Monday, 16 January 2012

King Yin Lei (景賢里) – Let it live

Background in a flash: In 2007, a demolition team 
was called in by the owner.  The government stepped in.  
Restoration works were arranged and duly completed in 2011.

The memory lane

Built in 1937, the grand mansion was designed by Arthur Robert Fenton Raven and his architects.  The office was the designer of the unique ‘east-meets-west’ architecture that included the Chinese YMCA of 1918 and Methodist Church of 1932.

 The Chinese YMCA building is preserved and still occupied by the original owner today. 
 (photo from KK Anthony in

Vintage postcard look of the Methodist Church sadly 
demolished in 1994.

Swift upper hand well done

Slight wedge layout with accentuated vista towards the centre has similar visual impact as the buildings arrangement 
at Campidoglio of Rome.

The action taken by the government to protect the estate mansion from the wrecking ball deserves much commendation.  There were millions of dollars spent on the repair works inside out; and not to mention, a generous but controversial land swap, itself worth billions, was offered to the property owner as a deal to concede possession.

After the restoration was finished, the mansion was sensibly open for public visits.  Apart from demonstrating on how the taxpayer’s money was spent, the government’s exercise was meant to showcase an example of its heritage preservation policy well implemented. 

Upon close scrutiny: the architecture

Since the architecture was seriously damaged on the exterior, the quick responses and coordinated efforts taken by the authority with the professional team were impressive.  The roof details, brickworks and decorative features were restored by and large to their previous glory.  The materials and finishes are faithful reproductions to the originals.  Albeit the occasional slips in colour tones and craftsmanship especially on the wash grano, the exterior work was proven to be a difficult job well accomplished.

Failing inside job

Heavy handed approach to restoration exemplified by the fact that not a single piece of the original finishes was rescued and reused.

The ‘before restoration’ photo at the foreground 
for comparison.  It does not take long to find differences.

The halls are concocted like tacky restaurant if not mausoleum interiors.  There is a lack of will to investigate on the original decorations at the time the building was completed.

The metalworks (entrance and balusters) are one of 
the few surviving original details at the interior.

The interior rehabilitation, however, is a letdown.  There seemed to be a rush to tackle all the rooms such that not much was given to research on the original decorations and furnishings.  Upon close inspection on the treatments of the wall, ceiling and flooring, many of the relief details have been removed or troughed over by shabby new plastering.  The new paintworks are pure inventions with little adherence to the original motifs and colours.  It is shocking to see all original flooring materials be haphazardly replaced by new timber parquets, cheap mosaic tiles and carpeting.

One only needs to compare the photographs taken before and after to spot the appalling disparities.  Was there a tight schedule to meet or was there simply a lack of respect on faithful restoration?  The overall effort displayed is a smack on the face of learned visitors and casts a damning distortion for casual viewers.

Attitude and technicality

The New Synagogue, Berlin (built in 1866).  This is how serious building restoration is handled in Germany.  Every piece of the original stained glass or stucco is painstakingly rescued and reassembled in order that the visitor can have a better and true impression based on the account of the  original materials.   It is not the restorer to decide if the damaged pieces are too trivial to be displayed.

Revitalization is a gamble

Classic revitalization project of The Pawn.  A group of very upmarket eateries has taken up a listed building and excludes many local residents due to its pricing policy. 
(photo from

After the open visits, it is learned from closed circle that the government has decided to invite bidders to submit proposals for cultural or commercial ventures such as restaurant, hotel, arts school, or what have you as long as it is self-funding.  This so called ‘revitalization’ rules out the option of turning the building into a free-for-all public space.  Under private management, the future operator would exercise restrictions of public access to the mansion and garden.   Pay to enter is inevitable.  In order to accommodate new use and compliance with building regulations, the architecture will have to be remodeled with unknown implications. All these factors related to appointing a private occupier will generate aching compromises on restoration and public access.

Proposing Museums

A long shot of the estate where Lee’s opponent was supposed 
to live in ‘Enter the Dragon’ of 1973.  

The final fight scene was modelled on the 
then interior décor of King Yin Lei.
(Both photos from

The mansion, grand enough as Clark Gable’s residence in ‘Soldier of Fortune’, 1955.  (Photo from www.

We wonder why this rare and adorable gem cannot be retained as a public place of interest?  On initial thoughts, there are a few museum themes that are possibilities to be reckoned with: east-meets-west artefacts, domestic habitats, furniture evolutions etc.  The fact that this building was included in films starred by Clark Gable and Bruce Lee may give rise to one thought of turning the mansion into a museum of film and tv set designs.  Let alone the cultural benefits, museums are magnet for tourists and pride for the locals.

Reflections on culture policy

The Museum of History (the name itself has a tint of melancholy).  Most visitors and locals wish to see the displayed items under the sun with real life.  If there exists an opportunity like King Yin Lei, do not flounder it. (Photo from

By surrendering its right to develop for the public good, the government has simultaneously taken away the right of people to freely visit the building in future.  It is preposterous to ponder on as so much public coffers have been spent on the valued building in the first place.  Besides, this inconsistent preservation policy is not in tune with the cultural image the government is trying to portray.

It is a faulty argument to suggest that museums are visited only by a minority few; and the idea of a museum project in this location is destined to be underused.  However, it must further be addressed that with a below average number of museums per capita, the public would not develop itself into a population of frequent museum goers.  Building more museums and raising interest in museum visits are the sensible policies to pursue.  This is the sure way to warrant a genuine new lease of life for the mansion, not by delegating responsibility to private operators.

活著,景賢里 〈中文摘要〉





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