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God or Mammon? Who gains when Hong Kong’s historic churches are turned into blocks of flats

About two decades ago, Rachel, a lapsed Christian, found herself on the wrong bus. When she alighted in the Mid-levels, she heard church bells ringing.

She turned around and saw the Union Church, with its 1950s granite sanctuary and belfry tucked between an apartment tower and the Peak Tramway on Kennedy Road.

“It struck me as very stately, very old,” she says.

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The Union Church before demolition began. File photo: Apple Daily.

She climbed up the stone steps, walking into the open courtyard and towards the sanctuary as the congregation gathered for evening worship. “I truly felt that I was a sinner, and that the bells were reminding me to return to church. So finally I walked into the building…. I felt that the pastor was a good person, and the brothers and sisters were inclusive. I finally felt at home.”

The stately building Rachel entered that day 20 years ago is now being demolished. It sits swathed in scaffolding, with the stone steps leading up from the sidewalk broken into pieces and its interiors gutted of furnishings. In five years, the church will have been rebuilt into the first five floors of a 22-story block of apartments, the result of a deal with developer Henderson Land.

According to the agreement, Henderson will bear all costs for the project and receive proceeds from the sale of 26 flats and 26 car parking spaces, which will be returned to the church after the developer’s 99-year lease expires. The church will retain 19 flats, seven of which will be reserved for church or community use.

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The demolition of Union Church is underway. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Apartments less than 10-years-old in the central Mid-levels area are currently listed for around HK$21,000 to HK$72,000 per square foot on Spacious.hk.

According to an analysis by graduate student James E. Churchill, the Union Church building is a rare example of a church in Hong Kong built in the modernist architectural style which emerged in Europe after WWI. The current, fourth incarnation of the church was build from the rubble of the previous building after WWII. This week, Docomomo International, an NGO fighting for the preservation of modernist buildings, wrote to Chief Executive Carrie Lam asking for the building to be protected and recognised as having “universal cultural value.”

But despite the efforts of preservationists, the Union Church is set to be another casualty in a trend of historic buildings turning into high rise apartment blocks in Hong Kong, a small, densely-packed city with the world’s least affordable housing market.

The church leadership says that the redevelopment will allow it to build more space for its growing congregation without going into debt, but the project has met with criticism and protests from preservationists and some members of the congregation, who feel that the church is exploiting land intended for non-profit use.

“It’s clearly abuse,” said Katty Law of the Western and Central Concern Group. “From the civil society perspective, this is abuse. How can it be possible? It was granted to them for religious purposes – as a church. How can the development rights on top of it turn into luxury apartments?”

“And it’s carving up the profits with the developer. I know a church has to fundraise and control its funds, but it shouldn’t use land to make money like this.”

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The demolition of Union Church is underway. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

According to Law and other preservationists, the Union Church is just one of many sacrificing their historic buildings for new developments.

The Methodist Church Hong Kong demolished the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Home in 1989, replacing it with The Wesley Hotel. The Hennessy Road site is now occupied by the OZO Wesley, a trendy boutique hotel owned by the church. The building also houses the Methodist Centre on its bottom levels.

In 1990, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church at 1 Star Street, Wan Chai, sold its church building and site lot, which was redeveloped by Cheung Kong Property Holdings Limited into a 42-storey residential building. The second and third floors were retained as the church.

In other cases the places of worship themselves were preserved, but apartment buildings sprung up on the same property as the historic buildings, as in the case of the Ohel Leah Synagogue. In 1990, its trustees leased an adjoining site which housed the Jewish Recreation Center to Swire, using its remaining allowable floor space to develop a residential tower.

The Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui – or Anglican Church – has proposed building what the government calls a “preservation-cum-development project” on Bishop Hill. The compound contains four historic buildings, three of which are over a century old. It proposed preserving three of the buildings and the facade of the fourth, while building a 25-storey private hospital in their midst.

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The proposed hospital, Bishop’s House. Photo: GovHK/Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui archives.

The Union Church holds a 999-year lease from 1897. It occupies land zoned for Government, Institution and Community (GIC) use, which “is intended primarily for the provision of Government, institution or community facilities serving the needs of the local residents and/or a wider district, region or the territory. It is also intended to provide land for uses directly related to or in support of the work” of such bodies.

Former associate urban planning professor and ex-lawmaker Edward Yiu told HKFP that the church is well within its rights.

Organisations providing social services such as churches and schools from 1841 to the early 20th century were able to obtain land at very low prices from the colonial government, which wanted to attract such organisations to provide services for the community. The Crown leases and new grants used at the time contained very few restrictions on land use and development. Many of the urban conditions that are taken for granted today were unimaginable to the government at the time.

“These things were from over 100 years ago – it’s a totally different world now,” Yiu said.

Land planning was done through title deeds until 1939, when the Town Planning Ordinance was enacted, giving the Town Planning Board the power to control land use through zoning plans.

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The Union Church’s 1897 lease. Photo: Yuen Chi-yan.

“[W]ith such cheap land prices and deeds with so few restrictions, when they redevelop or make additions, they can suddenly make a lot of money. So they have an incentive,” Yiu said.

He added that developers often get involved as the organisations are not as familiar with the process. Often it works out being a win-win situation for both parties as developers will sometimes shoulder the costs of the development, allowing social organisations to expand facilities without having to raise the money for it themselves. As for the developer, it gets a “fat piece of pork” – the use of a prime piece of real estate. The only ones who lose out are Hong Kong citizens, Yiu said.

Law feels the same way. “For the community, we lose a heritage building, and our GIC land turns into bizarre hybrids of luxury residences plus churches. It’s unjust.”

For churchgoer Rachel, the redevelopment caused her to become disillusioned with the church, and she recently stopped attending altogether. “It’s worshipping Mammon. Worshipping money.”

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An artist’s rendering of the Union Church redevelopment. File photo: Supplied to Apple Daily.

Senior Pastor Greg Anderson told HKFP in a written response that the Union Church found serious structural issues in the 1980s which led it to recognise that its current building would not last indefinitely.

“The redevelopment plan ensures that today’s church members can pass on a beautiful and practical church building to future church members without leaving them a major financial burden,” Anderson said.

“Based on our studies, new income from the residential units will not only cover the expenses of running the bigger building but would also generate a surplus that can be used to expand ministries within the church, and also to expand our current support of local ministries and foreign missions.”

Church leaders previously told Apple Daily that on average, the church receives 650 attendees during the busiest Sunday services, but the sanctuary only contains 240 seats. The redevelopment would double the number of seats, they said.

But Rachel and a church member who spoke with HKFP said they were not satisfied with the reasons that the church gave them for the redevelopment.

They claimed that the church’s redevelopment process was not made transparent to the congregation, and that church leaders failed to produce documents when requested, including the details of their arrangement with Henderson, and reports from engineers revealing structural faults.

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The Union Church sanctuary. Photo: SupportHK.

The church member, who has attended Union Church for over a decade, said she felt the redevelopment went against God’s will.

“I do have feelings for [the building], but what hurts the most is the people who claim to be Christian – but I really don’t think that this is God’s will and they forcibly pushed it through anyway.”

Union Church did not respond to questions about such claims.

Community activist Yuen Chi-yan said that the Hong Kong government should fill in the legal gap that allows organisations such as churches to redevelop their land without consideration for historic value.

“[W]hether for religious lands or historic buildings, they are only using it as a normal piece of land. But they did not consider the history and culture underlying it. This history and culture belongs to all Hong Kong residents.”

“[T]he government has not acted to fill in this gap. At a certain level you can see that the government is condoning the abuse of this planning loophole.”

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Protesters including Yuen Chi-yan (2nd left) and Edward Yiu (right) held a last-ditch attempt to save the building from demolitition. Photo: SocRec.

For former architectural sector lawmaker Yiu, the issue comes down to a deeper question about land ownership.

“We… believe that the land belongs to the people, so if you’re taking advantage of the land, that means you’re taking advantage of the citizens.”

But from the government’s point of view, the land belongs to it – meaning the matter is between it and whoever holds the deed, he said.

“It’s very tricky in Hong Kong, because our government transitioned over from a colonial one, and our land regulations were also left behind from the colonial system – even the concept that the land belongs to the coloniser was left behind. As citizens, we have no say.”

Members of the congregation quoted in this story spoke to HKFP under the condition of anonymity out of fear that their relationships with other members of the church will be affected – names were changed. Henderson Land did not respond to a request for comment. 

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God or Mammon? Who gains when Hong Kong's historic churches are turned into blocks of flats