It was late 2010, 13 years after the handover, when the HKSAR government announced that the historic Government Hill in Central - the century-old heart of the administration - would be sold in part to a developer for commercial development. The new government headquarters had already been moved to Admiralty, and the administration framed the sale as a “Conserving Central” initiative, claiming that a balance would be struck by preserving the East and Main Wings of the former Central Government Offices (CGO) and redeveloping the West Wing into a 40-storey offices and shopping mall.
Seeing the absurdity of such proposal and the danger of losing an important piece of history, a group of concerned citizens set up the Government Hill Concern Group to campaign for the preservation of the West Wing and Government Hill as a whole. In addition to engaging the public and lobbying for support, members of the group combed through the archives in search of details about the area.
We came across a name - Michael Wright - the Chief Architect of the Public Works Department who oversaw the development of the three wings of CGO from late 1940s to 1950s. It was a monumental post-war project to build a new government headquarters, and Mr Wright was the person in charge. He later became Director of Public Works …. that’s all we knew about him then - his name was as remote as one from a history book.
No one could imagine that not long after we would meet Michael Wright in person, and that he would become one of our strongest supporters.
Around mid 2011, someone told me (during a casual conversation) that Michael Wright was still healthy, at age 99, and lived in London. We were thrilled to hear this news! One of our Concern Group’s members, Mrs Rachel Cartland, is a retired civil servant and she immediately helped us locate Mr Wright. Before long, Rachel was already chatting with him on the phone and we thought we should pay him a visit.
Lawrence Tse was a PhD student in London at that time and he volunteered to visit Michael. The two of them would become good friends ever since. In their first meeting, Lawrence told Michael about the threat that Government Hill was facing and Michael agreed to do a video interview for us. He did an excellent job in explaining how the CGO compound was designed and how the three wings served as an integrated whole. He talked about interesting details of the site, such as the local granite used in the building facade, the West Wing elevators that brought people from Queen’s Road Central to Lower Albert Road, and how members of the public would use them as short-cut to go to the Peak Tram station! It was fun listening to this gentleman talking about things that happened before our time - not just about West Wing but also about how the government was run in those days - they are still so relevant to us now as we are trying to understand our city and preserve our unique history.
The Concern Group set up an exhibition in January 2012 and showed Michael’s video*. News that “99-year-old ‘Father of Government Hill’ spoke up against the demolition of West Wing” caught public attention. This helped us gain further support from the community. The campaign gained momentum from then on - in June 2012, the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) issued a Heritage Alert on West Wing and called for its protection. It was the first-ever Heritage Alert on modern architecture issued to Hong Kong and China.
In December 2012, the government abandoned the redevelopment plan and gave the CGO its deserved grading. The three wings are now Grade 1 historic buildings and would be refurbished into offices for the Department of Justice. The Concern Group continues to fight for the removal of fences surrounding the CGO that were put up after 1997. We believe that Government Hill should be a place for the people, not a gated compound.
One happy result of our campaign is that we make a new friend - Michael - who becomes an inspiration to us all. We now know that not only he was in charge of building the CGO, he was the person who led the development of public housing and many infrastructure projects in Hong Kong. He was the one who advocated for private bathroom and kitchen in every unit of the housing estate - a standard which is known as the "Wright Principle”. During our subsequent visits, Michael shared with us many of his stories about our city, his childhood adventures, his war-time experiences, as well as his thoughts on how to build a better environment for Hong Kong people. He also enjoyed listening to us about what’s going on in Hong Kong now, and showed his warm concern.
Last September, we shared the joy of Michael’s 105th birthday while admiring the card he received from the Queen. It was such an honour for us to get to know this man, a humble and humane person who contributed so much to the development of Hong Kong. Through Michael we have re-established a link to our city’s past, and by listening to how he dealt with the housing problems in his time, we reflect on our current crises in which the present government seems clueless in finding a solution. There is so much to learn from Michael - we thank him for everything he did for Hong Kong, as well as the lessons that he generously shared with us in the last few years.
Thank you, Mr Wright, it is our pleasure meeting and knowing you!
*A link to the interview may be found here:
Katty Law is the convener of Government Hill Concern Group