Hong Kong: Cultural Heritage Conservation in a City of Change – Part 4: Wan Chai case study

Wan Chai District on the island of Hong Kong - courtesy Wikipedia

Lynne DiStefano and Ho-Yin Lee continued their lecture on cultural heritage conservation in Hong Kong.  Their example location of what is happening nowadays in Hong Kong was the Wan Chai district. The Wan Chai I know is all towers, especially the large Immigration Tower near the waterfront.  Behind that is the impressive shell of the Convention Centre that seems to float in Victoria Harbour.

Central Plaza, image licensed by Baycrest

Central Plaza, image licensed by Baycrest

They gave a brief history of the district.  In the mid-nineteenth century, it was mainly an upper-class residential neighbourhood for the British who were colonizing Hong Kong. In the early 1900’s, though, the demographics started to change.  It was quickly becoming a working class residential neighbourhood with mostly Chinese.  From the mid to late 20th century, the rapid changes from residential to high-density commercial was astounding.   Part of Hong Kong’s impressive skyline can now be found in Wan Chai, like Central Plaza.  In the span of 150 years, this area grew from almost nothing to a thriving international financial centre.

Lynne and Ho-Yin started to give some specific examples of significant heritage sites in Wan Chai.  One such example was the Chinese Methodist Church in the district.  The church was special in its design.  It was a Western building integrated with many Chinese design elements, like a turret on one corner of the structure that looked like Chinese tower.  Today, the building is gone and has been replaced with a modern building.  Part of the new building mimics the old turret, but that is all that remains of the Chinese Methodist Church.

Another example was the Johnston Road shophouses.  These shophouses were characteristic of a time in Hong Kong’s history where many buildings were built with high balconies.  These shophouses used to be a variety of stores and even a pawnshop.  Now one these shophouses has been preserved and converted into a hip restaurant lounge, called The Pawn.

photo by Vinko Tsui

photo by Vinko Tsui

Lynne and Ho-Yin argue that this may not be a socially relevant use of the original building because the original building was a mix of shops on the bottom floor and apartments on the upper floors.  So they suggest that the best perservation of cultural heritage may be to preserve the original purpose where possible.  However, for me, I think it’s still wonderful that the building was perserved.  The original activities just cannot survive sometimes once a neighbourhood changes.

They also covered the many markets that are found in Wan Chai, such as the Tai Yuen Street and Spring Garden Lane.  They described how different streets would specialize in different goods.  For example, Spring Garden Lane was known as a Dry Street Market that specialized in all sorts of dry goods.  Whereas other streets in the area may be a Wet Street Market would sell things like seafood.

They expressed concerns about indoor markets and supermarket chains undermining these original markets. There is a push by the government to put a lot of these markets indoors.  I guess for sanitary reasons.  I’m not sure about that.  They also mentioned that there is a trend to the mega shopping mall and the shopless streets that they create.  They felt all these things were undermining the existence of the traditional street markets in Hong Kong.

One funny example that they gave was the Old Wan Chai Market.  It is now not functional and laying dormant, but there have been many plans to demolish the building.  However, according to Lynne, it is one of the few Art Deco buildings left in Asia.  Its loss would be a big architectural blow in Asia.  However, local residents also feel strongly about the changes to the Old Market, but maybe not for architectural reasons.  Because of the public outcry, the building still stands, but developers are seeking ways to incorporate the old building into their plans.  One such plan that they showed was a tall high rise upon 3 pillars that would be built right on top of the Old Market building.  It reminded me of a bad cut-and-paste job.  Ho-Yin said that he almost wishes that the new high rise would be built so they can use it as an example of what heritage preservation should not be.

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