We have just lost something precious. It is gone forever. It has been destroyed and what will replace it will be a poor, insubstantial substitute. As a result, my heart is heavy and I have to tell it as it is.
The loss is of a mere house –one house alone– but this building represents so much more than the stones, wood and tiles of its construction. For by knocking down this house the character and very soul of old Hong Kong has also been killed. This is not hyperbole, romantic association or fanciful imaginings – the living heritage of Hong Kong is dying. Few are prepared to stop it.
Until yesterday there stood a beautiful house in the village of Pak Tam Chung, just beyond the traffic barrier to the Sai Kung country park. It is likely that millions of walkers, getting away from the smoke and congestion of the busier districts of Hong Kong, have filed past this pretty house. Many were so taken with it that they stopped to take photographs. Now, apart from a heap of unfortunate spoil, that is all that is left.
On weekday mornings those parents that took their young children to the delightful Leapfrog Kindergarten next door could also glimpse at the old tiled roof under the mature trees. Hikers after discovering the beauty of the park could also take a refreshing tea or beer at the Fat Kee Stores opposite and be reminded of the village houses from which many of their parents and grandparents moved years ago. Beside the stores a little footbridge crosses the pebbly Pak Tam Chung stream, used by Bruce Lee in one of his last movies, and daily in use as a picturesque location for wedding photographs. This house, therefore, was more than an incidental building; it was a landmark.
The building dates from 1847 and was no doubt built on the site of an older structure. Constructed of local materials, it nevertheless boasted rooms larger than that 700 square metres building footprint stipulated in the 1972 New Territories Small House Policy. As such, it formed the usual building story that consisted of thick stone walls patched up with brick and many of the floor joists made from whole tree trunk beams. The original packed earth ground floor was level and tiled, but the upper floorboards were uneven and creaky. A ladder was used to access upstairs and the later additions of the large kitchen and bathroom lean-tos further added character to what was a charming, imperfect and soulful place. And now it's all gone.
It must be concluded that in the owner's mind the very charming, imperfect and soulful state of the old building were the very justifications necessary to knock it down. Old buildings leak, require maintenance and look worn. But perhaps the real clincher is that they do not command as high a rent as new ones. Even in the last year property prices in Hong Kong have risen 16.1%. This is, therefore, the reason why few outside the area have raised their collective fingers to halt the destruction – there is just so much money to be made from property development. When so many see this as an inalienable right then who can halt it? The house will most likely be replaced by three separate dwellings containing 3 flats that can each be rented out for around HK$20K (a little over US$2500) each month. The previous occupants would have paid that for the entire property. Who would want to get in the way of someone making so much money?
The old house, therefore, has duly been minced up for hard cash: so perhaps Hong Kong people are supposed to save their soft heritage sentiments for museums, holidays and dusty library books on ancient architecture. For as far as this piece of history is concerned it will appear as if it never existed, that it was once a truly beautiful place to live or that our good friends once lived there. It is doubtful that the sound of children playing in the vast garden will ever be heard again.
I have previously written about other threatened villages in rural Hong Kong, such as Pak Sha O. The owners of the land on which these old village houses are found care for only one thing, and it's not heritage or old, beautiful, aesthetically-pleasing buildings. Hong Kong people have long valued entrepreneurship as the right to prosper, build and make money. Unfortunately, the sad situation is that once this is done with the old country park properties, then there is nothing left for the rest of the population to enjoy but the knowledge that the businesmen are enjoying enlarged bank accounts, fresh foie gras, expensive limousines and approving stares from their peers. These developers are taking away the little that is left. Future generations will despise our inability to arrest the destruction.