The Hunger Striker
On the morning of Boxing Day last year, May Je had been starving herself for over 60 hours. The reason? She was protesting the government’s decision to tear down Lee Tung Street, otherwise known as Wedding Card Street. “Everything we could have done to save the area, we tried,” recalls the 60-year-old former shop owner, who sold wedding accessories on the street before it was torn down in December last year. Born and brought up in Wan Chai, May Je is a member of the H15 Concern Group, which was formed by residents and tenants of the now demolished area. “The URA (Urban Renewal Authority) should give us an option beyond monetary compensation,” says May Je. “We should be given a chance to preserve our community’s economy.”
Yet the failure of their attempt to reverse the URA’s decision has not deterred May Je from assisting affected residents in troubled districts. Together with other members of the H15 Concern Group, she shares her experiences with people facing similar grievances as a result of the URA’s renewal projects in other areas such as Sham Shui Po. “We aren’t trying to tell them what to do; we are giving them knowledge and letting them make a decision themselves,” she says. “You can choose to hunger strike at your own risk, but if I needed to, I would do it again.”
Also bidding to save Wedding Card Street was Christopher Law. He lent his services as a voluntary architect to create a counter-proposal (the “dumbbell proposal”), which was submitted by the H15 Concern Group for the Lee Tung Street urban renewal project. Law believes that heritage conservation—when an old building is reused in a way that the public can enjoy—is more important than merely preserving our run-down historical sites. “The danger of preservation is that it does not take into account the other aspects of our heritage other than just the building itself,” says Law, who is the founding director of the Oval Partnership, an architecture firm supporting sustainable development.
Currently chairman of the Family Welfare Society and chairman of the Centre for Community Renewal at St. James’ Settlement, the architect believes that conserving and developing Wan Chai’s traditional crafts gives members of the community a sense of belonging. “Wan Chai is Hong Kong’s leader in numerous crafts—paper crafts, printing, design, furniture, upholstery and computer animation. We need to develop them,” says Law, “Otherwise, we will become just the screws in a larger machine.”
The Former District Council Chairwoman
The well-being of old Wan Chai is partly due to Ada Wong, Wan Chai district councilor from 2000-2007. In her two terms of office, Wong came up with innovative ways to maintain the vibe of the community, from case-studying its craft industry to introducing a weekly farmers market. No doubt, Wong was (and is) an advocate of heritage preservation and believes in a sustainable community. “The future of Wan Chai is not determined by the government or the URA. The community should be able to participate,” she says.
Wong succeeded in reversing the fate of Blue House, which was originally to be transformed into a commercial structure. After a series of peaceful negotiations, Wong was able to persuade Carrie Lam, secretary for development, to allow the residents of the house to stay. In addition to her roles as a solicitor and community advocate, Wong is now a supervisor at the Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity, a secondary school that encourages art and creativity. In her 2007 farewell report, she said, “Without the councilor title, I am still a member of the community, I will continue to open up innovative proposal and space for the community.”
Preferring to call himself a “button-presser,” Tse Pak-chai has contributed to heritage preservation far longer than he would like to acknowledge. The photographer behind the visual documentation of Lee Tung Street before its demolition, Tse has been capturing every part of the iconic area, before turning the photos into a large-scale continuous street view. Since the success of his Lee Tung Street project, Tse has also been involved in similar ones in Sham Shui Po, Cheung Sha Wan and Queen’s Pier. He even gives guided tours around old districts.
“The government’s concept of revitalization is ridiculous,” he says. “We’re already living in a vibrant city.” Heritage preservation to Tse is the preservation of a lifestyle, rather than merely the physical structure of the buildings. He mourns the increasingly strict guidelines on how to use the little space we have. “The less freedom we have in using our public space, the less willing we are to use it,” says Tse, “People will just go home and sit in front of the computer.”