The Blue House Cluster consists of three blocks of traditional shophouses constructed from the 1920s to the 1950s, namely Blue House, Yellow House and Orange House, in a contiguous urban street block. It is the last of its kind in its wider context of the Wan Chai district in Hong Kong, and serves as a tangible and an intangible anchor for the working class community of the cluster’s associated Stone Nullah Lane neighbourhood.
In 2006, the Hong Kong Government announced a plan to transform the cluster and its associated neighbourhood into a tourism spot, as part of an urban renewal strategy for the Wan Chai district. This would have spelt the end of the working class community as older buildings would be resumed under the Urban Renewal Ordinance and the residents evicted, while existing residents and shop operators would risk being priced out by the ensuing gentrification.
The proposal was timely, as in 2007, the government submitted to public demand and announced a comprehensive built-heritage conservation policy. The Blue House Cluster was placed under the 2008 “Revitalization Scheme”, in which government-owned properties are to be adaptively reused by NGOs for community benefit. In 2010, the “Viva Blue House” proposal became the winner of the competitive bid to become the agent to revitalise the Blue House Cluster.
Before conservation, while the buildings of the Blue House Cluster were relatively intact and the structure reasonably safe, they had been subjected to years of natural wear and tear and lack of maintenance. The overall physical conditions of the buildings were poor.
The conservation rigorously follows the principle of least possible physical intervention by doing as much as necessary and as little as possible. The purpose is to restore the buildings to their historical appearance and maintain the historical streetscape along Stone Nullah Lane. Besides, the community was empowered in making conservation decision via the “Participatory Community Conservation work”, a process of engaging the community to express their aspirations and expectations throughout the conservation process through regular residents meetings, community participatory workshops and committees led by community members and facilitated by St. James’ Settlement.
The renovation sensitively integrates highly reversible design that has a low visual impact with the heritage buildings so as to protect the heritage values while meeting the statutory requirements that will ensure a dignified safe living environment and facilitate community-building. New design, such as a link bridge and public open space facilitates community exchange.
The link bridge not only connects the three separate buildings in the clusters, but the people as well. The newly built lift and staircase shared by the three buildings became the main entrance of the cluster, which allows residents to meet and communicate. The open space was formerly a 3-storey shop house built in the 30s which was subsequently torn down, left vacant and closed off by the government. The repaved open space now serves as a community gathering place for Stone Nullah Lane neighbourhood. Regular community activities, e.g. movie screenings, music concerts, dinner sharing sessions, are held to gather the community and foster cultural activities.
4. Good Neighbour Scheme – an open and innovative programme to identify potential new tenants who would contribute their time and talents towards strengthening the community. In addition to the 8 original tenants, 11 new tenant families have been recruited to live in the Blue House cluster. As part of the Blue House community, these new tenants together with the original residents will co-manage the activities.
5. Social Enterprise Unit (Dessert House and Vegetarian Restaurant) – A vegetarian restaurant and a dessert house that create jobs in the community while offering affordable dining options.
The Blue House Cluster was awarded with the Award of Excellence at the 2017 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. It is the first local project winning the highest level of achievement from UNESCO. The Jury called this “truly inclusive approach to urban conservation”.
“Succeeding against all odds, their impassioned efforts and innovative participatory programmes have safeguarded not only the architecture, but also the living history and culture of a neighbourhood which is rooted in a formative chapter of Hong Kong’s past.” “This unprecedented civic effort to protect marginalised local heritage in one of the world’s most high-pressure real estate markets is an inspiration for other embattled urban districts in the region and beyond,” the Jury wrote in a citation.
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