Alliance For a Beautiful Hong Kong

Protect Beautiful Hong Kong

By Dare Koslow

The latest advertising campaign from the Hong Kong Tourism Board attempts to draw visitors to the Central district with promises of a harmonious blend of old and new Hong Kong experiences to enjoy. The slogan they have chosen to package the idea, “Old Town Central. Where worlds collide”, is only true in the sense of worlds colliding. Many share the concern that there is very little left of the “old town” as preservationists have been colliding with developers for decades and the consensus is that the developers are usually the only survivors in this collision.

The timing and launch of this campaign is either a bad joke being played on unknowing tourists or a complete disconnect between the Tourism Board and the Urban Renewal Authority. A more accurate slogan would have been “Nothing old can stay” but who would really be drawn to Hong Kong’s Central district without its old soul? Sadly, we are discovering that fewer and fewer people find riding an escalator through mid-levels while eating an egg tart the “old town” experience that they were expecting.

Perhaps the Tourism Board did not get the memo, but the URA’s mission continues to be to erase any hint of old Hong Kong and will use whatever means they can to pursue their ambitious goal of replacing every old building with a residential tower, podium and a shopping mall. To really discover what little remains of Old Town Central, tourists are going to have to look harder and do so quickly. The URA is not giving up on it mission to erase any hint of Hong Kong history.

While all cities struggle with the right balance of preservation and development, here in Hong Kong, it is the URA that is in the drivers seat. They have the mandate, the financing and the relationships with both the developers and the Town Planning Board. How could they possibly lose? The government agencies intended to monitor and perhaps bring some balance to the delicate art of urban renewal are either too weak or ineffectual to stop them. The Antiquities and Monuments Office seems to have no means to enforce any protection interests. The Town Planning Board seems to have relationships that run deep within the URA. With these departments failing, it is comes down to community activism and public opinion to stop the URA.

Despite the URA’s commitment to be community focused, they have no regard for community interests or the local District Councilors. Their submissions are riddled with self-serving misinformation to help them pursue their own interests and those of the developers for whom they are leading the charge.

In the Soho district of Central, and clearly a destination where “worlds have been colliding” between developers and preservationists for decades, the URA has not given up. They have submitted yet another proposal to demolish several clusters of tong lau and replace them with two 20 story high rise towers with their usual embellishments of podiums and shopping malls. Previously the URA had promised to preserve some of the tong lau but in their latest proposal they have changed their mind and now all would be demolished.

This time, however, the community has stepped up their objections and sent a clear message to the Town Planning Board that they are opposed to further development in this area. Over 3,000 objections were collected buy at least one group opposed to the URA plan and hundreds more would have been submitted directly to the Town Planning Board. Not only has the community raised their voice, the Central and Western District Councillors unanimously voted to object to the URA proposal and formally asked the URA to withdraw their plan. There is no need or interest in getting URA renewal in Soho as the community is quite capable and doing fine on its own.

Time will tell whether the community’s voice has been heard. When the TPB meets to review and vote on the URA proposal the community will be watching and hoping for a favourable outcome. At the very least, the actions of the URA has galvanized the community and brought the neighbours together as a unified front. There are now more plans to protest the URA’s actions and to promote activities for the community.

Community spirit is the best defence to save Hong Kong heritage and the one thing that may finally make the URA listen.

By saving what remains of “Old Town”, maybe the worlds will stop colliding.

IMG_2515Dare Koslow is 22 year Hong Kong resident. He was formerly working in marketing for several 4A’s advertising agencies and left his role at Vodafone in 2015 to pursue his passion for preserving tong laus on a full time basis

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