Speech by Chief Executive at 60th anniversary of Foreign Correspondents' Club (with photo/video)

Following is the speech by the Chief Executive, Mr Donald Tsang, at the lunch hosted by the Foreign Correspondents' Club today (June 15) to celebrate its 60th anniversary:

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for having me to speak with you today, and to help the club mark its 60th anniversary year. I would like to offer my belated congratulations to the new FCC board, which I am sure will continue to play a pivotal role in encouraging journalistic excellence, precision and defending press freedom - not just here in Hong Kong, but throughout the region.

A vote of thanks, also, to the outgoing board who renegotiated the lease of these landmark premises, and without their efforts we might not be meeting here today - although, I have to say, there is a sympathetic landlord.  That helped a bit!

It is no exaggeration to say that Hong Kong is a better place because of the international media presence in our city. The FCC adds institutional strength to that equation. We want Hong Kong to continue developing as the region's media hub, where news, ideas and information flow as freely and unfettered as possible. Indeed, this is one of our major strengths, a jealously guarded freedom in society, and a crucial ingredient of our global competitiveness.

Hong Kong is also a better place because of all the preservation work, the adaptive re-use, that has allowed lovely old buildings such as this to remain in excellent condition and, in this case, as a centre for creative endeavour in the city.

As we are celebrating the club's milestone anniversary, I thought that today would be a good opportunity for me to talk about the past - or, more specifically, how we are preserving our past for future generations.

Now, I know there are some people who believe that the government has not done enough in this regard. Indeed, to a certain extent in the past, this was true - we did not do enough to actively look for ways to preserve, or creatively use, some of our built heritage. And indeed some of the very beautiful buildings have been demolished in the 1950s and in the 1960s.

But today, it is equally true to say that this government has ushered in a new era for Hong Kong as far as protecting our built heritage is concerned. Let me explain why, and let's start with the recent past.

The demise of the old Star Ferry terminal at the end of 2006 was a pivotal moment for Hong Kong society. It unleashed a wave of nostalgia about the "good old days" - and resulted in much discussion and soul searching about heritage protection generally. Not only among the people of Hong Kong, among corporates, but also within Government.

It also resulted in much soul searching by me and my governing team about Hong Kong's development model, and how to best balance the needs of a modern metropolis while meeting greater public expectations to preserve our built heritage. The people poured out their hearts. The government listened - and then we acted.

That is why, in my past two Policy Addresses, I have stressed the importance of "progressive development", which includes as a core element the promotion of community development through revitalisation of our built heritage.

For decades we'd erected buildings, roads, bridges, tunnels as fast as we could. By and large, this was the right thing for Hong Kong at that time. We would not be the world city we are today were it not for this massive investment in infrastructure.

Not many people would argue with our public housing programme, the development of New Towns - Shatin, Tai Po, Tuen Mun - the building of our clean and efficient MTR system, or the Airport Core Programme. And I don't think people will argue with the need to develop a world-class, integrated waterfront within Victoria Harbour, to make the best possible use of the West Kowloon Cultural District, to develop a new, green community at Kai Tak, or to revitalise Kwun Tong district.

But there comes a time in the development of a modern society like Hong Kong when people  must stop and ask: "Have we gone too far?", or, "Are we sacrificing too much for another skyscraper?", or, "Should we do more to protect our heritage?" For Hong Kong that turning point came in late 2006 and early 2007. This was the past shaping the future.

Now, let me talk about the future of the past.

In 2007, my Policy Address that year was entitled "A New Direction for Hong Kong". It reflected a new approach to developing a quality city and a quality life. We had heard loud and clear the desire of Hong Kong people to do more to protect, preserve, revitalise and re-use our built heritage.

And over the past 18 months we have achieved quite a lot in this regard, due in no short measure to the commitment and common sense of our Secretary for Development Carrie Lam and her team.

We've taken a new and holistic approach by combining policy, partnership, pragmatism and ... passion. Added to that formula has been a firm fiscal commitment to ensure that we have the resources needed to take action and generate tangible results.

Since January 2008, Heritage Impact Assessments have been mandatory requirement on all works projects. And for the first time, we have a clear heritage protection policy that is underpinned by a Commissioner for Heritage Office that was set up in April 2008.

We have been much more proactive in trying to find new and creative ways to make the best use of vacant heritage sites through our Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme. This scheme allows non-profit-making organisations to apply for the adaptive re-use of government-owned historic buildings to run social enterprises.

The scheme is backed by strong government financial support, which includes nominal rent, a one-off capital grant for major renovation work, and a non-recurrent grant for initial operation. We have initially earmarked HK$1.5 billion for the scheme.

We received a very encouraging and overwhelming response to the first batch of buildings included in the scheme - in all, 114 applications for seven buildings. The adaptive re-uses of these buildings will include a boutique hotel, a Chinese contemporary arts institute, an international youth hostel, a traditional Chinese medicine centre, tourism and Chinese cultural centre-cum-museum and a school of arts and design. These projects will inject new life and vitality in the buildings and surrounding communities, as well as enrich our cultural and tourism assets.

And here's a news flash - the second batch of five buildings will soon be launched. They are the Old Tai Po Police Station, the former Fanling Magistracy, the famous Blue House in Wan Chai, Wong Uk in Sha Tin, and Stone Houses in Kowloon City.

Our new heritage policy also aims to strike a pragmatic balance between protecting historic buildings and respecting private property rights.  We recognise that economic incentives will often be needed to encourage private owners to preserve their historic buildings.

The King Yin Lei case is a good example. We have successfully preserve King Yin Lei as a monument through a non-in-situ land exchange.  An adjacent lot of the same size and development parameters will be granted to the owner. In exchange, the owner will restore King Yin Lei to the high standards required by the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO) and then surrender it to Government for preservation and revitalisation. The first phase of restoration work has been completed, and the final phase is expected to finish by end-2010. We will ensure that the restored mansion is open to the public and visitors, and that people will be able to learn about its history and architecture.

Another good example is Jessville which is a Grade III building on Pok Fu Lam Road.  Earlier this month, the Town Planning Board approved a conservation-cum-development scheme put forward by the owners of the site.  Under the scheme, we will be able to preserve the historic mansion while allowing some public access.

Earlier this year, in February, an expert panel together with the AMO completed heritage assessments on 1,444 pre-1950 buildings to identify those with high heritage value. This was the most comprehensive and professional assessment yet of our built heritage.

The AMO has now submitted the assessment results and proposed gradings to the Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB) for consideration. The number of proposed Grade 1 to Grade 3 historic buildings has more than doubled, while the number of historic buildings under each Grade has also increased.

The Advisory Board has just about wrapped up a four-month public consultation on the proposals, and is working very hard to confirm the gradings by the end of the year. Incidentally, the FCC building has been proposed for an upgrade to Grade 1 status, which puts it just one step away from being declared a monument. And that would be a very different proposition, I suppose.

Based on what I've heard in fact on the question of monument - what journalists like to call 'informed sources' - there are probably a few FCC members who've been propping up the bar for so long they'd be identified and qualify as well!

We also understand that we might need to provide financial help to the owners of historic buildings. That is why we have introduced a scheme which provides special grants for owners to carry out maintenance work. The ceiling for each application has recently been raised to $1 million.

Engaging the public is also a vitally important aspect of our new approach to heritage conservation and re-use. We have devoted quite a lot of effort to public awareness and education activities. And I encourage everyone to look at our website http://www.heritage.gov.hk/ and to give us your feedback through that channel.

This year we are concentrating especially on our youth and students, to help them learn more about Hong Kong history and appreciate our heritage. Just two days ago - on June 13 - we celebrated National Cultural Heritage Day, which included free postage for a series of postcards featuring historic buildings that had been drawn by local students. I have some of the postcards here if anyone would like them.

The FCC and the adjacent Fringe Club buildings are excellent examples of adaptive re-use. In fact, this area lies at the heart of an historic heritage trail that stretches from Flagstaff House in Hong Kong Park, to the terraced steps of Wing Lee Street just beyond the popular Soho area - as the crow flies, about 1.5km and perhaps a bit longer on foot.

Consider the built heritage in this area and we can also appreciate the fine work that has been done by previous administrations and building owners to preserve and protect our history - St John's Cathedral, the Helena May, the French Mission Building, Government House, Bishop's House just across the road - which, incidentally is currently subject of an exciting revitalisation plan by the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui. Man Mo Temple, Kom Tong Hall, the old Pathological Institute. And a little further up the hill we have the Catholic Cathedral in Caine Road, and the Ohel Leah Synagogue, both of which are UNESCO award winners.

Looking ahead a few years, we are excited about the $1.8 billion revitalisation project for the Old Central Police Station Compound. I am sure that the Jockey Club will once again live up to its reputation for excellence and provide us with a new landmark attraction that we'll all be proud of, and which will add even more vitality and business opportunities to the area.

Similarly, we are determined to protect the original site of the Central School, which is at the junction of Hollywood Road and Aberdeen Street, which has the potential to form a heritage cluster with other historic sites in Central and Sheung Wan. It is suitable for a range of re-use purposes, including education, creative industries, cultural and tourism facilities. I am personally much attached to the building where I grew up.

We will work closely with the Urban Renewal Authority to optimise the design of their Staunton Street/Wing Lee Street project to bring out further the street ambience and the heritage significance of that locality.

Before I finish, let me share with you some personal recollections that I hope will give you some insight into Donald Tsang's commitment to heritage protection.

When I was a kid, all of this area around here was my backyard. I used to come down here to the old Dairy Farm Depot with my brothers and friends, and we'd watch the sinewy workmen haul blocks of ice down the precarious steps on Wyndham Street, all the way down to Queen's Road. We were always hoping they were given opportunities to ride on those ice blocks and  careen down the road. But, we never had the childish pleasure of seeing that happen. But that was a sight.

When my father was working at Central Police Station, I used to go up and visit him at work from time to time. There was often talk of ghosts stalking the corridors. And occasionally we'd be treated to a movie night in the grounds that had been organised for the officers. Hollywood Road in those days was an eclectic mix of kung fu shows, fortune tellers, and people telling old folk tales. I used to play table tennis at the Man Mo Temple, where we'd rent a table for $1 an hour – that was quite a large sum in those days. I lived in the old Police Married Quarters with my family until Selina and I were married in 1969. Indeed I stayed here nearly for two decades.

It warms my heart to see the way that the FCC and the Fringe Club have maintained their good looks since they were first built in the 1890s. The way in which they have been maintained and preserved serves as a model for the adaptive re-use of our built heritage in Hong Kong.

As I said, this is, indeed, a new beginning for heritage protection in Hong Kong. Over the past 18 months we have moved quickly on a number of fronts to live up to the expectations of the community. We have introduced a new heritage policy and a new institutional framework. This has made it clearer to all how we will protect and revitalise our historic buildings. We have made substantial financial commitments to underpin these policies and the revitalisation work. We have taken action to protect buildings in danger, and to bring old buildings back to life. And we have approached our mission with passion and common sense because we know that's what the people expect us to do.  This is my home. This is where I grew up. And it's my personal mission to ensure we protect and lovingly restore and re-use our built heritage for generations to come.

Thank you very much.

Ends/Monday, June 15, 2009
Issued at HKT 16:24


The Chief Executive, Mr Donald Tsang, attended the Foreign Correspondents' Club luncheon today (June 15) to celebrate its 60th anniversary. Picture shows Mr Tsang addressing the luncheon.