Rare century-old underground water structure puts Hong Kong’s conservation policies to the test

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The discovery of a century-old underground reservoir has conservationists scrambling to keep it safe from destruction.

Image courtesy of Kevin Cheng Photography.

Demolition at the unassuming Bishop Hill in Shek Kip Mei revealed an underground centenarian romanesque waterworks structure.

Unearthed at 8 AM on Sunday, locals of the grassroots district were shocked to find that a large piece of colonial Hong Kong history was buried beneath their feet. With stone columns and red brick arches, local urbanist and historian Sampson Wong likened the structures to Spanish architecture such as the Dipòsit de les Aigues Library in Barcelona. 

Wong further explained that such architecture was common in British waterworks in the Victorian period, but red brick reservoir structures are incredibly rare in Hong Kong.

Crowds quickly flocked to the underground ruins with many posing for social media, while others stood nearby protesting the demolition. 

Sham Shui Po District Chairman Mr Yeung Yuk approached the Water Services Department which has jurisdiction over the site, asking for a halt to demolition. The WSD has agreed to temporarily halt demolition until the Antiquities Authority makes an assessment of historic value. 

The excavation site was soon cordoned off by police and is currently inaccessible to the public. 

The site had been earmarked for redevelopment since 2017 when Sham Shui Po councillors discussed the illegal public use of the ‘Sham Shui Po Fresh Water Break Pressure Tank’ at ‘Mission Hill’. Until excavation yesterday, local residents had used the cover of the water tank as a make-shift park. Although the perimeter was fenced off, locals had cut a doorway in the fencing and installed exercise equipment. 

Image from ‘Hong Kong Heritage Exploration’ FB page

After receiving complaints, the district council met in 2017 to discuss possibly turning the area into an official park during which the Water Services Department and Lands Department were called in to inspect the safety of the area. The WSD concluded at that time that the structure was built circa 1930 and posed a structural risk for public usage. The decision was made to demolish the reservoir for redevelopment. 

It is now thought that the site is part of the Kowloon Reservoir, a Monument-Graded complex in Kam Shan, Sha Tin. The year 1909 is chipped into the stoneworks, dating the newly unearthed complex to the same period as the reservoir. Records from the Water Services Department list a ‘Kowloon Tong Balance Tank’ roughly in the same area although it has gone by several names since. 

Historian and tour guide Paul Chan hopes that the tank’s relation to Kowloon Reservoir could be its saving grace. 

“The pressure tank is not located near the rest of Kowloon Reservoir, but it is part of the complex,” explains Chan.

“In recent years, Hong Kong has given more consideration to the importance of heritage waterworks; many parts of the Kowloon Reservoir are already considered monuments. If the tank really is part of the Reservoir, then regardless of its structural safety, it should be considered a monument alongside the rest of its complex”.

Site before demolition, HK Heritage Explorer FB

“Nonetheless, the historic value of the site needs to be further analysed by an expert,” Chan added.

Although the tank is currently safe from demolition, there is no guarantee of immunity from further damage. According to Hong Kong’s preservation laws, only monuments are protected from demolition by the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance. The Antiques Authority may immediately elevate a site to ‘Proposed Monument’ status which protects a structure for up to one year. However, this power has not always succeeded as the Ho Tung Gardens, owned by the Ho Tung family and visited by foreign dignitaries such as George Bernard Shaw, was demolished in 2013 after the one year period failed to gain the complex full monument status. 

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