Bridging the Gap between Culture and Preservation

Bridging the Gap between Culture and Preservation

Blue House community meeting in the evening at Blue House Livelihood Place

Heritage conservation projects are usually meant to keep old and important sites safe from the wrecking ball. But while the physical structures stand, the life and culture of these buildings - embodied in their inhabitants - are often moved out. And when that happens, much is lost.

This outcome, which has been typical in Hong Kong, disturbed Dr Mirana May Szeto, Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature. So much so that it motivated her to develop an entirely new approach to heritage preservation in Hong Kong, focused on the Blue House Cluster Preservation Project in Wan Chai.

''Heritage preservation advocacy has been happening in Hong Kong for decades and still we have lost a lot of heritage,'' she says.

''In every single case in the past, the people were evicted. And then either the government took the site back as heritage and gave it to an NGO as an office, which is good but there's no public appreciation of the place, or it gave the site to private operators as a restaurant for gentrified use.''

Dr Szeto reckoned there was a better way and she saw an opportunity with the Blue House Cluster. The government's original plan was to evict all residents (with compensation), convert the Blue and Yellow Houses into museums and demolish the Orange House.

After ''studying the city like a text'', Dr Szeto concluded that the general public was not getting the message that these projects affected Hong Kong's culture and quality of life - that they were more than the dislocation of a few people and the change of use of a few buildings.

She rallied other scholars, artists, businessmen, lawyers and other professionals to this perspective and they helped to shape an alternative plan that involved working closely with the local community and NGOs. This process of knowledge exchange ensured that everyone understood the technical and regulatory requirements.

''The residents showed us around the place to understand their way of life and what was worth preserving,'' she says. ''We were able to see the connections between the hawkers and the market and the residents, and see how this community had evolved.''

Dr Szeto's group called their approach ''living heritage preservation'' and it helped them to win the bid for the site in 2010. It has also become adopted into the government's heritage policy.

''What makes us unique and successful is our process innovation,'' Dr Szeto explains. Through the mediation of our researchers who are responsible for knowledge sourcing, integration and production, expertise, knowledge and new ideas, available resources were mobilized among the community, government, professional and business stakeholders to do creative things in a participatory, interactive manner.

Residents will stay in place during renovation and when the site re-opens in 2014, there will be a ''house of stories'' where artists, writers and the community will help to keep alive the culture and life of these residents, and of Hong Kong as a whole.

Dr Mirana Szeto (standing back row, 3rd from right) with residents and professional volunteers at the Blue House spatial use participatory planning workshop in September 2009