Centuries-old HK walled village to be torn down

The Nga Tsin Wai walled village in the heart of Kowloon was built in 1354. The original walls and battlements have disappeared, leaving a collection of around 50 ramshackle houses, shops and a temple. It is Hong Kong's last remaining walled village i
The Nga Tsin Wai walled village in the heart of Kowloon was built in 1354. The original walls and battlements have disappeared, leaving a collection of around 50 ramshackle houses, shops and a temple. It is Hong Kong's last remaining walled village in an urban area. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It will make way for 750 new flats, but campaigners fear loss of cultural heritage

HONG KONG • A centuries-old urban walled village in Hong Kong - the last of its kind - will be destroyed to make way for development in what critics say is another nail in the coffin for the city's cultural heritage.

On a chilly morning, around 20 remaining residents of Nga Tsin Wai, an ancient settlement in the heart of bustling Kowloon, despondently packed their belongings before the wrecking ball arrives in the coming days.

There were once dozens of such villages scattered across what became the urban centre of the city - they were built by Chinese clans centuries ago, complete with moats and watchtowers to guard against intruders.

While many walled villages still remain intact on the city's rural outskirts, Nga Tsin Wai is the only one left in the heart of Hong Kong.

The village was built in 1354 and the original walls and battlements have disappeared, leaving a collection of around 50 ramshackle houses, shops and a temple, hemmed in by concrete tower blocks that have grown up around it.

The authorities argue that the village is in poor condition and should make way for better-quality housing units in an overcrowded city - 750 new flats will be built on the site.

Heartbroken residents say it is the only place they call home.

"The village has a long history and we have been here for a long time. But we have been given no choice but to leave," said one resident, Mr Kwok Yue Ka.

The 52-year-old barber held out until the eviction deadline, unhappy with the government's compensation package. The authorities warned that he must leave or risk jail.

He said he received HK$200,000 (S$37,000) in compensation and would be moved to temporary housing. "I have treated this as my only home. I have lived here for 20 years. Now the future is uncertain. I feel frustrated."

The destruction of historic buildings, old communities and street markets across Hong Kong has drawn widespread criticism in recent years.

The last decade has seen the landmark Queen's Pier, built during the British colonial era, swept away for a bypass and harbourfront development.

An entire street in the Wan Chai neighbourhood - known as "wedding card street" for the abundance of shops selling traditional Chinese wedding invitations - was demolished to make way for residential development and luxury stores.

The government is under pressure to find space for 400,000 new housing units in the next 10 years to remedy the shortage of affordable homes as property prices have skyrocketed.

But while there is a pressing need for more accommodation, district councillor Paul Zimmerman, an advocate of sustainable urban planning, said Hong Kongers were beginning to question the sacrifices made.

"How do you balance the (economic) gains and the impact on individuals? How do you maintain these areas without destroying the local culture?" Mr Zimmerman asked. "We have to take a more careful approach."

The Urban Renewal Authority, overseeing the redevelopment of Nga Tsin Wai walled village, described it as "decrepit" and said only a small number of villagers would be affected.

"The living conditions are poor due to the lack of proper maintenance and sanitation facilities," said a spokesman.

She said current residents did not have the legal right to live there because the land is owned by the government, adding that some elements would be preserved, including the village temple.

But campaigners say it is not just about bricks and mortar as the social fabric and way of life of the villagers disappears. "Culture is cultivated by people who live there. Without the people, the area is dead even if the buildings are splendid," said Mr Ho Chi Fung of Grassroots Housing Rights Alliance, a concern group for the housing needs of underprivileged Hong Kong residents.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2016, with the headline 'Centuries-old HK walled village to be torn down'. Print Edition | Subscribe