Sometime in the next year, government officials say, the jackhammers are likely to start on yet another part of Hong Kong's well-bulldozed Wan Chai district, tearing out a 11,500 square meter area in a project that demonstrates the usual symbiosis between Hong Kong's oligarchs and its government.
The space to be razed, now filled with a warren of businesses and apartment buildings, is to be filled with a massive hotel that has become almost a lifetime crusade on the part of the 74-year-old Gordon Wu, head of the Hong Kong-based Hopewell Holdings Ltd. infrastructure conglomerate.
Wu has been trying to build a hotel on the site, which is directly adjacent to his 66-storey headquarters between Queen's Road East and the relatively leafy – for Hong Kong – Kennedy Road for more than 30 years. At one point, Hopewell planned for a building that would be 93 storeys and 355 meters high. It has since been reduced to "about" 55 storeys and more than 1,000 rooms, according to the conglomerate's website.
Brenda Au, district planning officer for the Hong Kong planning department, said in an email that government departments are now handling the objections against the road work plan, which local residents are fighting, and the proposed road works, together with the objections, are to be submitted to Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang for approval sometime soon. The traffic impact assessment was accepted by the Transport Department in January, Au said. And, "according to the developer, construction of the development will start in 2010."
Gordon Wu is somewhat of an Asian legend, and a stubborn one. In particular, his tenacity over the hotel project has enhanced that legend. Regarded earlier on as a largely irrelevant visionary for his aspirations to create world-class infrastructure in the Pearl River Delta as well as other parts of Asia – which included some gigantic failures, for instance a light rail project in Bangkok , he has since been largely vindicated by Asia's need for infrastructure development.
Wu named his company for the New Jersey Turnpike town adjacent to Princeton University, where he obtained his engineering degree. Although he named his eldest son Thomas Jefferson Wu in honor of American democracy, he stopped considerably short of that in his home town of Hong Kong, railing against Chris Patten, the last British governor of the territory, for his attempts to leave behind a democratic government and largely frustrated by even feeble government attempts to rein in his projects.
The Wan Chai residents fear that the projected hostelry will create crushing traffic in an area that is already choked at all times. On even a normal day, traffic at rush hour on Kennedy Road, which would become the main access road to the project, is backed up for well over a kilometer. Some 3,000 people have signed petitions against the conglomerate's traffic modification plan, which is all that stands between Hopewell and success.
While objections from residents have stalled the hotel project for decades, the government has patiently waited for Wu to come up with the right plan. Planning officials have worked to steer them through channels where there is little opposition. When Hopewell agreed to scale back the project, the amended plan should have been taken before the local Town Planning Board for scrutiny, local residents say. But that hasn't happened, and it probably won't.
Cecilia Ho, a spokeswoman for Hopewell, declined comment to a series of questions posed by email. On its website, Hopewell, for its part, says it has tried manfully to meet all of the area residents' objections.
"We are sensitive to our community's need for green open space," the conglomerate said. "To this end, we are committed to preserving the green areas at the site between Kennedy Road and Queen's Road East. Public spaces totaling 5,880 square meters (about 63,000 sq ft) will be provided. The park will be built at the expense of Hopewell Holdings, to the tune of HK$80 million. These green spaces enjoy the same opening hours as parks managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. Any unused portion of this budget will be ploughed into a fund set aside for the upkeep of the government public space. We also propose to set up a consultative group to solicit views on the design of the green park."
Roger Emmerton, an activist who lives on Kennedy Road, is suspicious. As many as 10 different versions of the project have been presented to the government so far, he says, most of them seeking to rejig five separate plots into a public park, gradually reducing the proposed park size from 5,880 square meters to only 2,030.
Critics say the development has been opposed from inside the government by planning officials concerned about its deleterious effect on the city – but not, the sources say, by Chief Executive Donald Tsang, who reportedly would like to see it built. Brenda Au declined in an email to comment on questions about opposition within the government .
Hong Kong remains in the throes of a developer-builder mentality that has largely been discredited across the west, where preservation has taken primacy over the destruction of vibrant areas.
Much of Wan Chai has been demolished, including the so-called Wedding Card Street where for decades young couples frequented printers for their wedding invitations, along with much of the area around the Wan Chai wet market, a major tourist attraction in addition to being the region's outdoor grocery, department store and meeting area. The areas are being replaced by yet another set of towering high rises that make Hong Kong in aggregate the world's most densely populated city.
In addition to the cosy relationship between the oligarchy, of which Gordon Wu is a charter member, the government runs on revenue from property. The only land in Hong Kong that is not owned by the government is the land under St. John's Cathedral in Central District. The rest is leased to developers, who have to turn it back to the government when their leases expire. And, although the system of land sales served the territory well for 150 years and helped it mature into a world financial center with thriving commercial enterprises, from the start it has benefited this hugely rich oligarchy rather than its residents, delivering profit margins as high as 400 percent annually to the developers.
Hopewell argues that the project, which is expected to cost HK$5 billion (US$641 million), will create 4,000 jobs in construction, hotels, catering and retail outlets, and will "usher in a revitalized Wan Chai," which to most observers seems pretty vital the way its. The company says they plan to not only replace the vegetation that will be torn out, but will increase it, bringing in "tree experts" to either preserve or transplant the vegetation on the steeply angled hillside.
"We are keen to preserve and revitalize the Nam Koo Terrace on Ship Street, a Grade I historic building we own. The building, with a history of over 90 years, is part of Hong Kong's heritage, though not a part of the project. We will take good care of it for posterity," the company says. "We are long-time members of this neighborhood and we are in Wan Chai for the long haul. We, too, want what is best for our neighborhood."
Not all of Hopewell's neighbors agree by any means.