The Hong Kong skyline – gleaming, glassy, tall and most of all – new. It’s a skyline Hong Kong-ers are proud of and visitors are in awe of. It defines what this city is all about: money making. Hong Kong’s architecture reflects the wealth that is created here and it seems the more money is made, the taller the buildings get and we see more wrecking balls knocking down Hong Kong’s old low-rises to make space for structures that yield more per square metre.
But lately, some local property developers are fighting back against the rush to build higher. They are insisting that Hong Kong’s building heritage be preserved and even reinvented for a modern era. And they’re not a day late in coming to the rescue of Hong Kong’s historic buildings.
Whether it’s giving a former Bauhaus-style fruit and vegetable market from the 1950s a new lease of life by letting a journalism museum move in or transforming the former police station in the little fishing village of Tai O into a boutique hotel, some of Hong Kong’s past is now thankfully being saved for the future.
The headline-grabbing heritage preservation projects are also getting bolder in what they are trying to achieve. Property developer Sino Land has taken over an entire street in the neighbourhood of Wanchai. In a couple of years’ time, small-scale retailers, al fresco dining and rooftop gardens are set to jostle for space at Lee Tung Street. Historically, Hong Kong’s wedding card makers worked out of shop houses on the street that had fallen into disrepair.
In central Hong Kong the international non-profit Asia Society has taken over the 19th-century compound where the British Army used to keep its explosives, turning it into first-rate performance and exhibition halls. And up the road, a utilitarian but charming structure that used to house Hong Kong’s married police officers will be taken over by artists and design studios as soon as renovations are completed.
It’s these sorts of projects which put history and human-scale development first that are winning over the local population and the people who pass through here.
Although the Hong Kong skyline will always impress, it’s the little buildings that hide between the mammoth skyscrapers that are giving life back to the streets. By preserving and showing them some love, Hong Kong-ers are proving that their city is about much more than just making money.
Liv Lewitschnik is Hong Kong bureau chief for Monocle.