The Star Ferry Clock Tower, a landmark on the Central waterfront for decades until its demolition 15 years ago, will be rebuilt close to its original location as part of a huge redevelopment – but it may end up looking quite different from the original.
In the tender for the site awarded to Henderson Land Development this month, the government did not specify the use of the original clock, chimes or other features for the reconstructed tower, only requiring the developer to build a 25-metre-tall tower with a “time device.”
The government clarified in another document that, under the tender exercise, the use of the original clock’s components was not mandatory.
In response to FactWire’s enquiries to the Development Bureau and Henderson Land Development about the design and use of the reconstruction, the government said the tower should be reconstructed “with due respect to its original design.” Henderson Land Development did not specify whether it will be using the original clock’s components.
The tower was demolished in 2006 as part of the Central Reclamation Project. The land it sat on, along with the newly-reclaimed land from the CRP, now forms Site 3 of the New Central Harbourfront – the last mega commercial plot in Central. It was sold to Henderson Land Development for a record price of HK$50.8 billion.
Henderson Land Development has said it will invest HK$63 billion to develop the site, reconstructing the old Star Ferry Clock Tower along with a new associated public square. The project is divided into two phases, set to be completed by 2027 and 2032 respectively.
The reconstruction of the old Star Ferry Clock Tower is mandated in the conditions of sale, which require the buyer to reconstruct a tower with a “time device” at the original height of 25 metres. The reconstructed clock tower cannot be used for advertising unless approved by the government.
“The [old Star Ferry Clock Tower] shall be reconstructed with due respect to its original design,” the conditions state, without clearly specifying whether the original clock, chimes, material and colour will be re-created.
Part of the clock’s components, including the two clock faces, hour hand, minute hand, and the control bars of the pointers were donated to the History Museums Section of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. The land purchaser may seek the loan of the components for public display but their use is not mandated under the tender exercise for Site 3, according to the Lands Department’s open response to an enquiry in March.
The response also says that some architectural drawings and a digital 3D model of the clock tower are available for prospective purchasers’ reference.
The Star Ferry Clock Tower stood at Victoria Harbour for 49 years before being demolished in 2006 despite protests and hunger strikes demanding that the government preserve it.
The government insisted on its plan even though community groups at that time were eager to purchase the tower at their own expense and both the pan-democratic and pro-establishment camps asked for a suspension of the demolition. The tower was toppled at midnight on December 16, 2006.
“The Star Ferry Pier is neither a declared monument nor a graded historical building on the basis of its heritage value. As such, it would not be preserved in situ,” said Patrick Ho, the Secretary for Home Affairs at that time.
Two days after the demolition, Neil Brennan Wright of Thwaites & Reed, the clockmaking firm which also maintained Britain’s Big Ben, was invited to a Legislative Council panel in Hong Kong. He said restoring the old Star Ferry Clock Tower for future use would not be a problem.
“The clock is 99.9 per cent complete and is a high-quality clock. It can work perfectly well if restored properly, and it can continue to run for 200 or 300 years,” he said after another inspection of its components following the meeting.
Wright added that the clock, made by Dent in the 1950s, was a high-quality three-legged electro-mechanical gravity clock, with a cast-iron frame, bronze wheels, and high-quality stainless steel spindles. The clock, made specifically for the Star Ferry Pier, was “unique and valuable” as it was only the second one of its kind he had seen in the past eight years.
“We understand the nostalgic feeling attached to the clock tower,” said Michael Suen, the Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands at that time, in a statement in January 2007, adding that the government had retained the clock’s components and would “rebuild the clock tower and reassemble the chimes at an appropriate location.”
The Planning Department also said in May 2007 that the clock faces, chimes and mechanical parts would be reassembled in the reconstructed tower.
Ten years later the requirement for reconstruction was stipulated in a much more general way. The Planning Brief for Site 3 issued in 2017, stated that the tower should be constructed at its original location “with due respect to its original design.” The use of the original clock’s components, design and material was not mentioned.
In response to FactWire’s inquiries the Development Bureau said the relevant requirements had been stated in Site 3’s Conditions of Sale and Planning Brief. It said the tower should be reconstructed “with due respect to its original design,” adding that the developer may, under certain conditions, apply to loan out components of the original clock tower for public display.
Henderson Land Development asked FactWire to refer to its press releases and online press conference, without providing additional comment about how it would reconstruct the clock tower. According to the developer’s design proposal, posted by the Information Services Department, a structure which looks similar to the old Star Ferry Clock Tower is included.
Apart from reconstructing the tower, the conditions of sale state that the purchaser must demolish the General Post Office no earlier than September 30, 2023. It must build a new district-tied post office at its own expense while the headquarters of Hongkong Post are moved to Kowloon Bay.
At a District Council meeting on May 27 this year, community architectural groups proposed a revitalisation of the General Post Office site that would have seen it converted into a museum. The government quickly issued a response on June 4 restating the requirement for demolition under the tender.
Henderson Land Development confirmed at a press conference that it would build a new Central Post Office at the central portion of Site 3.
The General Post Office has yet to be graded as a historic building. When asked if the Antiquities Advisory Board plans to assess it, board chairman Douglas Cheung said on June 10 that members have agreed to defer the assessment of post-1970 buildings due to their heavy workload. Records show that this was a decision made at a board meeting on September 10, 2013.
Speaking with FactWire, Liber Research Community member Chan Kim-ching thinks progress in grading historic buildings is undesirable. He believes the government currently adopts a brief standard to include buildings aged 50 years or older on the assessment list, for which the list is reviewed just once a decade. Thus, the government may want to demolish buildings before they reach 50 years of age, in order to avoid conservational constraints.
Demolition of the General Post Office was brought up at a Legislative Council meeting in 2018. “The building design life is normally around 50 years, while the existing [General Post Office] building has been in operation for about 42 years,” said the government in a written response, adding that “for buildings over 50 years, more resources have to be put in to upkeep its standard to a certain level.”
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