Hong Kong Cathedral land worth half a billion dollars
A historical Cathedral in Hong Kong sits on a piece of land that could be worth, conservatively, more than half a billion dollars — if the cathedral is destroyed and the land is converted to commercial use.
When St. John’s Cathedral was first built in 1849, no one imagined that 162 years later the 53,175 square meters of land that the Anglican Church stands on, would become the prime property that it is today.
But that is precisely what has happened. Towering over the cathedral are the Standard Chartered building and SHSBC; and just across the street from St. John’s Cathedral is Citibank Plaza.
Because of this, St. John’s land value has soared and if the property were converted for commercial purposes, its potential earnings — conservatively speaking — could reach some $512 million, going by current market rates.
But for some, the cathedral is priceless because of its spiritual purpose, historical value and the public services it renders.
St. John’s cathedral was built in 1849 when Hong Kong was a British protectorate. In December 1941 the Japanese shelled the island. Despite this, some 100 Christians still gathered in the church for Christmas services.
The first service after World War II ended in 1945 was also held in St. John’s, when the Royal Navy arrived on the island’s shores. Such history, plus its Neo-Gothic architecture and display of British military and similar paraphernalia makes it a popular tourist destination.
Today, St. John’s holds services in English, Mandarin and Tagalog (a major language of the Philippines) to cater to a large foreign community in Hong Kong.
The church also provides non-denominational counseling rendered by professionals who are multi-cultural and multi-lingual. Rates are scaled according to ability to pay. Christian counseling is also available.
Legal advice and assistance is also given to foreign domestic workers and migrants; and information dissemination campaigns on HIV and reproductive health are organized regularly by the cathedral staff.
The cathedral has a special freehold status which continued even after Hong Kong was turned over to China. The freehold status was granted by Queen Victoria and was solidified in 1930 through the Church of England Trust Ordinance, placing it under the control of the cathedral’s trustees.
Rev. Philip Wickeri, a historical and theological advisor to Hong Kong’s Anglican archbishop, told Wall Street Journal, “All over the world where the British had colonies, they established churches through land grants.” For example several Anglican churches in Singapore have freeholds, including St. Hilda’s Church and St. Paul’s Church.
In 1996 St. John’s Cathedral was declared, along with 34 other structures on the island, a monument under the Antiquities and Monuments Office in the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.
In 1997, when Hong Kong was turned over to China, St. John’s wasn’t included because of its freehold status. Neither did China attempt to take over the Cathedral.
Wickeri told the WSJ, “I just think it wasn’t particularly a priority and they didn’t want to upset things. At that point, with all of the financial matters, they wanted to pretty much not rock the boat.”
However, amid moves by some elements pressing the government to make high-value land more available for development, and considering that Hong Kong will in 2047 finish its transitional role as Special Administrative Region of China, the future of freehold properties, including the cathedral, remains unclear.
Included among such properties are a number of other buildings which have 999-year land leases (not unlike a freehold) such as the Baskerville House and the Standard Chartered Bank Building.