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Hong Kong, city of immigrants, sees historical preservation in public housing

A budding historical preservation movement takes off in Hong Kong, where many residents are recent immigrants and half the population lives in subsidized public housing.

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Marcus Tam still remembers growing up in the Lower Ngau Tau Kok public housing complex, playing in a dingy apartment with "mice the size of cats." His family moved away once their lot improved.

But in recent months Mr. Tam and other Hong Kongers have flocked to the 40-year-old public housing project to take their final pictures before it is demolished. To them, the squat concrete buildings are testament to the grittier side of their famously glitzy city, where, amid the futuristic skyscrapers, nearly half the population still lives in some form of government-subsidized housing.

Many of the projects were built to house refugees fleeing famine and political turmoil in mainland China.

Today, the steady stream of visitors reflects the nostalgia driving a nascent movement to preserve Hong Kong's heritage. "This place is part of Hong Kong culture," says Tam.

In a city that is only 160 years old and home to Chinese, British, other Europeans, and South Asians, with the majority of residents either foreign-born or children of immigrants, defining heritage can be tricky. Landmarks like Ngau Tau Kok can help provide an anchor, says Margaret Brooke, who in 2006 cofounded Heritage Hong Kong, a nonprofit preservation group.

"It really is about collective, social memories. A lot of people have no family history in Hong Kong ... so they're looking for something to latch onto," like the old public housing projects, she says.

Repurposing old buildings

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