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Chp 106, Kom Tong Hall – Forty years champion for the environment

Kom Tong Hall

On 12 December 2006, a new museum at 7 Castle Road was opened in Hong Kong, the Dr Sun Yat Sen Museum. With an area of 2,560 square metres, it houses two permanent exhibitions on “Dr Sun Yat-sen and Modern China” and “Hong Kong in Dr Sun Yat-sen’s Time”. Apart from the life and times of the “Father of Modern China”, one of the galleries tells the story of how the museum was converted from its original use as a private residence. What it did not highlight was that the building might not have stood now had there not been an intervention by CA and the Central and Western District Council.

This is how the building is described in the official guide: “Built in 1914, the Dr Sun Yat-sen Museum is located in the Kom Tong Hall, originally the residence of Ho Kom-tong, the younger brother of the Hong Kong’s magnate Robert Hotung. Being a typical Edwardian Classical building, this four-storey building has the facade surrounded by the Greek-style granite columns. Inside the premises are preserved the stained-glass windows, balcony wall tiles and staircase railings in good condition. The Kom Tong Hall is among the best-preserved buildings dating back to the early 20th century Hong Kong. Apart from its majestic appearance, Kom Tong Hall was among the earliest residential buildings constructed with reinforced concrete structure and fitted with concealed electrical wiring in Hong Kong. It sets an important milestone in the development of building construction.”

But this icon of Hong Kong’s building history was surrounded by hoardings in 2002 in preparation for its demolition. The then owner, the Mormon Church, had acquired the house since 1971 and was planning to redevelop it into a religious cum education center. This meant the building had to go, despite its status as a Grade II historical building (conferred by the Antiquities Advisory Board in 1990) and its inclusion in the Central and Western Heritage Trail (since 1999).

The demolition plan drew much indignation, especially for Stephen Chan, CA director and member of the Central and Western District Council. Enlisting the help of Andrew Tse, a great-grandson of Mr Ho Kom Tong, CA mounted a campaign which succeeded in rousing public attention. Bowing to public pressure, the government began holding discussion with the owner, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but to little avail. On 28 November 2002 CA sent a letter to the Secretary for Home Affairs Dr Ho Chi Ping, who was also the Antiquities Authority, proposing that Kom Tong Hall be declared a monument and offering to “convert this historical building to a cultural heritage centre for the general public and to house the Conservancy Association’s headquarters for the promotion of nature and heritage conservation in Hong Kong.” In another letter later, CA invited the government to consider transfer of development rights as a means to compensate the owner.

A year of protracted negotiations went by without any success. CA sent another letter to the President of the Mormon Church, Gordon Hinckley, in Salt Lake City in the US, thanking the church for its commitment to Hong Kong but pleading with it to preserve Hong Kong’s heritage. The breakthrough came in February 2004 when an agreement was reached under which the government would acquire the property from the church for $53 million and convert it into the to Dr Sun Yat-sen Museum. That was a win-win solution for which both the Secretary for Home Affairs and the Mormon Church drew praises from CA. As intimated by a member of the church, CA’s earlier letter did get the personal attention of their President, who had had a part in acquiring the building years before and shared a great respect for Hong Kong’s culture and heritage. This, it was believed, had been a factor in facilitating the agreement. There was plenty of goodwill in resolving the issue and the church kindly helped CA organize an open day for members on 27 March 2004. In the course of developing the museum, it was CA’s suggestion that one of the galleries should showcase the history of the building itself, including its occupation by the church, which is now duly exhibited in the gallery on “History and Renovation of the Kom Tong Hall”.

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July 25, 2015 - Posted by | Dr WK Chan book

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