Last night, atop Pier Seven at Hong Kong island’s landmark Star Ferry terminal, a large crowd gathered to toast another historic waterside building thousands of miles away. Having sat derelict for three decades, London’s Battersea Power Station is finally being renovated and redeveloped. Bought by a group of Malaysian investors in 2012, the 17-hectare site that sits on the opposite side of the River Thames from London’s pricy Chelsea will be converted to house around 4,000 homes, 150,000 sq m of office space and more than double that dedicated to shops, restaurants and a landscaped park flanking the riverbank.
After years of rumoured development projects (a theme park and a new football stadium to name just two), many Londoners will be relieved to see the iconic Giles Gilbert Scott structure put to good use and a prime piece of property open up. But it’s not just those who have lived in the shadow of the power station’s famous four chimneys that the redevelopment is aimed at. International in its investment, the Battersea Power Station team seeks to also attract a global crowd of residents, retailers and supporters to move into the area.
The event last night was one stop on a tour of 13 or so cities around the world – including stops in both Beijing and Shanghai, as well as Doha, Tokyo, Milan and New York – that the development company is making to rally support for the project. Seeing face time as important to sharing the story of Battersea Power Station with those who might not see the immediate value in it. Once finished, it looks likely that the Frank Gehry and Norman Foster-designed apartment-building lobbies will be filled with the sound of languages from all around the world.
Hong Kong is no stranger to property launches: parties, large advertisements and dramatic buying events are often held for new developments built both here and abroad. But the city isn’t accustomed to seeing massive investment in the preservation and redevelopment of a derelict industrial building. Indeed, Central’s Star Ferry terminal where last night’s launch event was held is itself a symbol of the city’s preference for demolition and rebuilding: the current structure is the fourth incarnation of the transport hub that has been moved and rebuilt due to development and land reclamation since the late 19th century.
The vast majority of Hong Kong’s historic buildings that once flanked Victoria Harbour were destroyed long ago. Current land reclamation in Wan Chai and Central promises a park, greater waterfront access and a tunnel to ease traffic but also includes a strongly opposed port for the People’s Liberation Army; many in Hong Kong feel their cultural identity is under threat. Perhaps those in the town-planning department should take a leaf out of the Battersea Power Station’s book and ensure the preservation of the few historic buildings the city has left to help retain Hong Kong’s hold on its unique history.
Aisha Speirs is Monocle’s Hong Kong bureau chief.