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Why is HK full of white elephant monuments, and what can we do about them?

2020/2/2 — 14:53

編按:作者指出,以往區議會在建制派治下,多區出現大白象地標雕塑,他認為與其浪費金錢在這些災難式的地標,不如把資源用來綠化社區。他指,以往城市規劃由高高在上的官員說了算,而不是從用家的角度去考慮。他認為要改善這情況,必須改革城市規劃的結構性問題,讓用家發聲,讓懂的人來做決策。

The landslide loss of seats by the so called ‘royalist’ district councillors in November’s District Council Elections was followed by queries over whether they have faithfully served the community over the years while in power. One of the areas most criticised by the incoming councillors, and indeed the electors at large, has been how too many white elephant monuments have been erected during their rule, which seemed to publicise the names of these outgoing councillors and their pals in the government, with the same monuments serving dubious if non-existent benefit to the district at large. Some of the more well known (or mocked) monuments are listed below.

Table 1: Select “famous” white elephant projects around HK

廣告

District

Nickname

Cost 

(HK$m)

Completed

Criticism from residents

Wan Chai

Golden Dragon Sculpture

3.00

2003

Tacky golden skin

Mong Kok

Goldfish Sculpture

0.34

2011

Hard to associate the statue with the bustle of Goldfish Street

Shau Kei Wan

Eastern District Cultural Square

90.00

2019

Wasted space, as lacking basic facilities

Quarry Bay

Rain shelter Pavilion too small for shelter

0.21

May 2015

Cannot block rain, blocks too much pavement space

Sham Tseng 

Weird Roasted Goose Statue

1.20

2013; demolished

Not looking goose like; no practical use

Kwun Tong

Music Fountain at Kwun Tong Promenade

50.00

TBC

Fountain takes away lawn space, preventing people from relaxing on grass

Kwai Fong

“Safe Island” Artwork

0.85

Apr 2018; demolished

Looks like grave, exterior resembles “construction waste”

Tuen Mun

Dome-shaped concrete blocks

0.20

Aug 2019; demolished

Looks like tortoise shells or tombs; questionable use

Such ubiquity of ‘white elephants’ may be traced to the fact that since 2008, the 18 district councils combined started receiving an annual budget of HK$300m for the purpose of ‘district minor works’. Come 2013, the then Chief Executive CY Leung, boosted the handout to an even more generous HK$100m for EACH of 18 district councils! 

With many of the district councils too lazy to consult the public and too confident in their own professional judgment and town planning expertise, the temptation became irresistible to splurge on image enhancing projects which had little bearing on improving local residents’ livelihoods and facilities.

廣告

Eye sores at the most prominent street corners

To take two busiest districts in HK as examples, otiose ‘vanity landmarks’ come in the form of the Goldfish Sculpture in Mong Kok (Figure 1) and the Golden Dragon Sculpture in Wan Chai (Figure 2). These two monstrosities not only occupy the primest locations in the city’s busiest thoroughfares, they were brought to you the tax payer at huge expenditure – both to build and to maintain. How these inutile objects may lift the spirits of the local residents is anybody’s guess.

Figure 1: the Goldfish Sculpture condemned by graffiti as ‘white elephant’ at the time photo was taken
Fig.2: the Golden Dragon Sculpture of utmost imperiousness

Figure 1: the Goldfish Sculpture condemned by graffiti as ‘white elephant’ at the time photo was taken
Fig.2: the Golden Dragon Sculpture of utmost imperiousness

 

 

 

What must puzzle most tax payers must be the question over why these contraptions, made out of plane cement and paint would cost millions to build? Compared to the extravagant HK$3m cost to erect the gaudy Golden Dragon Sculpture, would the Tai Chi bronze sculpture (Figure 3) in Exchange Square which was authored by the famous Taiwanese sculptor Ming JU, be a far more pleasing and inspring artifact? What is more, a bronze sculpture from the same Tai Chi series was sold at a 2009 auction for a mere HK$5 million. If the people of Wan Chai had the choice, would they have opted for the aggressive looking dragon or the graceful Tai Chi master?

The self important intention of erecting such monuments becomes amply clear when one looks at the inscriptions below the sculptures – the text is but an orgy of adulations and praises for those ‘celebrities’ involved in erecting the monument (Figure 4). No mention of course of what good the article would do the people who live nearby…

 

Figure 3: Ming JU’s Tai Chi man work in Exchange Square
Figure 4: Mong Kok’s Goldfish Sculpture seems more a memorial to advertise dignitaries’ names than to promote the characteristics of the district

Figure 3: Ming JU’s Tai Chi man work in Exchange Square
Figure 4: Mong Kok’s Goldfish Sculpture seems more a memorial to advertise dignitaries’ names than to promote the characteristics of the district

 

Ivory tower administrator makes no green fingers

With the ever expanding concrete jungle around us, people are increasingly being alienated from nature, which is not an ideal environment for health and mental wellness. When tree cover is progressively eliminated from urban space, even from sites sizable enough and conducive to being covered by trees, the only possible explanation must be bureaucratic obsession for convenience and ease of control.

Take the open space where the Goldfish Sculpture is situated, a thoughtfully planned cluster of mature ficus or camphor trees will have the miraculous effect of turning the current ugly and hostile collection of concrete boxes (Figure 5a) into an urban oasis (Figure 5b). 

In terms of costs, planting mature trees roughly two storeys tall only costs HK$50,000-100,000 per tree. In other words, fully covering the 10,000 square-feet Goldfish site needs just a dozen or so trees, with an estimated total bill of less than HK$2m.

 

Figure 5a: Goldfish site in Nullah Road now – barren, plain, and dull

Figure 5a: Goldfish site in Nullah Road now – barren, plain, and dull

The result cannot be further from the sorry situation people have to put up with every day – the island is now a bountiful area of shades where pedestrians can rest and take their minds off dreadful high density concrete structures bearing down on them.Figure 5b: After tree planting – whirling shades and calming greenery

Figure 5b: After tree planting – whirling shades and calming greenery

 

Turning to Wan Chai’s Golden Dragon site next: with a site area of some 5,000 square feet, even six to seven mature trees will achieve similar greening effect as in Mong Kok above. The total cost for planting will also half to around HK$1m, with the same significantly enhanced therapeutic effect (Figure 6b) that the ghastly golden contraption (Figure 6a) can never match!

Figure 6a: Golden Dragon Sculpture – leaves you baked, drenched, and deafened

Figure 6a: Golden Dragon Sculpture – leaves you baked, drenched, and deafened

 

 Figure 6b: With green cover – bird songs and insect chirps abound?

Figure 6b: With green cover – bird songs and insect chirps abound?

 

Figure 6b: With green cover – bird songs and insect chirps abound?

Retake our city - plant trees, and take out the white elephants

The above tree-for-elephant philosophy of decorating urban open spaces may seem absolutely logical to the end users who are the local residents. Alas this is not the way mandarins/councilors in habiting air-conditioned offices think. As a result, we have gotten used to being deprived of what is rightfully ours, as they opt for the easy option of concrete pouring and mechanized lazy maintenance. This is why the city is overwhelmed with white elephant constructions which have no benefit to the residents whatsoever.

From an environmental science perspective, trees provide the best possible shelter for pedestrians and public space users alike, lowering the surface temperature in a hot climate city such as Hong Kong. In fact, the ability of tree shade to mitigate the ‘heat island effect’ is a shockingly high – not only is the shaded ground temperature several degrees lower than air temperature, the difference is even larger against concrete/bitumen road surfaces by close to a multiple (Figure 7).

Figure 7: Tree shades can reduce temperature by as much as 36℃ on a sunny day

Figure 7: Tree shades can reduce temperature by as much as 36℃ on a sunny day

 

The above sustainable and yet economic urban management strategies are so common sense that it is unimaginable that they are not widely adopted all around HK already. In contrast, what we get are the expensive, tawdry, unsightly piles of waste costing millions of our money. We surmise that the flawed design of the urban management bureaucracy may be the main cause for HK’s white elephant phenomenon, this is explored below.

Cowboys leading experts + wrong mandates for the specialists = disaster

We suffer from overly centralized urban planning and management – this should be a function led from the user level, not from some remote administrator – the misallocation of expert resources is also a crucial factor contributing to the current plight we find ourselves in.

For example, there are 1.7m trees that may fall under the duty and care of some 137 certified arborists employed by various government departments (Table 2). However, there are vast discrepancies between the work load of these arborists:- the Highways Department, which oversees 600,000 trees (the highest amongst the departments), employs only 8 arborists; who would each be in charge of 80,000 trees on average. So if any of these specialists work the full 365 days a year, each still has 214 trees to check on every day!

Meanwhile, the 15 arborists in the Housing Department have a mere 18 trees per day to work on – the workload difference is a factor of 12 times!

Table 2: Tree responsibility by department – no apparent logic?

Departments

No. of trees (‘000) 

Arborists

No. of trees each arborist has to handle

Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD)

38.0

28

1,357

Drainage Services Department (DSD)

24.8

1

24,800

Highways Department (HyD)

63.3

8

79,125

Housing Department (HD)

100.8

15

6,720

Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD)

515.0

70

7,357

Water Supplies Department (WSD)

157.1

0

-

Lands Department (LandsD)

Hard to estimate*

13

-

Architectural Services Department

200.0

1

200,000

Total

1668.7

136

1,364

*Difficult to count due to massive number of trees

Source: 2018 Legislative Council document

With such a haphazard allocation of resources and responsibilities on how HK’s greenery is maintained and enhanced, it is not surprising that all we see are trees being cut down or dying (from a multitude of causes: malnutrition, diseases, to overzealous felling in the name of safety), instead of plans, actions, or debates about how the green coverage can be enlarged or enhanced.

The establishment of the Greening, Landscape and Tree Management Section could have been the opportunity to address this structural deficiency, but this initiative also ended with a whimper. The crooked infrastructure continues to turn our arborist experts from potential tree conservation champions into tools of administrative execution.

Perhaps the only way urban greening can become an effective movement is by empowering a centralized arborist function, may be under the aegis of the AFCD, and with its own budget and mandate to greenify the city. Another way to add to this momentum would be to delegate local urban planning authority to the district councils so they have the power to drive the beautification of their own districts in fashions that local residents demand, with the help of this new centralized arborist team.

White elephants will continue to appear unless we address the structural issues of urban management, and it is high time major reforms were implemented to return power to the people and their gardeners.

The author wishes to thank Mr Kelvin Wong Siu Fung of the School of Communication, Hong Kong Baptist University for assisting in drafting this article, collecting data and compiling charts.

 

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