The government’s demolition of a century-old underground reservoir just before the end of 2020 provoked a public furore that was wholly unexpected. Located underneath the crown of Bishop Hill in Sham Shui Po, the urban wonder was only saved from ruin by a spirited public defense of its heritage. With the government now saying that it will restore and return the site to public use, the overwhelming community response that preceded it can be explained in seven reasons.
1. The discovery is a total surprise
Visually stunning, the service reservoir is hidden beneath a lush hilltop in the middle of over-crowded Kowloon. Who would have imagined such an incredible urban discovery was possible in 21st century Hong Kong? The humble ex-servant of the Kowloon Reservoir only came to light after the Water Supplies Department sent bulldozers to demolish the underground facility and fill it with concrete, citing structural dangers after tree roots had cracked the roof. Heritage officials also accepted the department’s claim that it was just a “water tank”.
Formed by a mildly hypnotic sweep of red brick arches over granite columns, the subterranean space sparks jaw-dropping excitement. Clearly antiquated and rare for this city, the revelation of the century-old waterworks facility gripped the public imagination like no other heritage issue in recent years. From the off, the functional structure was a winner.
Comparisons were quickly drawn with the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul and the Roman Baths in the city of Bath in England. Some local residents said the Bishop Hill reservoir evoked “something Romanian”, while others exclaimed that it was like seeing the pyramids. In the warm winter light, the fallen masonry made the partially ruined chamber even slightly sacred. The last time a similar craze in living memory happened was when hundreds swarmed to see the Lei Cheng Uk Han Tomb nearby after its discovery during construction work for a resettlement estate in 1955. But that was before mankind was irrevocably changed by Facebook, Instagram and other modern conveniences.
2. Stunning photos go viral
The reservoir discovery swamped social media feeds in the space of a few hours after evocative images of the underground spectacle were posted online the Monday morning after Christmas. Predictably, drone video footage of the site soon followed, stoking the curiosity – and anger – of the public further still as the damage wrought to the monument became known. Once again, what erupted online had set the news agenda and drove public debate, and this was on a day when 10 Hongkongers were put on trial in Shenzhen for fleeing to Taiwan.
3. A race against time
News of the looming destruction of the reservoir conveyed a sense of sudden crisis and anxious urgency. As demolition works resumed after Christmas, the public felt compelled to stop the sacrilege. The image of a middle-aged woman throwing herself in front of a bulldozer recalled the Tiananmen tank man moment.
The factor of impending risk is all important in heritage battles if public support is to be roused. In April 2016, State Theatre in North Point – an architectural anomaly that is nevertheless an icon – made headlines after the government’s heritage unit, the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO), proposed a Grade 3 historic building status – the lowest rating with no protection – to the cultural landmark, just as an accelerating buyout of the site threatened the demise of the mid-century building. With the reservoir at Bishop Hill facing immediate demolition, the public turned their shock into action, wasting no time in a bid to save it from the dustbin of history.
4. Passionate public saves the day as pent-up activism finds release
With the government’s crackdown on political protests and dissent relentless in 2020, many have been waiting for an outlet to unleash their repressed energy and pained frustrations to good use. In these trying times, the public will adapt and turn their wits to issues of community concern that are perhaps safer and less political.
The civil society response to the heritage reservoir row has been nothing short of extraordinary. The pro-democracy district councillors in Sham Shui Po reacted swiftly and strongly in demanding the authorities to halt the demolition works and explain their blunder. Even pro-Beijing politicians, who are hardly known for their support for heritage causes, felt pressured to stand on the side of the public for once. They may come to regret the move, however, should Beijing consider their celebration of what is a symbol of British colonial rule unpatriotic.
The most scintillating show, however, was the remarkable commitment and ability of an online army of local heritage lovers, architects, engineers and outright geeks to verify the construction date and establish the historical significance of the underground reservoir. Within half a day after news of its demolition broke, dozens of old public works department records and government gazettes were studied, confirming that it was built in 1904, a refutation of the Water Supplies Department’s claim that the structure dates back to before 1930. The facility was a key part of the Kowloon Reservoir project which was a monumental response to the water supply and public health needs of a rapidly growing population at the turn of the 20th century. By mid-afternoon, the demolition works were halted.
The magnificent display of passion was as thrilling as the bottom-up, instinctive defense of the city’s heritage was empowering. The people’s boundless knowledge was galvanized, with their ferocious capacity for action renewing Hong Kong’s fighting spirit of 2019. The reckless destruction of a historic site was a classic scandal of official malaise that fed people’s growing fears of the government’s attempt to progressively erase Hong Kong’s colonial history.
5. Public demands answers for mindless blunder
The government’s decision to demolish the heritage reservoir sparked citywide outrage. It was an inexplicable blunder at best, and a vile act at worst. The public wants accountability for the rank case of maladministration. The Water Supplies Department, the AMO and the Development Bureau that it falls under have a lot to answer. Statements by past and current chairs of the Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB), the body that works with the AMO to decide the fate of Hong Kong’s heritage, do not inspire confidence.
In the aftermath of the reservoir row, former AAB chair Andrew Lam said the board mostly graded structures above ground. “When we talk about the grading … we can see these buildings above ground,” he said. “But what’s below ground, we don’t see.” His predecessor Bernard Chan, now convener of the Executive Council, had openly said he did not know anything about heritage when he became chair of the AAB in 2009, patronizingly adding that most Hong Kong people didn’t either. The current AAB chair, Douglas So, is a slick operator who is unlikely to change the status quo, as his passivity in pushing for increased protection of modernist landmarks in the post-war era shows. As for the current AAB members, who count among them an accountant, a media executive and an elderly services provider, they are often only as good as the briefings they get from the AMO, and site visits are not required before they grade a historic building.
6. Hongkongers want to write their own history
The government’s demolition of the Bishop Hill reservoir, an impressive “Roman-style” structure, drew a fierce public backlash also because of the creeping sense that those in power are consciously erasing Hong Kong’s colonial legacy – or the past of Hong Kong itself.
In a typically bloated year-end interview, the Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who as Development Secretary presided over the demolition of Queen’s Pier in 2007, said she’d once thought heritage conservation was only a matter for people of a certain age who felt nostalgic about the past. What she does not understand is that the people have become so much more aware, emotionally invested and knowledgeable about Hong Kong heritage because they, especially the young, want to write their own history of their beloved home.
7. Heritage reservoir can blend into community haven
For years, Bishop Hill has been a popular and lovingly self-managed “back garden” for local residents. Makeshift fitness facilities, table tennis games and swings can be found in the semi-secret, always open social club. So when the bulldozers returned after Christmas, there’s already a community ready to defend the lively hill and the reservoir that it cradles.
Fortunately, hopes are high that the damaged reservoir can be repaired and creatively blend into the organically grown, leafy recreational hub which is what makes the hill special in the first place.
The community is more than ready to appreciate, protect and celebrate Hong Kong’s heritage. It is perhaps far-fetched to expect that the government will learn a lesson this time and be willing to work with the public to do the same. We are not holding our breath.
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