Hong Kong, city of immigrants, sees historical preservation in public housing

A budding historical preservation movement takes off in Hong Kong, where many residents are recent immigrants and half the population lives in subsidized public housing.

Marcus Tam still remembers growing up in the Lower Ngau Tau Kok public housing complex, playing in a dingy apartment with "mice the size of cats." His family moved away once their lot improved.

But in recent months Mr. Tam and other Hong Kongers have flocked to the 40-year-old public housing project to take their final pictures before it is demolished. To them, the squat concrete buildings are testament to the grittier side of their famously glitzy city, where, amid the futuristic skyscrapers, nearly half the population still lives in some form of government-subsidized housing.

Many of the projects were built to house refugees fleeing famine and political turmoil in mainland China.

Today, the steady stream of visitors reflects the nostalgia driving a nascent movement to preserve Hong Kong's heritage. "This place is part of Hong Kong culture," says Tam.

In a city that is only 160 years old and home to Chinese, British, other Europeans, and South Asians, with the majority of residents either foreign-born or children of immigrants, defining heritage can be tricky. Landmarks like Ngau Tau Kok can help provide an anchor, says Margaret Brooke, who in 2006 cofounded Heritage Hong Kong, a nonprofit preservation group.

"It really is about collective, social memories. A lot of people have no family history in Hong Kong ... so they're looking for something to latch onto," like the old public housing projects, she says.

Repurposing old buildings

Thanks to the city's budding preservation movement, two blocks of the Mei Ho Mansion, another public housing complex, are being converted into a youth hostel by a local nonprofit, as part of a government initiative to attract investors to find new uses for historical buildings.

The Savannah College of Art and Design, in Georgia, recently won a bid to turn an old courthouse in the neighborhood of Kowloon into the school's first-ever satellite campus in China.

But residents here won't accept just any foreign design. At public hearings they resoundingly rejected a proposal by Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss architects of the Bird's Nest, Beijing's Olympic Stadium, to stack an observation deck atop the Central Police Station. The station is the city's oldest and once held Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China.

That rejection didn't surprise Lee Ho-yin, director of the architectural conservation program at Hong Kong University. The preservation movement stems from the younger generation, many of whom prefer "local" flavor to "starchitects" from abroad, Dr. Lee says.

In a city that is used to seeing constant redevelopment, Lee continues, "preservation is also a way to regulate the pace of change in a society."

But Tam's visit to his old home is not about slowing change. "It's only human nature to retain the memories," he says.

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