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Project Profile


2005 Award of Merit

St. Joseph's Chapel

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Project Title: St. Joseph’s Chapel

Location: Hong Kong SAR, China

Size241 square metres (floor area); 1,437 square metres (whole renovation area)

Cost: US$ 150,000

Responsible Party: Dominic Chan

Heritage Architect: Anna Kwong, S.L. Lam

Contractor: Tai Yue Engineering Company Limited

Date of Completion: May 2004

Project Synopsis

St. Joseph’s Chapel is located on the tranquil island of Yim Tin Tsai, which is situated in the harbour off the town of Sai Kung in Hong Kong. Yim Tin Tsai was once the home of the Chan clan, which is believed to have moved to the island in the early nineteenth century. Of Hakka origins, the clan members converted to Christianity in the 1860s, unlike other communities in the Sai Kung area, most of which still adhere to traditional Chinese forms of worship.

The first Christian chapel on the island dates to 1879, presided over by the Reverend Joseph Freinandemetz, a German priest who made frequent visits and preached to the villagers of Yim Tin Tsai. The present chapel, in the Italian Romanesque style, characterized by arched biform windows and small front towers above the parapet, was built in 1890 to meet the needs of the growing local population. At around the same time, residential quarters for the priest were constructed on the mezzanine, just above the sacristy, and a school was built nearby.

St. Joseph’s Chapel was the heart of the Roman Catholic community of Yim Yin Tsai and remains a prominent architectural landmark in the rural landscape. The church benefitted from regular maintenance and was renovated in 1948 and 1962. The population of Yim Tin Tsai began to decline in the 1980s, however, with many of the residents emigrating. Today the island is uninhabited. The chapel first fell out of regular use and was later largely abandoned, though it continued to draw local and overseas clan members every May for the feast day of St. Joseph.

The project to restore the chapel, a Grade III historic building listed by the Antiquities and Monuments Office, was launched as the first step of a longer-term comprehensive plan for revitalizing the entire island of Yim Tin Tsai. Interventions at the chapel aimed to repair damaged areas and reveal historic building fabric, allowing for the liturgical function of the chapel to be fully reinstated and attracting pilgrims once again to worship in the historic monument on a weekly basis.

Conservation Approach

The renovation project covered not only the chapel but also the courtyard around chapel and the Ching Po School. The guiding principle of the project was to ensure minimum intervention and change.

One of the principal threats to the chapel building was water penetration that had resulted from damage to the roof. Leakages and damp patches on the corrugated roof were found by the pre-project survey team. Workers discovered traces of ceramic red roofing embedded in the end walls, indicating that the roof was originally clay tiles. No further information was available about the original roof, however, and the project was subject to budget constraints, so although the roof sheathing was not original, the conservation team decided to retain it in its “as-found” condition. The roofing crew patched the existing holes. A water-resistant membrane, with fabric reinforcement to accommodate minor movements, was installed on the corrugated sheeting to ensure a watertight seal. The conservation team chose a deep red to paint the roof surface, matching the visual character of the original tiles, with the expectation that the roof would be retiled with the original type of tiles once the budget became available in the future.

The construction crew painted the exterior and interior walls with a weather-shield coating and anti-mould emulsion paint to protect the walls from the moist island climate. 

The original green flooring had been removed in an earlier conservation project and replaced with coloured concrete sand screed. The surface was severely worn due to the abrasive impact of foot traffic over many years. Painters applied a threecoat epoxy coating over the concrete floor, matching the original green colour as closely as possible. The age-old rubble beneath the floor of the main entrance porch was not replaced but only packed and levelled for new granolithic paving.

The chapel originally had several stained glass panels in its windows. Unfortunately, these had been replaced during earlier renovations. The new project reinstated the stained glass panels, but as little was known of the original design the conservation team simply selected designs appropriate to the time-period and the overall character of the chapel. The new windows convey a strong sense of the historic character of the interior, casting colours along the aisles and seating and enhancing the church services.

The rear backdrop of the sanctuary (the sacristy wall) was restored to match the original paint scheme for the sanctuary. The colour choice, China red, was based on samples taken from throughout the interior and then examined offsite. Red is historically popular in China as a colour associated with festivals. The conservation team was careful to preserve the altar table and its relics.

The stone walls around the chapel were repaired using stones from the island’s coastal area. The utilization of a locally sourced material maintained a sense of continuity for the chapel and helped tie the building, both metaphorically and literally, to its setting. The choice of local stones also kept costs to an affordable level.

The project also included significant upgrading of the building’s services and facilities. Workers installed mosquito screens in the windows of the chapel and ancillary buildings, including the priest’s quarters. Placed on the window exteriors, the new screens still allow daylight to enter the chapel and do not affect the natural lighting of the sanctuary. A restroom and pantry were added to the sacristy for the priests’ preparations and for religious events. These new facilities allow visiting priests and pilgrims to stay in the priest quarters.The school located adjacent to the chapel was renovated for future use as a display area and folklore museum.

Conservation and the Community

Since the restoration of St. Joseph’s Chapel, the island has become well-known as a destination for pilgrims and other visitors, who visit to see the chapel and the island’s salt fields, sluice gates and mangroves. Visitors travel to the island on traditional Chinese junks or on Western-style yachts. The income generated from tourism is pooled in a charitable foundation; these monies are set aside for the maintenance of the chapel and also pay for electricity, street lights, water and sewage facilities, thereby improving the sanitary conditions on the island.

Protection of historic buildings in Hong Kong was once solely a top-down process, enacted through legislation and statutory control. The project to restore St. Joseph’s Chapel has demonstrated, however, that grass-roots led conservation can also be successful. The renovation of St. Joseph’s Chapel, through successfully mobilizing a wide range of supporters who combined their efforts to save a modest religious structure in a remote area of the territory, is a model for community-led conservation in Hong Kong.