Published on, 5 January 2007

Central Police Station, Hollywood Road, Hong Kong

At first glance the closed-off cluster of buildings in central Hong Kong seem quaintly out of place, a bricks and mortar time stamp of the city’s British colonial heritage.

The police station complex, sitting between apartments and upscale restaurants and bars, once served as a bastion of British law in Hong Kong, housing courts, law enforcers and even inmates. Its future remains up in the air; the city has been unable to decide on how the land should be used.

But the buildings are part of a relatively new public debate in Hong Kong: historical preservation. How Hong Kong treats its past, some social observers here say, may ultimately hinge on how its local leaders and the central government in Beijing resolve its present identity.

“Hong Kong is still searching for its identity and old buildings are a means to express its identity,” says local cultural critic Bono Lee.

“In recent years, we have seen strong public emotions over heritage protection,” adds Kam Nai-wai, a district councilor campaigning for the preservation of the complex.

“People wanted to retain everything from a colonial statue to an old noodle shop. This was unheard of during the colonial era, when everything felt temporary and people didn’t need a sense of rootedness.”

The complex of buildings at the center of the preservation debate include the city’s oldest prison, built in 1841 when the British first started to take possession of Hong Kong. Nearby is a barrack block built in the 1860s, a magistracy that was a 1914 addition, and a classical-style police station constructed in 1919.

Since the 166-year-old Victoria Prison became the last of those buildings to close in March, the future of the compound has been in limbo. The debate over the site has set those in favor of preservation against the government. The latter is eager to turn the site into a profitable tourist attraction and has suggested some “relatively recent” parts of the complex could be pulled down.

But heritage groups, architects and some lawmakers worry the money-driven approach would undermine the historical value of the site. Following a public consultation and a series of public protests, the government has backtracked on a plan to put the site out to tender.

“We are now examining carefully the public views received in considering the way forward for the Central Police Station project, and have no timetable for tendering at this stage,” says a spokeswoman for the Tourism Commission, the Hong Kong government panel steering the project.

Meanwhile, interest groups and some individuals are eager to see the site reinvented into something distinctive.

“We don’t want another shopping mall or hotel,” Martin Wan, campaign officer of preservation group Conservancy Association, says. “The complex should be preserved in its entirety and redeveloped into something not too commercial.”

An established Hong Kong family has even offered to donate HK$500 million (US$64 million) to convert the site into an arts complex, citing the need to “create a Hong Kong identity.”

While there is no public consensus on what to do with the site, most people agree on its historical significance.

“The complex is a testimony to the spirit of justice in colonial Hong Kong. It’s closely tied to Hong Kong’s history,” says Bernard Lim, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects and member of an advisory board that helps the government evaluate potential preservation sites.

“No doubt everyone regards it as something precious. The big question is: How are you going to reposition it?”

Hong Kong has weathered much since July 1, 1997, when the British turned the region over to Chinese control.

Soon after the handover, the economic recession that had hit much of Southeast Asia struck the Hong Kong markets. In 2003, the region battled the SARS public health crisis.

Today, pollution is worsening, and many people remain worried about how much freedom Beijing will ultimately allow to exist in Hong Kong.

Still, Chinese from the mainland continue to stream into the territory, and many who fled before the handover have returned. The region’s economy shows steady growth and employment has been hitting new highs.

Hong Kong’s position as a regional magnet and international finance center keeps its property values high, which may prove to be the most daunting foe for preservationists.

“Financial returns are a key concern,” Lim concedes. “This is a money-driven city, and there is not enough land. The government is under a lot of pressure.”

Political factors — and a bit of irony — may play a final role. As the city’s colonial history is a sensitive topic for Beijing, Kam believes the communist Chinese government is keen on a market-driven, profit-based approach, partly because that would help take the momentum out of the preservation issue.

“After all, the colonial days were an ignominious part of Chinese history,” Kam says.

Kam and Lee are concerned that overemphasis on profits in preserving the city’s heritage may weaken Hong Kong’s cultural identity.

But Lim is more pragmatic. “Perhaps Hong Kong hasn’t got the right culture to preserve its heritage sites properly. We focus so much energy on making money and we have to pay a price for that,” he says.

“There’s nothing to regret. It’s a money-driven city, and that’s our identity.”