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Chp 110, King Yin Lei – Forty years champion for the environment

King Yin Lei

The magnificent King Yin Lei Mansion (景賢里) at 45 Stubbs Road was built in 1937 on a 50,650 square feet site. The original owner was the offspring of a famous Chinese merchant and philanthropist, Mr Li Po Chun. The architect for the mansion was A.R. Fenton-Raven, a Yorkshireman who came to Hong Kong as a civilian attached to the British Army in 1903. The three-storey building is a “red bricks and green tiles” mansion of Chinese Renaissance or Chinese Neo Classical Style. A private garden festooned with bonsai plants, various pavilions and terraces encircle the mansion. It has been a scenic spot for tourists from the Mainland and overseas. The legendary TV series “Yesterday’s Glitter” (京華春夢) starring Lisa Wang and the 1955 Hollywood classic “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” both had major shots taken in the Mansion. The Mansion later passed to the hands of local merchant the Yow family.

In early 2004, the Mansion was put up for tender. That would mean the demise of the Mansion as the new buyer would in all likelihood demolish the buildings and re-develop the site.

In view of the heritage and landscape value of the Mansion, CA wrote to the Antiquities Authority the Secretary for Home Affairs Dr Patrick Ho in April requesting him to declare the Mansion as a monument under the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance. The Association also wrote to the owner of the site pleading for preservation of the Mansion. Not getting any response from either side, CA launched a “Save King Yin Lei Campaign” on 6 June 2004, announcing that it would submit a bid of $6,000,00 for the heritage mansion and if successful, would conduct a one-dollar-per-citizen fund-raising among the 6 million people of Hong Kong to pay for the tender, and then open the Mansion to the community.

Needless to say, CA’s tender bid was not successful, but it did draw widespread concern and awareness over King Yin Lei and heritage protection in general. The Antiquities Advisory Board discussed the case and agreed that King Yin Lei was worth preserving on account of its high historical and architectural value, though they did not give it a historical building status as it had not been able to gain access to the Mansion. In any case, CA’s campaign produced the desired effect in that the owner decided to withhold the sale of the building thus saving it from immediate destruction.

But the reprieve proved temporary. The Mansion changed ownership in August 2007 and CA could almost see a dark cloud on the horizon. Fearing the worst, CA wrote to Carrie Lam, the Secretary for Development in early August requesting her to declare the Mansion as a proposed monument in her capacity as the Antiquities Authority under the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance. “King Yin Lei has great heritage value historically, architecturally and culturally. Although a private property, it also has immense value as a public asset. Destruction of the building will mean an irreplaceable damage to Hong Kong’s history and heritage,” said CA in the submission. A reply was received from the Development Bureau dated 13 August which revealed that the Antiquities and Monuments Office was “in the process of conducting a detailed research with a view to ascertaining the heritage value of the building such that an appropriate way for its preservation could be devised.”

Then, the worst happened. CA was alerted by a phone call from some member of the public on 11 September and on visiting the site, CA members found, to their horror, that the Mansion was being dismantled before their eyes. In the following three days, the green tiles, the sphere-shaped decoration on the main roof, the window frames as well as the red brick wall surfaces were all destroyed. CA wrote to the Development Bureau immediately demanding that the government declare the Mansion as a temporary monument, and staged a petition on 13 September outside the Central Government Offices to urge the government to take action.

On 14 September, after a meeting of the Antiquities Advisory Board, the Secretary for Development declared King Yin Lei as a Proposed Monument. CA commended the decision which, though belated, at least preserved the structure of the Mansion.

The incident highlighted the gaping hole in government’s heritage protection regime: there is no mechanism at all to protect heritage buildings in private hands other than the extreme method of declaring it a Monument. Another loophole in the Building Ordinance allows owners to willfully and systematically destroy the heritage value of historical buildings under the name of “renovation”. Without a fair and transparent grading and compensation mechanism, nothing could prevent similar buildings from demolition.

The Provision Monument was a temporary status and a solution for conserving King Yin Lei was still lacking. On 20 September, in response to news report that the former owner of King Yin Lei had written to the Administration in April 2007 offering to discuss ways to preserve the Mansion but was ignored, CA wrote to the government pressing for an explanation and urging that King Yin Lei be conserved through a “transfer of development right” arrangement.

To assist in finding a solution, CA under the guidance of its Chairman Betty Ho applied to the Town Planning Board at the end of September to rezone the site from “Residential (Group C)” to “Other Specified Uses – for Residential Development with Historical Site Preserved In-situ” with a clear planning intention for the preservation of heritage.

In the meantime the assessment of the Mansion’s heritage value was completed with the help of outside experts. The result, to no one’s surprise, was that “few buildings of a similar kind in other parts of Hong Kong could compare with King Yin Lei in terms of its excellence in architectural design, exquisiteness in craftsmanship and diversity in building materials”, not to speak of its artistic and social values. CA’s rezoning request came at the right time to help a solution and eventually the government and the owner agreed on a scheme to transfer the owner’s development right to land immediate adjacent to the Mansion. The new scheme was approved by the Town Planning Board in April 2008.

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July 29, 2015 - Posted by | Dr WK Chan book

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