Hong Kong heritage buffs want remains of historic Pok Fu Lam aqueduct saved from ruin

Gigi Choy
·4-min read

A century-old aqueduct at Hong Kong’s oldest reservoir has survived to this day, but only a small section of it has been declared a historic building, leaving most of the structure unprotected.

Now conservation and heritage experts want the government to do more to save the remaining sections of the Pok Fu Lam Conduit before they fall into ruin.

Their call came in the wake of the near-demolition last month of a century-old underground reservoir at Bishop Hill in Shek Kip Mei, Sham Shui Po.

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The site features striking brickwork arches and 100 stone columns, four of which were knocked down by workers before the demolition was halted after the authorities heeded public calls to preserve it.

Paul Zimmerman at a section, numbered 32, of the Pok Fu Lam Conduit. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
Paul Zimmerman at a section, numbered 32, of the Pok Fu Lam Conduit. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Heritage buffs say not enough has been done to protect what remains of the Pok Fu Lam Conduit on Hong Kong Island.

The city’s first reservoir was completed at Pok Fu Lam in 1863 but soon proved inadequate to supply the growing population. A second reservoir completed in 1877 featured a 5.4km brick and masonry aqueduct that ran above ground level and carried water to various parts of the island.

Paul Zimmerman, a Southern district councillor and CEO of Designing Hong Kong, said he was hiking in Pok Fu Lam over the Christmas holidays when he noticed an arched structure marked No 5.

He immediately went looking for more of the colonial-era structures and found 16 of the 32 sections of the aqueduct still intact.

Zimmerman urged the Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB) to protect what he found.

Only one section, marked No 9, has been included among Hong Kong’s 1,444 historic buildings. It received a grade two rating in 2009, making it a building of special merit that should be selectively preserved. The board described it as a rare example of Victorian civil engineering.

The Pok Fu Lam Reservoir. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
The Pok Fu Lam Reservoir. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Disappointed the entire aqueduct was not protected, Zimmerman said: “The government has been lazy with its grading and assessment. Why didn’t it know about the other [sections of the] aqueduct? They either didn’t investigate or look at the records.”

Sorry for not protecting century-old site, Hong Kong heritage office head says

He believed four sections could have been lost in landslides, and 12 others displaced by extensions of Queen Mary Hospital and the University of Hong Kong’s High West development.

“If you don’t recognise the aqueduct as a whole system, parts of it will disappear. It’s so easy to destroy parts of the conduit because people don’t recognise its significance in Hong Kong’s history,” he said.

A visit by the Post found most of the surviving sections covered with moss and ferns, with parts of their surfaces stained black.

A conduit structure with the number 29 marked on the arch. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
A conduit structure with the number 29 marked on the arch. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

After last month’s excitement over the Bishop Hill underground reservoir, the government pledged to review how such sites were treated.

The authorities revealed that a similar structure at Hatton Road, in Mid-Levels, was demolished in 2011.

Only the section of the Pok Fu Lam Conduit marked No 9 is listed among Hong Kong’s 1,444 historic buildings. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
Only the section of the Pok Fu Lam Conduit marked No 9 is listed among Hong Kong’s 1,444 historic buildings. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

In 2009, 41 waterworks structures built before World War II were declared monuments for permanent preservation, but neither the Pok Fu Lam Conduit nor the Bishop Hill underground reservoir were among them.

In pictures: inside a century-old Hong Kong underground reservoir

Architect Paul Chu Hoi-shan, a member of the AAB, said that when it came to conservation of heritage sites, more collaboration across government departments was needed.

“The trees and other vegetation around the aqueduct structures should be cleared so they are clearly visible, but the Antiquities and Monuments Office cannot handle that because it is under a different department’s purview,” he said. “All government departments should work together to preserve these treasures so people can experience and enjoy them.”

The site of the water filter beds and staff quarters is now the Lung Fu Shan Environmental Education Centre. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
The site of the water filter beds and staff quarters is now the Lung Fu Shan Environmental Education Centre. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Dr Lee Ho-yin, head of the University of Hong Kong’s architectural conservation programmes, agreed with Zimmerman that a structure should be considered as a whole and not as individual parts.

“The significance of the aqueduct system is in its entire span, not the prettiest section. That would be the wrong approach to conserve this kind of structure,” he said.

Lee pointed out that some sites were conserved not only for their aesthetics or history but because they were used and loved by people.

The Bishop Hill underground reservoir has been saved from demolition. Photo: Winson Wong
The Bishop Hill underground reservoir has been saved from demolition. Photo: Winson Wong

Using the Bishop Hill reservoir as an example, he said people felt attached to the site because the hilltop was enjoyed by residents for many years as an open area.

The Pok Fu Lam aqueduct was along a popular hiking trail, so it ought to be conserved and maintained too, he added.

Agreeing that the aqueduct system should be assessed as a whole, former AAB member Tony Lam Chung-wai said there needed to be a revamp of the way historic buildings were assessed.

“You can’t just grade the thumb and leave out the hand,” he said.

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