Every year, dragon boat races are held in various districts across the territory to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival. This year, I was invited to Tai O to watch with the public a traditional annual event unique to Tai O organised by the local fishing community – the “Dragon Boat Water Parade”. Setting foot in Tai O, I certainly did not miss the opportunity to “check-in” at the Tai O Heritage Hotel, a project under the Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme (Revitalisation Scheme) of the Development Bureau (DEVB). Being a distinctive building of historic interest, the hotel has become a must-see hot spot for tourists in recent years, and serves as an example of successful conservation and revitalisation. Also, as this year marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Commissioner for Heritage’s Office (CHO), I have invited the Commissioner for Heritage, Mr YAM Ho-san, José, to talk about the CHO’s past efforts and its future plan in taking forward the work on heritage conservation.
Experiencing a different Tai O
The “Dragon Boat Water Parade” is held in Tai O in the fifth lunar month every year, with more than a hundred years of history behind it. The event was inscribed onto the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011. This year, I had the opportunity to view up close this traditional event rich in local colours. Members of three fishermen associations rowed their dragon boats, towing deity statues on sacred sampans to parade through the watercourses between stilted houses. Some residents of the stilted houses worshipped in the direction of the dragon boats as they passed by. The event this year was particularly meaningful as the organiser, with a view to promoting and passing on this cultural heritage, had invited more than a hundred people to the stilted houses to view the parade with Tai O residents and at the same time experience the lifestyle of the local residents. After the parade came the exciting dragon boat races. Different teams received their team flags and sat in their boats ready to go. In an instant, hundreds of oars dipped into the water while spectators along the banks watched the races and cheered on the athletes in the baking sun. The place was buzzing with activity in a festive atmosphere.
More than 1.2 million visitors
After the event, we walked to the Old Tai O Police Station, which was built next to the ferry pier on Shek Chai Po Street in 1902. Currently a Grade 2 historic building, the former police station was included in Batch I of the Revitalisation Scheme in 2008. Approval was given a year later for the building to be revitalised and converted into the Tai O Heritage Hotel, which commenced operation in 2012. As at last month, it has attracted more than 1.2 million visitors. Evidently, it has not only become a “must-see” landmark for tourists to Tai O, but can also let the public better grasp our achievements in actively promoting the revitalisation of historic buildings.
According to the management of the hotel, the architects have retained the architectural style of the former police station. During renovation, the former cells, the guard tower, search lights, cannons and the nine bullet holes left on metal shutters during a shooting incident in 1918 have all been well preserved. The hotel has nine guest rooms and one restaurant, with an average occupancy rate of over 80 percent since its operation. Free guided tours are provided for the general public, and special hotel stay packages featuring activities such as the “Dragon Boat Water Parade” and “Explore Tai O” are offered to visitors, so that they can know more about the historic building, Tai O’s culture and tradition, the natural habitats of the fishing village, etc.
Heritage conservation achieving initial results
There are indeed many buildings of heritage value in Hong Kong that need our conscientious efforts to preserve, revitalise and put to good use. The DEVB thus set up the CHO in 2008 to show the Government’s long-term commitment to heritage conservation.
Since its establishment, the CHO has introduced a number of initiatives, including the Revitalisation Scheme, now already in Batch V, under which historic buildings are preserved, put to wider use and injected with new life through innovative ways in collaboration with non-profit-making organisations. At present, besides the Tai O Heritage Hotel, the YHA Mei Ho House Youth Hostel, Green Hub, Jao Tsung-I Academy, Viva Blue House, PMQ, the recently opened Central Police Station Compound–Tai Kwun, etc. have all become holiday attractions for the general public. In 2008, the CHO also launched the Financial Assistance for Maintenance Scheme to provide financial incentives for private owners to preserve their historic buildings.
Time flies, and the CHO has just commemorated its 10th anniversary. The Commissioner for Heritage, Mr José YAM, admitted that, in the early stages of their heritage conservation work, it was like “groping the stones to cross the river”. Luckily, thanks to the joint efforts of understanding collaboration partners, we have made some achievements. For example, among the nine projects already in operation under the Revitalisation Scheme, five of them have received the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. With more than half of the projects earning international recognition, the results are truly encouraging.
On-going efforts to strengthen heritage conservation
Looking ahead, the CHO will strengthen heritage conservation with more support, such as continuing to take forward the Built Heritage Conservation Fund set up in 2016 to make good use of the $500 million set aside for publicity, public education, community involvement activities and academic research. Besides, the CHO will again organise the “Heritage Vogue．Hollywood Road” street carnival in November this year for the public to experience the rich history and the artistic and cultural ambience around Hollywood Road. Also, the selection results of Batch V of the Revitalisation Scheme will be announced soon.
As a modern society, Hong Kong cannot just simply focus on development. Conservation is as important if not more. Thanks to the support of various parties over the years, historic buildings in Hong Kong have been successfully conserved and revitalised. Very often, different sectors will have different views on the myriad historic building projects. It is not easy to strike a balance between development and conservation, as it is difficult to apply hard and fast rules to every case. But, one thing for sure is that the Government will not slow down the pace of conserving and revitalising historic buildings. I hope that the CHO will continue to make good progress in taking forward its heritage conservation work and explore the infinite attractions in Hong Kong in the years ahead.
24 June, 2018Back