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Project Profile


2005 Award of Merit

Tung Wah Coffin Home

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Project Title: Tung Wah Coffin Home

Location: Hong Kong SAR, China

Size: 6,050 square metres

Cost: Approximately US$1.28 million

Responsible PartyTung Wah Group of Hospitals, K. F. Leung, Arthur Lo, P.L. Tam and Christopher Leung

Heritage Architect: Urbanage International Ltd.

ContractorCK&G Contracting Co. (Phase I); Fai Kee Construction & Decoration Co. (Phase II)

Date of Completion: 18 March 2004

Project Synopsis

Tung Wah Coffin Home was established in 1899 near Sandy Bay in Hong Kong by the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals and serves as a temporary depository for coffins and urns that are to be transferred either to the birthplaces of the deceased or to a suitable burial place. In the past the facilities were mainly used by families of deceased persons from mainland China who were transported back to their ancestral lands for burial in accordance with traditional Chinese customs.

The compound comprises tiers of row houses, coffin depositories, columbaria, pagodas and gateways constructed on terraces along the scenic valley in which the facility is situated. These structures were constructed in stages, spanning a period of over 100 years. Consequently, the various buildings of the compound are in different architectural styles, each reflecting their period of construction. These range from simple vernacular architecture to colonial style forms, with numerous hybrid styles in between.

Diminishing demand for the depository service from the 1950s onwards led to gradual deterioration of the buildings and structures in the compound. The buildings’ roofs began to leak and concrete posts and walls settled unevenly, a result of the rusting of reinforcing bars and the varied soil conditions beneath the foundations. Numerous extensions and repairs were made to the buildings over the compound’s history and ad hoc repairs were made to fix roof leakages and other defects, but decay over time led to several sections of buildings being demolished in the latter part of the twentieth century. In 2002, recognizing the risk to the remaining buildings, the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals initiated a long-term plan to restore the compound, including its adjacent cemeteries and columbaria, all of which are now considered part of the heritage of the institution and of Hong Kong in general.

Conservation Approach

The restoration aimed to return the building clusters to their respective architectural styles. Few of the changes in the past had been recorded or had received building permits, however. Given the lack of information on the existing structures, a careful historical and topographical survey was necessary. A search was then conducted for appropriate building materials for each of the architectural styles. Many of the replacement parts came from the neighbourhood, indicating the close relationship of the building to its surroundings. Materials were also sourced from Guangdong Province in China, including bricks, timber doors, windows, panels, purlins and roof tiles. The project’s designers also salvaged replacement parts from the flea market in the Western District of Hong Kong. Particularly sought out were colonial style ironwork, door hinges and other metal accessories. Subsequently, the project team employed specialized preservation and restoration methods.

Three pairs of gateways mark the entrances to Tung Wah Coffin Home. The roof motifs, column bases, joint brackets, colonnades, mouldings and ornaments, all of which were in styles typical of Chinese vernacular architecture, were carefully documented and missing elements replicated. For instance, the elegant clay ornaments on the exposed gable ends of the pitched sections of the roofs had weathered or were missing, so were replaced.

Other features were also restored. The pairs of stone plaques, inscribed with Chinese calligraphy and images, guarding both the columns and the main façade had faded past legibility. Artisans cleaned the plaques and restored the inscriptions, applying gold leaf in traditional patterns. As with the plaques, artisans carefully repaired and recreated the grill tiles that filled the window openings, matching them as closely as possible to the originals.

To deal with the general problem of water penetration, the team selected a system to prevent further leakage, which had been caused by insufficient slopes and a lack of roof insulation. Redesign of the drainage system was necessary; new gutters were installed that served this new purpose but did not alter the appearance of the buildings. The use of low viscosity epoxy resin assisted in the treatment of dilapidated concrete sections and for crack repair to avoid damage to adjacent ceiling concrete. The clay roof tiles were relaid in the traditional manner. Masons used a weak lime mortar mixture to prevent subsequent cracking of the clay tiles.

Most of the timber purlins, rafters and the wooden columns between the gable walls were found to have rotted severely and some were termite-damaged. Workers replaced the damaged purlins and rafters with new members that had been pre-treated with preservatives and anti-termite coatings.

The cantilevered portions of the canopies at sections of the exterior were found to be structurally unstable. They also did not meet current safety standards. The conservation team realized that the provision of additional external support would simply add more weight and speed the cracking process. The team chose instead to trim the canopies and install decorative mouldings to replicate the original appearance.

The work crew also examined welding joints and bolts. The rust was removed from all exposed metal elements, which were then cleaned and repainted with fire retardant paint. All covered metal works were examined for delamination and rust.

The buildings of the Tung Wah Coffin Home compound had originally featured numerous traditional Chinese doors, which generally had thick wooden poles on either side of the door openings. Some doors originally had timber louvers at the top, an arrangement that allowed free airflow into the rooms. Many of the traditional Chinese doors had been lost over the years; the original doors were therefore replicated or replaced with doors sourced from the local area and from mainland China.

A difficulty facing the conservation team during the restoration process was the fact that the public continued to use the complex throughout the project. Over a hundred coffins and urns were still in storage at the time of the project onset and people made visits to pay respect to their ancestors during the project period.

Conservation and the Community

The restoration of Tung Wah Coffin Home not only saved an important historic legacy but brought attention to the important role of mortuary facilities in the history of the community in Hong Kong. With the restoration, the concept of heritage preservation found new expression in the daily lives of people in Hong Kong and especially in the area around Tung Wah Coffin Home.

Visitors to the complex and nearby cemeteries have commented on the fresh look of the historic compound. High visitor counts have been recorded since the restoration, particularly during the Ching Ming and Chung Yeung Festivals. Furthermore, the nearby schools have found the restored complex to be an ideal place for outdoor lessons.

Quote from the Project Team

“The task was difficult as virtually no records and drawings of the buildings could be found. Sets of invaluable historical photos depicting different views of the compound at different periods were discovered. They formed the main reference for the reconstruction of the whole compound.”