The Blue House Revisited
Last updated on：July 1, 2022
When Yeung Chun Lei Herbal Tea announced its closure in January, many people dropped by the shop in Wan Chai to say farewell. The traditional Chinese tea shop had a history of over 100 years and was passed on for three generations.
The owner agreed to donate his precious container and tools to the Hong Kong House of Stories at the Stone Nullah Lane, placing it among a collection of community memories.
“We can let the public know how Herbal Tea was made in the past. The owner can share the process of making Herbal Tea and talk about the shop’s history,” said Hugo Tsang, an operator of the House of Stories and the Community Development Services at St. James’ Settlement, “We are very glad to see that these tools can be kept in this place.”
The House of Stories is part of the Blue House Cluster, which consists of three interconnected buildings: Blue House, Yellow House, and Orange House. Inside the house, cultural relics and creative products are on display; video clips of the buildings’ survival history are put on a loop.
The cluster is operated by St. James’ Settlement, a non-governmental charitable organization located across the street. With the slogan “Conservation First, Community Always,” it became a milestone of conservation in the highly urbanized Wan Chai district and won the 2017 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.
In today’s Hong Kong, new revitalization projects have sprung up, and real estate development is in full swing. The Blue House Cluster is no longer at the media spotlight, but it is still regarded as a role model and a balancing act. Where is the community going next? How can it shed light on the conservation and revitalization in the city?
Urban renewal has become a tool to accelerate gentrification. Market-led redevelopment has increased land values and living costs, bringing in modern lifestyles and forcing long-term residents to move away.
In the Asia-Pacific region, urban renewal cases in the form of Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) have earned both praise and blame. While best practices of bottom-up efforts represent possible success paths, business-oriented projects never stop to attract criticism.
The “Machi-zukuri” (community planning) movement in Japan has refreshed the image of urban neighborhoods. Taiwan has drawn on the Japanese experience to involve residents in their community development. China’s Shenzhen Special Economic Zone displaced hundreds of thousands of people in the “Urban Villages” as part of the city’s upgrade in the past decade.
“Gentrification is an inevitable process,” said Dr. Charlie Xue, Professor at the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering at City University of Hong Kong. “The prosperity of many other major cities in the world, such as London and New York, has depended on gentrification.”
Xue’s observation and research on the architecture in Hong Kong covered a long history since the post-war era. In his book Hong Kong Architecture 1945-2015, he also talked about cultural heritage and the collective memories attached to them in the 21st century.
When buildings grow too old for sustainable development, urban conservation became an issue amid large-scale reconstruction. Most of the struggles gave way to municipal development, and the public space became a battleground of residents, developers and the government. The transformation of the Star Ferry Pier and Queen’s Pier in 2006 and 2007 ignited public awareness of protecting historical heritages. The vanishing image of Lee Tung Street led to waves of protests against the Urban Renewal Authority.
The Blue House Cluster has been regarded as an unduplicable success with its innovative “Retain House and Tenant” concept. It has managed to keep its historical appearance, and provided space to foster interaction in the community.
In 2017, UNESCO recognized the project as “a triumphant validation for a truly inclusive approach to urban conservation.” Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in her speech that “Viva Blue House has not only conserved a cluster of historic buildings, but rekindles a strong spirit of care and share in the community.”
After years of struggles, citizens and stakeholders have a wider channel to express their voices to policymakers and investors. “Bottom-up participation is a product and process of a democratic society,” Xue said, referring to examples where strong voices of the society pushed led to actions to protect traditions.
However, it was not the end of the journey.
Tsang has been working for the Viva Blue House project since early 2016, mainly in charge of operating the House of Stories.
The Blue House Cluster belonged to the second phase of the Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme, established in 2008 by the Development Bureau. The government has evaluated the impact of cultural heritages and allowed institutions to put historic buildings to good adaptive re-use, with an aim to “strike a balance between sustainable development and heritage conservation.”
Throughout the years, the Mei Ho House in Sham Shui Po has been transformed into a hostel and a museum of public housing. The Old Tai Po Police Station is now called the “Green Hub,” demonstrating a sustainable lifestyle in tune with nature.
Wallace Chang, Associate Professor at the Department of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong, has been an Advisory Committee Member for six years by May 2020. He said the government’s support to the projects is more on the supervision side, and it sometimes organizes events or festivals for promotion.
“It is good,” Chang said, “But more should be done to enable individual projects to build up their confidence and branding their individual identity, particularly towards the end of a collective cultural identity.” He considers revitalization projects to be complex and unique, thus requiring a more intensive understanding and socio-cultural networking.
Before the Partnership Scheme was established, the Urban Renewal Authority has already been operating to resume lands for new developments. Founded in 2001, The URA describes itself as a public sector independent of the government. It has been incorporating the “4R” strategy, namely Redevelopment, Rehabilitation, Revitalization and Reservation, aiming to revitalize districts from a “Node-Line-Plane” perspective.
A recent example is 618 Shanghai Street, which was opened in Mong Kok earlier this year right next to Langham Place. The Street consists of a row of social enterprises, small shops selling handmade goods, as well as paintings and brochures telling the brief history of the region.
Travel guides and lifestyle media spare no effort in promoting scenic locations in the crowded city. Tourists are happy to take a photo against the colorful walls to post on their Instagram accounts. However, there have been suspicions that revitalization projects are losing their essence and are merely used for commercial purposes.
Financial reports from the URA have cast doubts that it has lined its own pockets from the lucrative reconstruction projects. Civil groups questioned how an authority linked with the real estate market could make use of the land to serve the people.
“There are no activities that nearby residents can participate in, nothing they can eat or purchase,” Tsang said, “For me, what the URA does is conservation on the surface, not the real conservation for an urban area.”
Tsang warned that Hongkongers might go on and consider conservation as creating a “small, chill and beautiful place” where they can buy expensive things, without thinking about what the original community looked like. He said developers may promise to retain the appearances of old buildings, such as the State Theatre in North Point, but the public has no idea what is happening inside.
“Do we need this kind of conservation? I don’t think so,” he said, “We should keep the buildings as they are, rather than fit them in with the mansions behind, with the shopping malls inside.”
Speaking of tourists, Tsang said that similar things are happening to the Blue House. Visitors who hear about it from the Hong Kong Tourism Board often enjoy taking photos against the blue walls. When too many people come to take photos, residents may have a bad impression.
“We should be able to do better, to find a balance point to understand the thoughts of both sides,” Tsang said with optimism, “Some people may come to learn about conservation in Hong Kong. Residents need to know that the public is not disturbing their life.”
Xue also holds a positive attitude towards such a phenomenon, saying that business activities themselves have served as a way of protection and revitalization. “There are various types of tourists: some pay an in-depth visit; some just take a picture for social media. As long as the building is standing there decently, it is an achievement,” he said.
In recent years, numerous shops in Wan Chai have been moving away or closing down. Lights from Tai Kam Lung, one of the old Mahjong houses on Spring Garden Lane, disappeared along with other neon lightboxes in the city.
Some people bought the shop very early and may be able to make a fortune before leaving. It was reported that the owner of Yeung Chun Lei could sell the shop for HKD 50 million, which is 277 times the price when it was purchased.
On the other hand, those who only rented the shops still need to pay the high rents in Wan Chai. In times of the social movements and the coronavirus outbreak, the rents did not have much fluctuation. Owners are worried if they can continue their business here.
“In Hong Kong, there is only a policy for the conservation of buildings, nothing for the entire community or region,” Tsang said, “We often report to the Town Planning Board that a community should be viewed from the perspective of people, not just buildings.”
Chang agreed that the current grading system only protects buildings as individual “objects” instead of “loci” — an architecture concept for “places.” He suggested that there should be a comprehensive evaluation of the community and culture to formulate an overall aura of the district. “The simple grading system should be coordinated to this more sophisticated idea that should take social aspects into cultural contribution instead of taking the ‘age’ of building as the absolute criteria,” he said.
Wan Chai is a prosperous district in the middle of Hong Kong Island, with rapid flows of people, bustling markets and a series of landmark buildings. It is also home to many Tenement Houses built in the 1950s and 60s, with only six to 10 floors.
Currently, a Serviced Apartment is being built behind the Yellow House. Michelin Star Thai restaurant Samsen is located next to the Blue House, attracting a long queue every day.
A few hundred meters away stands the second phase of the Hopewell Centre, which has been ongoing for decades and is finally about to open by the end of 2021. Residents complained about the construction noise and its damage to road traffic safety. Community newspaper Stone Nullah Post, published by SJS from 2016 to 2019, kept track of the project and exchanged views with the District Council.
Tsang noted, however, that the District Council only serves as a place to collect residents’ voices, not a place to make decisions. At the end of the day, it is the Town Planning Board that has the final say about what can be built.
When the Board announced amendments to the draft Wan Chai Outline Zoning Plan in 2018, around 80% of residents surveyed by the Post said the government should conserve valuable old buildings and build community facilities instead of hotels.
“There are too many hotels in Wan Chai, more than ten of them. Do we really need so many hotels in Wan Chai?” Tsang asked. Although the Blue House has been a symbol of conservation, chances are it would be surrounded by tall buildings in the future. He expressed his worries, “We hope to maintain the present appearance, rather than see the Blue House surrounded by a siege.”
Last December, hundreds of windmills made out of recycled paper boxes were used as decorations to connect nearby buildings. It was the third time that Kevin Cheung, an upcycling product designer with a studio in the Blue House Cluster, has installed Christmas decorations together with the neighbors. The windmills weren’t taken down until early in May and were said to be sent to a local recycling factory.
After the revitalization was completed in 2016, part of the previous residents chose to move to other places or live in public housing. The Blue House Cluster now consists of 11 newcomers and eight remaining households, with one room available for rent.
People who apply through the “Good Neighbor Scheme” will be asked and evaluated by how they can contribute to the community. Tsang complimented the creativity of the tenants, saying they are especially good at cultural life.
St. James’ Settlement is responsible for holding movie screenings and concerts and communicating with neighbors. Residents hold dinner gatherings every month and recycle waste together on Saturday mornings. Public tours allow visiting groups to go inside the cluster and learn about its history. They also designed cultural tours in the Wan Chai neighborhood to tell the story to the general public.
Tsang recalled that colleagues of SJS decided to organize extracurricular activities for children at the request of some neighbors. They have also invited craftsmen in Wan Chai to teach young people their skills in workshops, which might otherwise vanish in the changing landscape when they retire without qualified successors.
In response to the coronavirus, all these activities had to be suspended. The House of Stories was closed for several weeks and the introduction was moved online. The two restaurants, Local Ginger and Share Moments, followed the social-distancing rules and had to rely more on food delivery.
Sitting in the open space with people eating at Local Ginger, Tsang said they didn’t want to entrust the two restaurants to other people, but they have come across obstacles operating it as a social enterprise. “It is hard to walk a fine line between the social concept and business operation. When the price is too low, you can’t make money. But when it is too high, neighbors cannot afford it.”
Tsang acknowledged that they didn’t have enough experience in conservation, construction and overall operation. The Blue House is their first attempt, and there was no reference in Hong Kong.
Members of SJS are still learning in the process. Tsang said the key is to find a balanced point among three different groups – the community, the public and the remaining residents – and let different people live together in this place.
In an interview with Initium Media in 2017, an officer at SJS regarded winning the award as merely a beginning. She said the following three to five years would be a critical time to see whether the utopia-like model would work out.
Despite a slim hope to maintain all the tenement houses in the neighborhood, the Blue House Cluster is evolving towards a model for community planning. Tsang said their expectation is for residents and shop owners to share a common goal, so that they could jointly develop a relatively stable and ideal long-term policy to protect this area.
Chang also stressed the importance of strengthening community education and allowing residents to “treasure and contribute their community understandings towards these heritages.” While some neighbors may be persistent to preserve their old memories, he noted, it is more reasonable to leave it to an educated debate and interplay between generations to see and act with their built environment.
“Summarizing these changes and possible adaptations as living testaments through sensitive design and engaging process with the future generations may be the overall direction of conservation,” Chang said, “For it is a common good or common evil if we are seriously owning them, instead of just leaving them on the hands of ‘experts.’”
Tsang said the major task for the Blue House now will focus on the community work, “I hope residents can make proposals about where the community should go, how to make better conservation, how to retain this place so that they don’t move out in the future.”
“We hope people can live in this place together with peace and happiness,” he said, “Of course, it is quite difficult, but we hope we can have a try.”