Last September, I attended the opening ceremony of the Blue House Cluster revitalisation project in Wan Chai, and paid a visit to old and new residents from two households. I was recently back at the building cluster with much excitement to attend the award presentation ceremony to celebrate the “Viva Blue House” for winning the top honour of the Award of Excellence of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. This is the first time a built heritage conservation project in Hong Kong has received this honour, in recognition of the “Retain House and Tenant” concept and the community participation approach in conservation and revitalisation. In this connection, I have invited the team leader of the project who has witnessed its birth to share some interesting stories about her participation.
Wan Chai is a unique and distinctive community blending old and new. Not only are there a high concentration of commercial buildings and hotels and myriads of bars and eateries, but also historic tenement buildings, markets and temples. The Blue House Cluster, constructed between the 1920s and 1950s, comprises the Blue House, Yellow House, Orange House and the open space on King Sing Street. The Development Bureau, in collaboration with the St James’ Settlement, have revitalised the building cluster into the “Viva Blue House” under Batch II of the Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme. The project, co-managed by four organisations, namely the St James’ Settlement, the Community Cultural Concern, the Heritage Hong Kong Foundation Limited and the Blue House Resident Group, has received favourable comments since its operation. Coincidentally, the Chief Executive, Mrs LAM CHENG Yuet-ngor, Carrie, the officiating guest speaking at the award presentation ceremony, was previously the Secretary for Development and had spared no effort in promoting the conservation of the Blue House Cluster.
Hong Kong’s first UNESCO Award of Excellence for Conservation
Launched in 2000, the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation aim to recognise and encourage conservation and restoration projects under private initiatives and public-private partnership within the Asia-Pacific region. The Blue House Cluster revitalisation project was selected for the top honour from 43 submissions and hailed by the jury as a successful example of urban conservation, which has not only retained and restored the buildings themselves, but also strived to preserve the history of life and culture of the neighbourhood. The original residents were allowed to stay and live in their own flats during revitalisation, with minimum disruption to their daily lives. Also, it is truly impressive that they were all actively engaged in the entire process.
Active participation of stakeholders
The success of the Blue House Cluster revitalisation project is the fruit of efforts made by all those involved. According to Ms CHAU Hei-suen, Suki, Team Leader of Cultural Preservation and Community Engagement of St James’ Settlement, when the plan was still in its infancy back in 2006, local residents, architects, social enterprises and conservationists had already actively participated in the project. For instance, residents held meetings every month to discuss details of the revitalisation project, and explore ways to foster community ties and make good use of the open-air space. There were 30 households living in the Blue House Cluster before revitalisation, and about half of them expressed interest to stay. Understandably, different stakeholders had different views at the time. For example, architectural designers regarded the project as restoration of historic buildings, while residents viewed it as renovation of their own homes. Conflicts were inevitable during the deliberation stage, but it was fortunate that they were all willing to make compromises.
Old and new tenants living in harmony
Finally, in 2010, the “Viva Blue House” embracing the “Retain House and Tenant” concept proposed by the St James’ Settlement was selected by the Government, resulting in the first project that allows the original residents to stay and live in their own flats during and after conservation and revitalisation. In addition, under the Good Neighbour Scheme of the St James’ Settlement, the remaining flats have been rented to those who are interested in co-living and participating in community life to join as “good neighbours”. At present, there are 11 new tenants renting flats in the “Viva Blue House” and the conditions of tenancy require them to participate in resident activities on a regular basis and share life experiences, skills, etc. According to Ms Suki CHAU, some people had inevitably thrown cold water on the scheme at first, but the old and new tenants get along pretty well beyond expectation. We can feel their enthusiasm and willingness to contribute time to take an active part in community life.
Regarding the award received by “Viva Blue House”, Ms Suki CHAU sees it as a big encouragement to all those involved in the scheme and a recognition of the “Retain House and Tenant” concept and the bottom-up community participation model. She is of the view that the concept could be further promoted in future.
Why the Blue House is blue in colour
One may not know that the Blue House was originally grey in colour. When the Government restored the building in the 1990s, as most of the leftover paint available in the Government Supplies was the colour blue, the exterior walls of the building was painted blue. From then on, the building is called the Blue House.
Every time I visit the Blue House Cluster, I can deeply feel the passion of the local residents and their strong feeling for these historic buildings. Here, I would like to particularly thank all stakeholders for their great efforts in conserving and revitalising the building cluster, bringing it international recognition. Most importantly, the project has revived the much cherished neighbourhood relations in the old days and created a cultural scene that is unique to this city and the community. Looking ahead, we will build on our past efforts and continue to conserve various kinds of historic buildings in Hong Kong through appropriate and sustainable approaches. I hope that we will have your support.
8 April, 2018Back