tourists and locals. It’s a similar scene at the award-winning Sanfang Qiqiang (Three Lanes and Seven Alleys) complex in Fuzhou. Here, ten ancient lanes and alleys distributed in the South Backstreet district of the city contain impeccably restored merchant’s villas and courtyard mansions dating back to the Ming dynasty, forming the focal point of the vibrant, pedestrianised visitor zone.
“It’s not just about individual old buildings – it’s about districts, neighbourhood and people’s homes – this is definitely happening in China,” says Poortman, who tells us he feels the local architectural vernacular is being protected, rather than just individual monuments. He reveals that local officials now talk about “cultural landscapes” and many think the economic and social benefits extend well beyond tourism.
“In China, the heritage and cultural developer has been professionalising for almost a decade – starting from Xintiandi in Shanghai,” says award-winning architect Dr Tat Lam, adjunct assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and founder of Shanzai City, a social development solutions start-up. Xintiandi is the 128-acre site in the heart of Shanghai’s French Quarter, which was transformed by Hong Kong developer Shui On Group – with advice from American architect Benjamin T Wood – into ￼￼￼a historic entertainment, retail and residential area.
Other Chinese cities have followed Shanghai’s lead.
“I think there is a general trend in the mainland, and even Hong Kong, that people are more willing to spend their money in a niche market, to differentiate themselves from mainstream middle class. I think it is actually a phenomenon of high capitalism,” Lam says.
He believes China has gained an expertise and a successful model that Hong Kong has failed to acquire, adding that the regulatory framework is less restrictive than Hong Kong.
“These Chinese developers are experts in heritage development, they are [used to] merging industrial development with housing and tourism. But in Hong Kong, mainstream developers are more experienced in housing development and shopping mall development – they usually have no experience of heritage development.”
WITHER, HONG KONG?
Hong Kong does not have a glowing track record in cultural heritage preservation or much success in integrating it with visionary urban development to provide what Lam calls a “diverse ecosystem”. Instead, myopic Hong Kong must be the only city in Asia seeking to lure China’s increasingly sophisticated new middle class on the back of ￼second-rate theme parks and homogenised shopping malls.
An indication of the size of the built heritage in Hong Kong is given by a territory-wide survey conducted by the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO) between 1996 and 2000, which recorded some 8,800 historic buildings. Currently, there are currently 114 declared monuments in Hong Kong and 955 graded historic buildings. In 2016, the government announced a HK$500 million Built Heritage Conservation Fund (BHCF), which will provide subsidies for public education, community involvement and publicity activities, and academic research. It may sound generous but it’s worth remembering that the government, which owns a 52 per cent stake in the Hong Kong Disney World theme park, will chip in another HK$5.45 billion to fund expansion of the loss-making attraction over the next few years.
“If we could talk more about the economic value of conservation, maybe government would listen more,” laments Poortman.
If cultural heritage conservation is ever on the political agenda in Hong Kong, it tends to be involved in arguments about individual buildings and their historic merit, and whether they should be torn down to make way for high-rise urban development or infrastructure projects. In stark contrast to many mainland cities, cultural heritage is rarely seen as a precious asset with potential social and economic value, so it is often squandered.
Who could estimate the economic, social and financial value of a sensitively preserved and readapted Bruce Lee mansion in Kowloon Tong, or the historic 7.8 hectare Shaw Studios site in Deep Water Bay, which only narrowly avoided demolition in 2015? Evidence from the mainland indicates that conserving and incorporating these types of buildings or districts in new developments can increase local land values, trigger infrastructure improvements and instil a sense of civic pride. While the buildings themselves may not represent Ming dynasty architecture or the 19th century colonial vernacular, they are part of the narrative of Hong Kong and form part of its identity.
“It is about the specific story and value to be unlocked,” says Lam, who thinks that development companies should care about cultural heritage because they can develop different products by telling different stories. “Monetising the contents and stories in heritage is a big differentiator and a big market,” he says. But, sadly, it seems not always the case in Hong Kong.
“In Hong Kong, developers are not exactly the most friendly towards conservation,” founding head of the Division of Architectural Conservation Programmes at Hong Kong University, Professor Lee Ho-yin, told local reporters earlier this year.
Of course, there are good examples of cultural heritage preservation in Hong Kong, but they tend to be isolated cases rather than integrated developments adding value and identity to a major project.
New York-based architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien employed adaptive reuse to transform the former explosives magazine of the old Victoria Barracks into the Asia Society’s Hong Kong Centre in Admiralty. The 1.364-hectare heritage site was opened into a cultural and artistic centre in 2012.
The Hong Kong government has also launched a series of heritage revitalisation schemes, with five batches of projects involving 19 historic buildings. Some of these involve adaptive reuse – the term applied to renovating old buildings for a new purpose. Arguably the best of them all is the Tai O Heritage Hotel, a project on the western tip of Lantau Island undertaken by Sino Heritage. This former marine police station overlooking the Pearl River Estuary has been restored into a small boutique hotel and restaurant. It challenges the unwritten rule in Hong Kong that if an old building is conserved, it is destined to be a museum or gallery with earnest but dreary contents. There is a small museum at the Tai O Heritage Hotel, but its influence extends beyond the building into the community. Locals have been trained to operate the hotel and efforts are made to integrate with the overall visitor offering at Tai O fishing village.
Not all projects in Hong Kong have been so well received. In 2003, the government commissioned the former Marine Police Headquarters compound in Tsim Sha Tsui for restoration, and this important historic site was ultimately ‘rejuvenated’ into 1881 Heritage, a shopping centre and hotel complex created by Cheung Kong Property Holdings Limited. Conservationists are divided on the merits of the project, which is essentially an outdoor shopping mall – the official website maintains it is where “luxury brands make history”.
“There is definitely a completive advantage for a city that does protect its cultural heritage,” says Poortman. “To entice people to visit, live and work in a city we have to take a holistic approach that extends beyond financial issues.”
With globalisation comes homogenisation, something that ensures people lose a sense of where they are and why they are there. This is the reason so many grassroots heritage protection groups spring up around cities, hoping to protect built heritage. The age of a street, building or monument and the architectural style is irrelevant, so long as the community attaches value to it and what it represents.
As Lam points out, Shenzhen did not even exist as an urban entity until the 1980s, but redundant industrial buildings have been preserved in the Overseas Chinese Town (OCT) district in what is now a popular pedestrianised area of cafes, craft shops and design studios called OCT Loft.
“If we bulldoze all our old buildings, every city will look the same. It boils down to differentiation,” says Poortman. In economic and marketing terms, that is an important value unto itself.
About Global Heritage Fund (GHF)
Global Heritage Fund’s mission is to sustainably preserve the most significant and endangered cultural heritage sites in developing regions of the world. With this mission, it also works to empower local communities through heritage preservation. Believing in a future that is beyond monuments, GHF partners with local people, communities, organizations, and governments to both preserve the heritage of the past and ensure that it is a beneficial part of the present.