ultramarinus – beyond the sea

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STAR FERRY (天星小輪): Nostalgic Journey in the Victoria Harbour (維多利亞港), Hong Kong

In 1888, the same year when Peak Tram began operating up the slope of Victoria Peak, “Kowloon Ferry Company” was also established for managing the first regular steamboat services between Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island. Soon, the company expanded to a fleet of four ferries, and was renamed to “Star Ferry Co Ltd” (天星小輪), the name that is still in use today. Named by National Geographic Traveler as one of the “50 Places of a Lifetime” and topping the list of “Top Ten Most Exciting Ferry Rides” by the Society of American Travel Writers, it is no doubt that Hong Kong’s Star Ferry has been on the radar of international travelers for quite some time. For about HK$4 (US$ 0.50), anyone can enjoy a moment of peace crossing Victoria Harbour. In the past century, as a series of land reclamations have shortened the distance between Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island, piers in Central and Wanchai have been moved numerous times, and ferry rides across the Harbour have become shorter. No matter how short the ride has become, the star ferry experience still offers some of the most rewarding views of Hong Kong’s skyline. To have a moment of relaxation, we always prefer taking the ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side when time allows. The ride is particular lovely at sunset and night.

In 1888, Indian Parsee businessman Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala established Kowloon Ferry Company and operated the first regular ferry service between Hong Kong and Kowloon, taking bread, cargo and passengers with his steamboat Morning Star. In 1890, three more boats, Evening Star, Guiding Star and Rising Star joined the service. Upon retirement, Mithaiwala sold his ferries and company to another British-Indian businessman Sir Paul Chater’s (遮打), one of the first business mogul who was responsible and involved in establishing many large corporations in Hong Kong, including Hongkong Land (置地), Hongkong Electric (港燈), Dairy Farm (牛奶公司), Kowloon Wharf (九龍倉), etc. In the 20th century, the fleet of Star Ferry continued to grow as different generations of ferry piers were erected in Central, Wanchai and Tsim Sha Tsui. Today, the Star Ferry has eight boats in total, with an average age of 58 years old. Since the completion of Cross-Harbour Tunnel in 1972 and the Harbour crossing Mass Transit Railway (MTR) in February 1980, Star Ferry is no longer the main means of public transportation between Hong Kong and Kowloon. It does, however, carry a sense of history and collective memory of the bygone era. For both locals and tourists, the ferry also offers arguably the best way to enjoy the skyline of Hong Kong. Taking the MTR or driving through the Cross Harbour Tunnel, one can hardly notice the famous harbour.

“Night Star” [Photo: Gordon Arthur Richards Collections, University of Bristol Library (CC BY_NC_ND 4.0), 1920’s]
Built in 1963, the second generation Night Star (夜星) was painted in the colourful dragon motif to promote Brand Hong Kong, Asia’s World City. [Star Ferry near Admiralty, 2020]
As of 2020, there are eight boats in the fleet, serving the two main routes in Victoria Harbour. [View from Ocean Terminal towards distant skyline of Causeway Bay and Tin Hau on Hong Kong Island, Tsim Sha Tsui, 2020]
Both of the two main routes depart from the pier of Tsim Sha Tsui in the Kowloon Peninsula, where the Clock Tower, Museum of Art, Cultural Centre, Planetarium and Ocean Terminal Retail Complex make up one of the most popular tourist area in the city. [View from Ocean Terminal towards Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower, Cultural Centre and Star Ferry Pier, Tsim Sha Tsui, 2020]
Night Star (夜星) usually serves the route between Tsim Sha Tsui and Wanchai. [View from Ocean Terminal towards Wanchai on Hong Kong Island, Tsim Sha Tsui, 2020]
Sailing in the Harbour during sunset is a relaxing way to enjoy urban Hong Kong, away from crowded streets and busy traffic. [View from Ocean Terminal towards Wanchai on Hong Kong Island, Tsim Sha Tsui, 2020]
The decades-old ferry offer an open experience to take in the sea breeze and scent of the ocean. [Star Ferry, 2020]
For Hongkongers, the wooden seat on Star Ferry is part of their collective memories of the city. [Star ferry, 2014]
In summer, the front end of the boat would sometimes come with air conditioning. [Star ferry, 2014]
Everything from the lacquered timber to the metal window pulls have been around since the mid 20th century. [Star ferry, 2020]
Taking the Star Ferry would allow passengers to experience the busy boat traffic of Victoria Harbour. [Star ferry, 2020]
As Central Pier 7 and 8, the Star Ferry Pier in Central is the fourth generation. It was part of the Central and Wanchai Reclamation project in the 2000’s. Despite the controversy of mimicking the past, the Edwardian building design was based on the historical second generation pier at Ice House Street from the 1910’s. [Central Star Ferry Pier, 2020]
Every Sunday, the upper deck of the pier would house the city’s largest organic farmer’s market, selling local produces from New Territories and Outer Islands. [Central Star Ferry Pier, 2014]
Star Ferry occupies Pier Number 7 at the Central Piers in Hong Kong Island. [Central Star Ferry Pier, 2020]
Despite much controvesy, the building was built based on the historical second generation pier. [Wanchai Star Ferry Pier, 2021]
The present third generation Star Ferry Pier in Tsim Sha Tsui was built in 1957. Built in style of Streamline Moderne, this pier once echoed the now demolished Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier, the third generation Star Ferry Pier in Central. [Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Pier, 2020]
The 1950’s Star Ferry Pier and Clock Tower of the former Train Station have become icons of Tsim Sha Tsui. [Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Pier, 2020]
Watching the decades old ferry docking at the pier is a relaxing sight in Tsim Sha Tsui. [Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Pier, 2020]
Signifying the arrival of Kowloon, the passageway connecting to the ferry platform hasn’t changed much during the past half a century. [Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Pier, 2020]
It is a pleasant surprise that Tsui Sha Tsui Pier can survive so many decades in the fast changing Hong Kong. [Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Pier, 2020]
After so many years, it is interesting that a passageway taking no longer than a minute to pass through actually leaves a lasting memory in my mind. [Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Pier, 2020]
After leaving the ferry, a flight of steps leading passengers away from the ferry platform. [Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Pier, 2020]
The pier at Tsim Sha Tsui is a tourist attraction to photograph the skyline of Hong Kong Island. [Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Pier, 2021]
The Tsui Sha Tsui waterfront is particularly lovely during sunset. [Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Pier, 2020]

PEAK TRAM (山頂纜車): The Oldest Public Transportation in Hong Kong

On 27th of June 2021, the fifth generation Peak Tram made its last trip up the Victoria Peak. The service would then be shut down for an extensive upgrade, laying new tracks and introducing larger funicular trains in the next six months. From the 30-seat wooden train operated by a steam engineer in 1888, to the upcoming 210-seat fully computerized and universally accessible aluminium train, the Peak Tram is about to enter its sixth generation in 133 years. The Peak Tram is, in fact, the oldest funicular system in Asia, and the first public transportation system in Hong Kong. We would occasionally hike up the Peak via Lung Fu Shan Country Park and descend by taking the Peak Tram to Kennedy Road Stop, where we would walk through the Botanical Gardens to return home. It was a 7-minute treat of lovely scenery from 28m to 368m above sea level every time we hopped onto the peak tram and sat on those inclined seats at the maximum of about 27 degrees. Before the pandemic, riding the peak tram was almost a compulsory activity for all foreign tourists. Today, the funicular is popular with local visitors during weekends.

The Peak Tram has always been a means of transportation for leisure. At 552m above sea level, the Peak is the perfect retreat from the summer heat. In 1881, Alexander Findlay Smith, who worked for the Scottish Highway Railway before, convinced Governor John Pope-Hennessy to operate a funicular route between the south of Murray Barracks (now Admiralty) and Victoria Gap on the Peak. He hoped the new transportation system would boost visitor numbers to his prestige Peak Hotel. Apart from hotel visitors and tourists, the Peak Tram also served the wealthy expatriates who lived on the Peak. Findlay Smith soon put the Peak Hotel and Peak Tram onto the market. At the end, the hotel and funicular landed in the hands of Hongkong Hotel Company, the current owner of Peninsula Hotel Group. Before 1920, the funicular was the only means of transportation connecting the Peak with Central, the downtown of Hong Kong. It has been 83 years since the Peak Hotel was burnt down in 1938. Its former site is now occupied by the shopping centre Peak Galleria (山頂廣場). Opposite to Peak Galleria now stands the Peak Tower (凌霄閣), another eye-catching retail complex that also doubles as the Upper Peak Tram Terminus. Below the Peak, the city’s skyline has changed dramatically in the past century. Perhaps the only thing that stays recognizable in the past 130 years is the funicular system itself.

The Peak Tram is the oldest public transportation in Hong Kong. Replacing the steam engineer of the first generation, the second generation Peak Tram was powered by an electric system. [Photo: Hagger F. Collection, University of Bristol, (CC BY_NC_ND 4.0), 1930’s]
The first generation Lower Peak Tram Terminus at Garden Road (花園道) appeared like an European Alpine resort. [Photo taken in 1920’s, public domain]
Built in 1983, the ground floor of St. John’s Building (聖約翰大廈) has been serving as the Lower Peak Tram Terminus in the past 38 years. The 22-storey commercial tower is the fourth generation funicular terminus. [2020]
Adjacent to the funicular terminus, St. Joseph’s College (聖若瑟書院) is the earliest Roman Catholic school in Hong Kong. [2020]
In Hong Kong, buildings are always cramped together with roads and transportation infrastructures. In the case of Garden Road Peak Tram Terminus, the train platform is sandwiched between several historical buildings (St. Joseph’s College at the back, Visitor Centre of World Wildlife Fund, The Helena May main building in front right) and the flyover of Red Cotton Road. [2020]
Some say the Visitor Centre of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) at No. 1 Tramway Path was once a parking depot of funicular trams. [1 Tramway Path, 2019]
The WWF Visitor Centre is home to a coffee shop, a souvenir shop and a small interpretation/ activity space. [1 Tramway Path, 2020]
Further up Tramway Path, peaceful Tram View Cafe is tranquil retreat to enjoy afternoon tea while watching funicular trams arriving and leaving the Garden Road Terminus. [Tram View Cafe, 2 Tramway Path, 2020]
Tram View Cafe is a pleasant retreat just a stone throw away from the financial district. [Tram View Cafe, 2 Tramway Path, 2020]
The Tram View Cafe present a vintage decor to engage customers. [Tram View Cafe, 2 Tramway Path, 2021]
Beyond MacDonnell Road Station (麥當勞道站), the Peak Tram climbed towards the bridges of Magazine Gap Road and May Road. [Photo taken in 1897, public domain]
Beyond May Road Station (梅道站), the funicular route continues to climb towards the Peak. [May Road Station, 2020]
The track angle varies from 4 to 27 degrees, climbing an elevation of 368m. [2020]
Where the Peak Tram bridges over Barker Road is a popular spot for filming local movies. [Barker Road, 2020]
Opened in 1888, Barker Road Station (白加道) is the only covered station between Garden Road and the Peak. The roof was added in 1919. [Barker Road Station, 2020]
Baker Road Station is a popular spot for visitors taking selfies. [Barker Road Station, 2020]
At an elevation of 363m, Barker Road Station is the second last stop before reaching the Peak. [Barker Road Station, 2020]
Taking the Peak Tram is always a pleasant way to reach the Victoria Peak. [2019]
The fourth generation Peak Trams have been retired. The next generation funicular trains will arrive in a few months’ time. Due to the increasing demand, the new trains will significantly increase the passenger capacity. [inside the Peak Tram, 2019]
The Peak Tram on the slope of Victoria Peak has been an icon of Hong Kong for decades. [Peak Tram arriving at The Peak, 2020]
At 398m, the retail complex Peak Tower (凌霄閣) now serves as the upper terminus of Peak Tram. [The Peak, 2020]
Where the former Peak Hotel stood a century ago, the shopping centre Peak Galleria (山頂廣場) now welcomes visitors arriving on the Peak. [The Peak, 2020]
The third generation Peak Tram is now on display in front of Peak Galleria in commemoration of the centennial of the Peak Tram. [The Peak, 2020]

OUR URBAN BACKYARD, Lung Fu Shan Country Park (龍虎山郊野公園), Central & Western District (中西區), Hong Kong

Well known for its skyscrapers, Hong Kong actually has another face of lush green hills and pristine beaches to counterbalance the overwhelming urbanity. In fact, out of 1092 sq.km, about three quarters of Hong Kong’s land area is countryside comprised of hills, woodlands and beaches. No matter from which district in the city, nature is never far way. In 1976, the Country Park Ordinance was passed to enforce nature conservation. Under the ordinance, 24 country parks (郊野公園) have been established so far, protecting about 440 sq.km of natural landscape. Across the city, many neighbourhoods are situated within close proximity from one of these country parks, where Hongkongers treat them as urban backyards for morning exercises, afternoon picnics or evening hikes. For us living in Central and Western District, our closest backyard is Lung Fu Shan Country Park on the hill right behind Hong Kong University. We sometimes thought of walking up Lung Fu Shan and the adjacent Victoria Peak to catch the first glimpse of morning sun over the famous Hong Kong skyline. This has yet happened, but we do occasional short hikes when weather permits. From our home, it is just several minutes of bus ride to the trailhead of the 2.75km Lung Fu Shan Trail. Between Victoria Peak (太平山) and Mount High West (西高山), Lung Fu Shan or Hill Above Belcher’s (龍虎山) is a 253m hill right above the main campus of Hong Kong University. In 1998, Lung Fu Shan Country Park was established to protect the small patch of forest around the hill. With just about 0.1% of the total area of all country parks, the city’s smallest country park is home to almost one third of all species of birds, butterflies, amphibians, reptiles and mammals found in Hong Kong. Given the park is situated at less than 30 minutes walking distance to the central business district, Lung Fu Shan is surprisingly valuable to the city’s biodiversity.

Before Lung Fu Shan Country Park was established, I visited the Pinewood Battery (松林炮台) on Lung Fu Shan with my parents several times. Completed in 1905 by the colonial government, the historical battery was heavily damaged during WWII. In the Battle of Hong Kong (December 1941), the battery was under rounds of air raids before it was abandoned on 15th of December 1941. In the 1980’s the military structures were pretty much lying in ruins. For me as a child, the ruined battery was a great place for picnic or to play hide and seek. 11 years after the establishment of Lung Fu Shan Country Park, the ruined structures were listed as Grade II historical buildings in 2009 and become one of the main features in the park. Display boards and a trail linking all the major structures are set up are provided on site to tell the story.

On a fine Friday afternoon, we decided to drop by Lung Fu Shan Environmental Education Centre near the park entrance at Kotewall Road (旭龢道). Operated by Environmental Protection Department and University of Hong Kong, the small interpretation centre housed in a listed historical bungalow just a stone throw away from Hong Kong University was a pleasant surprise. Built in 1890, the 131-year bungalow was home for the watchman who protected the adjacent Pokfulam Filter Beds, the facility used to filter drinking water for Pokfulam Reservoir nearby. The former watchman’s residence is now converted into the visitor centre of Lung Fu Shan Country Park, welcoming anyone who wishes to know more about the ecology and biodiversity of the area. Apart from insect specimens and wildlife photographs, we were particularly interested in the videos interviewing the former residents of the bungalow complex, who were occupying the three historical houses in the complex until 1996. At the centre, we had a delightful chat with the staff there and picked up The Pulse of Nature – Mid-Levels West, a book of writings, illustrations and photographs that offers a variety of perspectives that explores the natural context of Mid-Levels West around Lung Fu Shan.

Covering an area of about 47 hectares, Lung Fu Shan Country Park is the smallest country park in Hong Kong. [2021]
Lung Fu Shan situated on the hill above the residential neighbourhoods of Mid Levels West. [2021]
A carpet of green moss cover the retaining slopes along the path. [2021]
When looking closer, there is so much interesting details along Lung Fu Shan Trail. [2021]
The shell of a beetle like insect captured my attention. [2021]
110 species of butterflies have been recorded in Lung Fu Shan Country Park.
It is delightful to follow the butterflies wandering along the trail. [2021]
In the small country park, there have been 130 species of birds recorded. [2021]
Red billed blue magpie is a large and aggressive bird found in Hong Kong. Its long tail is a recognizable feature. [2021]
Wild flowers are common all year round in the park. [2021]
At Pinewood Battery, artificial hideouts were constructed for soldiers to rest. [2021]
Retaining structures and cabins as hideouts. [2021]
At the Pinewood Battery, a raised structure was once used for military observations. [2021]
Seven decades have passed since Pinewood Battery was stationed with soldiers. [2021]
Another elevated structure was once the control room of the battery. [2021]
The ruins are overgrown with lush green climbers and shrubs. [2021]
There were two anti aircraft gun platforms in Pinewood Battery. [2021]
The Lung Fu Shan Environmental Education Centre is housed in a 131-year bungalow. [2021]
The former swimming pool of the complex has been converted into a pond to demonstrate the local freshwater ecosystem. [2021]
The small garden of the complex has been planted with local species. [2021]
Inside the bungalow, photographs and specimens of local wildlife are on display. [2021]
Skin of a snake has been found on the eaves of one of the three houses in the complex. [2021]
Historical drawings of the watchman house. [2021]
Photos of the former residents of the bungalow complex. [2021]
The fireplace in the bungalow is decorated with drawings painted by the former residents. [2021]

CHU WING KEE: HOMEWARES FROM THE MOUNTAINS (朱榮記山貨), Sheung Wan (上環), Hong Kong

In the Cat Street neighbourhood, the story of Uncle Tim might have come to an end, but another piece of collective memory from the 1960’s continues to live on. Not a cool vintage store, nor a hip design shop, the down to earth Chu Wing Kee (朱榮記) just happens to make its name as an honest and ordinary homeware shop. Local homewares shops like Chu Wing Kee were pretty common in Hong Kong before 1970’s. As the city entered the decades of economic boom, most of these shops have faded out from the urban scenery. Supermarkets, department stores, dollar shops, convenient store chain, and even online shopping have virtually wiped out these shops. As property prices skyrocketed in recent decades, a 1000 sq.ft ground floor retail space in central Hong Kong could worth about USD 4 million. For a shop owner selling housewares at a few USD a piece, selling the shop makes much more sense than continuing the business. Paying a high rent to sell everyday merchandises also doesn’t make it profitable either. The gradual death of traditional homeware shops in Hong Kong seems inevitable. But there are exceptions. Chu Wing Kee is one of these rarities.

Chu Wing Kee started in 1959 by the father of Mr. Chu, the current owner of the shop, with a street stall selling “shan for” (山貨), or “goods from the mountains”. “Shan for” literally refers to housewares and furniture made of natural materials, notably handicrafts made of rattan, bamboo, reed, wood or grass. In mid 20th century, wickenworks made with rattan were very popular. In Hong Kong, these products were handmade and sold during the dry season. In the 1970’s, Hong Kong had became a major manufacturing city of plastic products. Traditional handmade “shan for” proved to be no match against the cheaper and mass produced plastic products. “Shan for” has quietly faded out from most homes. Rattan was perceived as dated and dull, not as exciting as the colourful plastic products. Two generations have since passed. Rattan decor is making a comeback in recent years. So what actually is rattan? Rattan is a climbing plant belongs to the palm family. It can be found in rainforests in Asia, Africa and Australia. It is light, durable and relatively flexible. It serves as a good alternative to timber. Rattan usually grows under shade in rainforests, and can even be cultivated under fruit or rubber trees. However, as deforestation intensifies in recent decades, so as the population of rattan.

As a traditional shop selling “shan for” (山貨), Chu Wing Kee still offers a wide range of rattan goods and other products made locally with natural materials. Since most local craftsmen are getting quite advance in age, Mr. Chu might eventually have to rely on imported products from Southeast Asia. For now, Mr. Chu still manages to offer some local “shan for”, and other vintage housewares dated back to the 1960’s. For many, checking out Chu Wing Kee might be a nostalgic journey to hunt for childhood memories from a treasure trove. Apart from rattan items, ceramic and plastic piggy banks are two of the most popular merchandises Mr. Chu is offering Hongkongers. Other notable vintage products include plastic toys, traditional thermal bottles, metal mailboxes, ceramic chicken bowls, ceramic cooking pots and rice storage, wood laundry washboard, etc. For us living in the area, Mr. Chu’s shop offers some handy products that even supermarkets or department stores no longer carry. In early spring this year, we couldn’t resist but picked up a handmade rattan/bamboo chair. Touching the pencil marks on the bamboo chair arms reminded us how the chair was made by the chair maker, who had soaked, bend and tied the pieces together with his dexterous hands.

Chu Wing Kee is located at Possession Street, the spot where the British first landed on Hong Kong Island in 1841.
Like many traditional homeware and “shan for” stores, many merchandises at Chu Wing Kee are hung above the shopfront.
The chaotic shopfront of a traditional homeware store has become a rarity nowadays. The rattan drying plates remind visitors an old style of living, when people would sundry vegetables, spices or seafood at home.
Made in Hong Kong, the eye-catching plastic piggy banks were extremely popular in the 1980’s when banks and some big companies would give out these red piggies as gifts to customers. In fact, these piggies were byproducts from the era of blooming plastic and toy manufacturing industry in Hong Kong.
Today, the red piggies greet customers from the pedestrian curb.
We ended up buying a rattan / bamboo chair from Mr. Chu, perhaps out of admiration of a fading handicraft tradition and a nostalgic considerations.
Simple plastic balls have brightened up the childhood for kids growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Peeking into the shop, we could see a wide range of rattan containers or baskets hung from the ceiling.
Given the popularity of laundry machines and coin laundry shops, traditional wood washboard is quite hard to find these days.
Ceramic rice storage container is another rarity these days.
Ceramic pots were common for making Chinese soup and braised meat.
Vintage enamel basin can be a colourful addition to the minimalist decor of contemporary interiors.
Before the emergence of plastic piggy banks, ceramic piggy banks were popular gifts for kids.
Vintage thermal flasks and thermal containers were widely used at homes or for getting takeouts in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Handmade metal mailboxes are mostly associated with tenement apartments (唐樓). Now the old apartments are being torn down across the city rapidly, and many mailbox makers are in their twilight age, the mailboxes have become been revived as a local handicraft popular among designers and the young generation.
Referring to the red plastic piggy banks, the sign “not for sale, legendary merchandise” reveals its significance to the history of Hong Kong manufacturing industry and collective memories of a generation.
Before the emergence of fancy Japanese ceramics and the affordable ones made in China swamped the market, there were once locally made ceramic housewares in Hong Kong. The most iconic one was the “chicken bowl”, a bowl decorated with brush drawn chickens.
Rattan baskets and containers come in all sides and shapes.
Products made of natural materials are making a strong comeback in recent years.
Apart from practical homewares, we can also find vintage toys in Chu Wing Kee.

FAREWELL UNCLE TIM, Calligrapher of Cat Street (摩羅上街), Sheung Wan (上環), Hong Kong

It was a fine Saturday morning about two weeks before Chinese New Year 2021, the second Chinese New Year since we moved to the Ladder Street neighborhood. We walked down Ladder Street just like any weekday when we go to work. It wasn’t our working day but we walked down specifically looking for an elderly vendor called Yim Keng-tim (嚴鏡添), who had been writing fai chun (揮春) or decorative banners with Chinese lucky phases for decades. Fai chun is usually written in Chinese brush calligraphy, with either black or golden ink on red rice paper. In Sheung Wan, the intersection of Ladder Street and Lascar Row (摩羅上街), commonly known as Cat Street, is a popular spot for fai chun calligraphers to set up their booths around the time of Chinese New Year. Calligrapher Yim Keng-tim, nicknamed Uncle Tim (添叔), was a renowned figure in the Cat Street neighborhood, the largest antique street market in Hong Kong. Probably the earliest fai chun writer who set up his booth since around 1960, for over sixty years Uncle Yim had made a name for himself with his Chinese calligraphy, which other than fai chun, were also available for signage and banners for restaurants, shops and even offices of politicians. Apart from calligraphy, Uncle Tim also sold and repaired eyeglasses from his street stall at Circular Pathway (弓絃巷), a small street off Ladder Street that was once teemed with neighborhood lives decades ago. Since the street was dramatically cut short in the 1990’s by modern residential development, shops and stall vendors gradually disappeared. By the time we moved into the neighborhood, only a restaurant and two street stalls remained. Uncle Tim’s Tim Kee Eyeglasses (添記眼鏡) was one of them.

As we walked down the rather filthy steps covered with pigeon droppings to Circular Pathway from Ladder Street, we were hoping to find Uncle Tim at his eyeglasses stall and buy a few fai chun from him. It wasn’t our first time to check out his stall, but just like earlier, his stall was closed and the Circular Pathway dead quiet. Disappointed, we walked over to Cat Street. Most of the antique shops had yet opened their doors. We sat down outside Halfway Coffee, one of our favorite neighborhood coffee shops, for a morning coffee. The sun gradually moved up the sky, while shop vendors arrived at their antique shops one by one. We finished our coffee and decided to checked out Tim Kee Eyeglasses once again. At the junction of Cat and Ladder Street, we chatted with a friendly souvenir stall owner about Uncle Tim, who at the age of 96, would only come to his stall occasionally. Five minutes later, we finally saw Uncle Tim emerged from behind his stall. With his bent spine and grey hair, Uncle Tim looked a little older than the online videos and photographs in newspaper, magazines and blogs that we saw in the past few years. After greetings, we told him that we wanted to buy some fai chun from him. He was delighted to receive us as his first customers of the day, and asked us to write down the phases that we wanted him to write. We helped him to set up his folding table, while he went to his stall to search for red rice paper, paper knife, calligraphy brush, and gold enamel paint. He slowly cut the paper into square and rectangular pieces, stirred the paint thoroughly, and jumped right into calligraphy writing. While his calligraphy might not be as fine as his earlier works, we were touched and grateful to witness Uncle Tim at work doing his favorite Chinese calligraphy. Being persistently to maintain his eyeglasses stall, selling fai chun and promoting the art of Chinese calligraphy continuously for over sixty years was a remarkable effort. At the age of 96, climbing the steps of Ladder Street and Circular Pathway and set up his table all by himself were no easy tasks, and would probably scare off most people. We bought six fai chun from Uncle Tim in total, thanked him and happily took the pieces home.

After that day, we saw him a few more times in the following week or so, either quietly sitting in front of his stall, or up at Ladder Street waiting for potential customers. After Chinese New Year, we never saw him again. Whenever we passed by Circular Pathway going to work, we would always peek down to check out his stall from a distance, and wonder how the old calligrapher was doing. Until one day in early July, while walking down Ladder Street going to work we saw a bunch of paper and boxes piled up against his stall. Then the next day we walked down Circular Pathway to take a closer look. Beyond the pile of paper and boxes we saw a notice on his stall saying the recent death of Uncle Tim at the age of 97. After 60 years selling eyeglasses and calligraphy in the Cat Street neighborhood, Uncle Tim finally called it a day and rest peacefully ever after.

For 60 years, Uncle Tim had been promoting Chinese calligraphy to locals and tourists in the busy Cat Street neighborhood. In the last two decades, he had been interviewed by all sorts of newspapers, magazines and online media. Display of an old newspaper was clipped on the wire fence where he sometimes set up his temporary calligraphy station at the junction of Cat Street and Ladder Street.
Uncle Tim was a well known figure in the Ladder Street and Cat Street (Lascar Row) neighborhood. Once a vibrant second hand market many decades ago, Cat Street is now a sleepy tourist attraction and home to Hong Kong largest antique market.
We often visit Halfway Coffee at Cat Street for a morning sip.
Halfway Coffee makes use of the vintage ambience of Cat Street, merging traditional decorative arts with contemporary cafe culture.
We had a sip of morning coffee while waiting for Uncle Tim to show up at his stall.
Uncle Tim’s stall was located at Circular Pathway (弓絃巷), about 30 steps below the junction of Cat Street and Ladder Street.
Circular Pathway had seen better days, before the alleyway was cut short by a large residential development, disconnecting the historical lane from Gough Street (歌賦街) to the east.
When we saw Uncle Tim that morning, the first thing we did was to set up the table for him.
We asked Uncle Tim to write us five fai chun. Uncle Tim looked at the piece of red paper, and figured he should get a bigger piece of paper.
From his stall, he found a big piece of red paper for the work.
We wrote down the phases for him, while it took him a while to look for his rusty paper knife.
Uncle Tim used his paper knife to cut the paper into the right sizes.
Uncle Tim picked out a can of gold enamel paint, stirred it for a few minutes and started with writing the single character “fuk”, meaning “fortune”. The paint was really thick, but he managed to control his brush to start his calligraphy.
Moments later, Uncle Tim completed the first piece of fai chun.
We were delighted to see the 96-year old calligrapher focused on his work.
From interviews on magazines, newspapers and online videos, we can briefly piece together the story of Uncle Tim. According to an online interview, Uncle Tim was born in Hong Kong, and stayed several childhood years in Guangzhou with his uncle, who taught him Chinese calligraphy.
According to a newspaper interview, Uncle Tim loved to hike up The Peak from Central when he was young. Walking up and down the Ladder Street and Circular Pathway could be a challenge for any elderly person, but it didn’t stop the 96-year-old calligrapher.
In his stall, we saw some of his eyeglasses. In newspaper interviews, he mentioned that his eyeglasses business had become scarce in recent years.
The friendly souvenir stall owner told us that Uncle Tim’s calligraphy was not what it used to be due to his age. What we interested in was not the perfect calligraphy, but a chance to pay respect to the old calligrapher, witness him at work closely, and learn more about the man from our neighborhood.
His story was a 60-year effort of promoting Chinese calligraphy at Cat Street.

***

In early July, we learnt about the death of Uncle Tim from the notices at his stall.
Outside his stall, several pieces of calligraphy were pin up to remind people the memory of Uncle Tim.
The signage Tim Kee Eyeglasses has became remnants from a bygone era.
A business card of Uncle Tim stood out from the pile of paper and boxes. Probably someone was clearing out the stall after Uncle Tim passed away.

HONG KONG’S MODERNIST ARCHITECTURE: Not Old Enough For Conservation?

18th June 2021 was the deadline for developers to bid for the latest waterfront site in Central, between Jardine House and Central Ferry Pier.  With an estimated value at around USD 5 – 7.1 billion, the 47,970 sq.m site encompasses a piece of reclaimed land and the iconic General Post Office at Connaught Place.  Completed in 1976, the fourth generation postal headquarters has been a prominent fixture in the city’s evolving skyline for 45 years. Despite efforts from conservationists, the building would inevitably be replaced by another glassy skyscraper in the near future.  While few people see the modernist post office as an architectural masterpiece, many Hongkongers have expressed their resentment about the potential loss in the business district.  With its horizontal features, modular brise soleil, and concrete vaults, the General Post Office is a decent example of modernist architecture in Hong Kong, the design movement that first emerged in the West between the World Wars. Using modern construction methods and materials like steel, reinforced concrete and glass, Modernism rose to become the dominant architectural style after WWII.  In Hong Kong, the Modernist style in the city is often referred to as the “Bauhaus style”. 

Founded by German architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus was probably the most famous and avant-garde design and art school between the world wars (1919 – 1933). From art to graphic design, architecture to interiors, typography to industrial design, influences of the Bauhaus have been an omnipresence in our lives.  Commonly known as International Style, the minimalist and rationalist approach of the Bauhaus reflect the rapid modernization of the 20th century.  To envision Modernism, architectural masters like Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, or Mies van de Rohe might be looking for a novel design methodology and architectural tectonics that define the functionalism and aesthetics of the Modern Age.  By the time Modernism has arrived to Postwar Hong Kong, the style was quickly adopted due to pragmatic reasons such as construction speed, design modularity, minimal detailing, and versatile functionality.  Modernist apartment blocks, office towers, factories, schools, sport centres, parking garages, market complexes, and government buildings flourished across the city to cope with the population and economic boom, replacing earlier colonial structures and pre-war tenement buildings.

As Hong Kong further developed into one of Asia’s most prominent financial hubs in the 1980’s, the architectural world has already entered the age of Post-Modernism.  Some notable Modernist buildings such as Gropius’ Bauhaus in Dessau, Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa’s City of Brasilia, Le Corbusier’s various projects in Europe, Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, etc. have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, but many more Modernist buildings have become subjects of demolition and redevelopment.  Modernist architecture has yet been widely recognized as a precious heritage, nor have them been well loved by the public.  Many have already been torn down in Hong Kong in the past three decades.  In recent years, this attitude has finally come to a twist.  The potential demolition of buildings like the General Post Office have raised public awareness of the modern heritage.  This is a realization of what heritage and cultural legacy really are in the making of a diverse urban culture and defining the zeitgeist of an era.

Not all Modernist buildings are designated for demolition in Hong Kong. Some have been preserved and revitalized with new uses and appearances, such as the Murray Building (美利大廈) on Cotton Tree Road.  The 1969 government office tower was recently converted into a 5-star hotel by architect Norman Foster.  Such adaptive reuse of the Modernist building is a convincing way to preserve memories and manage urban changes while retaining the essence of the original architecture.

Modernist buildings once dotted around Hong Kong, from residential blocks, office towers to all kinds of public buildings. Mei Ho House (美荷樓), formerly part of Shek Kip Mei Estate, is the sole survivor of a “H” shape apartment building. Built in 1954, the Modernist building has been preserved and converted into a youth hostel and a small public housing museum in 2013. [Mei Ho House, Junction of Castle Peak Road and Tai Po Road, Sham Shui Po, 2021]
Completed in 1960, the existing Garden Centre (嘉頓中心) at Castle Peak Road in Sham Shui Po has gained approval for redevelopment. Designed by famous Chinese architect Chu Pin (朱彬), the Modernist building has all the reasons to be preserved as a modern heritage. Unfortunately, the building is likely to be gone soon. Chu Pin was one of the first generation of US educated Chinese architects. Obtained his master degree at University of Pennsylvania in 1923, Chu Pin moved to Hong Kong in 1949 and established himself as a successful Chinese architect in the city. His other works included the first generation of Man Yee Building (萬宜大廈), home to Hong Kong’s first escalators, and Takshing House (德成大廈), the demolished office tower where curtain walls where first used in Hong Kong 60+ years ago. [Garden Centre as seen from Garden Hill, Sham Shui Po, 2021]
News on the fate of former State Theatre (皇都戲院) in North Point captured the hearts of Hongkongers in the past few years. Built in 1959, the former cinema was one of the last surviving large scale theatre in Hong Kong. In 2020, developer New World Development agreed to preserve the building and revitalize it into a new cultural and heritage facility. [State Theatre, King’s Road, North Point, 2017]
In Central, Modernist style Public Bank Centre (大眾銀行中心) from 1977 and The Center (中環中心) from 1998 stand as representatives from two different eras. [Public Bank Building, Des Voeux Road Central, Central, 2020]
At the junction of Des Voeux Road Central and Pedder Street, the third generation General Post Office (erected 1911) was demolished in 1976. [Photo: Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection, Library of Congress, public domain, 1923]
The current General Post Office at Connaught Place is the fourth generation in Hong Kong. Built in 1976, it was once located adjacent to the former Star Ferry Pier and the old waterfront. [General Post Office, Connaught Place, Central, 2021]
Constructed on reclaimed land, the 5-storey building was designed by architect K. M. Tseng. [General Post Office, Connaught Place, Central, 2021]
Despite there is urge from conservationists and the public to preserve the modernist building, Antiquities Advisory Board refuses to list any structure constructed after 1970. The building is scheduled to be demolished after the land sale tender was closed in June 2021. [General Post Office, Connaught Place, Central, 2021]
The modernist General Post Office and its surrounding open space will certainly be missed. [Back side of General Post Office, Lung Wo Road, Central, 2021]
The mailing counters on the ground floor are some of the busiest in the city. [Interior of General Post Office, Connaught Place, Central, 2021]
Over 69,000 stamps from 98 countries were put together by the staff to create a large wall mural displayed at the entrance of the General Post Office. [Interior of General Post Office, Connaught Place, Central, 2021]
Next to the iconic General Post Office once stood the Star Ferry Pier. The pier was demolished in 2006 as part of the latest land reclamation project. The 1957 Modernist Star Ferry Pier Car Park (天星碼頭多層停車場) survived 2006, but is included in the demolition zone together with the post office as part of the land sale package. [Star Ferry Car Park, Edinburgh Place, Central, 2021]
Perhaps the most famous Modernist building in the city is Hong Kong City Hall (香港大會堂) at Edinburgh Place. Designed by Ron Phillips and Alan Fitch in the 1950’s, the 1962 completed City Hall is comprised of a low block, a concert hall, a theatre, a 12-storey high block and a memorial garden. The high block houses Hong Kong’s first public library, while the low block was the main venue of Hong Kong’s major festivals of art, film, and music from late 1950’s to 1980’s. The City Hall was considered the city’s first major cultural venue that welcomed everyone. [City Hall, Edinburgh Place, Central, 2021]
At the centre of the memorial garden, a 12-sided memorial shrine stands in memory of the soldiers who fought during WWII. An elevated walkway encloses the memorial garden. [City Hall, Edinburgh Place, Central, 2021]
From the elevated walkway, a spiral stair leads visitors back down to the ground level drop off area. Before 2008, the spiral and the drop off area stood directly opposite the now demolished Queen’s Pier. [City Hall, Edinburgh Place, Central, 2021]
The City Hall still contains a few remnants from the previous colonial times. [City Hall, Edinburgh Place, Central, 2021]
Unlike previous stone and decorative architecture, the Modernist City Hall promotes clean lines, large windows, simple geometry, etc. [City Hall, Edinburgh Place, Central, 2021]
In comparison to International Financial Centre (IFC), the Modernist City Hall stands to represent a totally different era. [City Hall, Edinburgh Place, Central, 2021]
While the City Hall flanks one side of Statue Square, the 21-storey Hong Kong Club building stands to the east side of the square. [The Cenotaph, Connaught Road Central, Central, 2021]
Designed by Australian architect Harry Seidler, the current building is the third generation of Hong Kong Club. [Hong Kong Club, Junction of Connaught Road Central and Jackson Road, Central, 2021]
Being demolished and replaced by a newer structure is an inevitable fate for most buildings in Hong Kong. Demolished in 1981, the second generation Hong Kong Club was replaced by architect Harry Seidler’s Modernist version. [Hong Kong Club, photo credit: Arnold Wright, public domain, 1908]
Built in 1953, the former Bridges Street Market was one of the first Modernist market buildings constructed after WWII, replacing old markets that were destroyed during the war. It contained 26 fish and poultry stalls on lower level and 33 butcher, vegetable and fruit stalls on the upper level. In 2018, the building was reopened as a news museum. [Former Bridges Street Market, Junction of Bridges Street and Shing Wong Street, Sheung Wan, 2020]
In 1969, the upper level of Bridges Street Market was converted into a children’s playground. [Former Street Market, Junction of Bridges Street and Shing Wong Street, Sheung Wan, 2016]
Horizontal shading fins are some of the typical features of a Modernist building. [Former Street Market, Junction of Bridges Street and Shing Wong Street, Sheung Wan, 2016]
Sai Ying Pun Jockey Club Polyclinic (西營盤賽馬會分科診所) was redeveloped from Government Civic Hospital, the first public hospital in Hong Kong operated since 1874. [Sai Ying Pun Polyclinic, Junction of Queen’s Road West and Sutherland Street, Sai Ying Pun, 2021]
Built in 1960, Sai Ying Pun Jockey Club Polyclinic is designed by the local architectural firm Leigh & Orange. [Sai Ying Pun Polyclinic, Junction of Queen’s Road West and Sutherland Street, Sai Ying Pun, 2021]
The concrete barrel vaults on the roof of the clinic is a recognizable feature on Queen’s Road West. [Sai Ying Pun Polyclinic, Junction of Queen’s Road West and Sutherland Street, Sai Ying Pun, 2021]
The 27-storey Murray Building (美利大廈) on Cotton Tree Road was a government office building completed in 1969. After the government moved out in 2012, the modernist building was revitalized into a 5-star hotel. [Murray Hotel, Cotton Tree Drive, Central, 2021]
Architect Norman Foster was hired for the adaptive reuse project. Decorative stainless steel were used as design features in the project, offering the 5-star hotel an elegant touch. Murray Hotel opened for business in 2018. [Murray Hotel, Cotton Tree Drive, Central, 2021]
The former car ramp connected to Cotton Tree Drive is now a popular spot for selfies. [Murray Hotel, Cotton Tree Drive, Central, 2021]
The windows were oriented to avoid glare and direct sunlight. [Murray Hotel, Cotton Tree Drive, Central, 2021]

BOUNDARY STONES OF VICTORIA CITY (維多利亞城界石), Hong Kong

In 2014, local film Dot 2 Dot (點對點) was screened in the Hong Kong International Film Festival. The film was often described as low key, low budget and slow paced love story to the city. Amos Wong’s film explores the history and identity of Hong Kong through the encounter of a graffiti artist and a Mandarin teacher. It begins with the Mandarin teacher, newly arrived from Mainland China, discovering mysterious graffiti composed of dots at every metro station in Hong Kong. She is able to decode the graffiti by connecting the dots into meaningful imagery related to the local history of the particular neighborhood. She then comes up with her own graffiti and engages the unknown graffiti artist in a battle of graffiti riddles. It turns out that the graffiti artist is actually one of her students, who himself is a professional designer returned to Hong Kong from Canada. The movie follows both characters to explore different neighborhoods, including the quest to check out the boundary stones of the former Victoria City (維多利亞城). At the end of the film, the teacher finally realizes the true identity of the graffiti artist after visiting the westernmost boundary stone in Kennedy Town (堅尼地城). The story ends with them enjoying the peaceful sunset together at Kennedy Town ‘s praya.

Considered the capital of the former British Colony, Victoria City at the northern shore of Hong Kong island was the city’s first urban settlement. Victoria City was defined by the four “wans” (四環) or districts: Sai Wan (西環), Sheung Wan (上環), Chung Wan (中環), and Ha Wan (下環) or present’s day Wanchai. In 1903, the government erected seven stones to mark the boundary of Victoria City. The city soon expanded beyond the boundary limits and the stones became obsolete. Measured 98cm in height, tapered at the top and marked with the inscription “City Boundary 1903”, these historical boundary stones are mostly forgotten, except for history buffs who occasionally check on these urban artifacts and share their photos on the Internet. Six out of seven boundary stones survive to the present day, except the one at Magazine Gap Road in the Mid-Levels that was negligently removed by retaining wall contractors in 2007. For the remaining six boundary stones, it is possible to visit them all in a 5-6 hour hike. The hike offers hikers an interesting opportunity to walk around the old city centre, from the waterfront of Kennedy Town, halfway up the Victoria Peak and down to the Happy Valley Racecourses to the east.

Victoria City in 1900, about the time when the boundary stones were erected. [Credit: G. William Des Voeux (1903), My Colonial Service, Vol 2., London: John Murray, public domain]
Six boundary stones of the former Victoria City (highlighted in orange above) remain more or less at their original locations. From west (left) to east (right), the six remaining stones are located at 1) Kennedy Town, 2) Pokfulam, 3) Hatton Road near the Peak, 4) Old Peak Road near the Peak, 5) Bowen Road near Happy Valley, and 6) Happy Valley. The stone at Magazine Gap Road (highlighted in blue above) was removed in 2007 likely by road and retaining wall contractors under the negligence of the authorities. South of Victoria Harbour, connecting all seven stones would more or less offer us the rough extent of the former Victoria City.
1) Boundary Stone at Kennedy Town (堅尼地城)
The westernmost stone is located in Kennedy Town, inside a ball court right by the sea. [Kennedy Town Football Pitch, Sai Ning Road, Kennedy Town, 2020]
1) Boundary Stone at Kennedy Town (堅尼地城)
Kennedy Town Football Pitch is a popular spot for local residents. Hardly anyone notices the 1903 boundary stone right adjacent to a rubbish bin. [Kennedy Town Football Pitch, Sai Ning Road, Kennedy Town, 2020]
1) Boundary Stone at Kennedy Town (堅尼地城)
It is sad to see one of the six boundary stones stands unnoticeably adjacent to a rubbish bin. [Kennedy Town Football Pitch, Sai Ning Road, Kennedy Town, 2020]
2) Boundary Stone at Pokfulam (薄扶林)
In the midst of student dormitories and college buildings of Hong Kong University on the slopes of Pokfulam (薄扶林) stands another boundary stone. [Near Junction of Pokfulam Road and Smithfield Road, Pokfulam, Southern District, 2020]
2) Boundary Stone at Pokfulam (薄扶林)
Half an hour walk from the boundary stone of Kennedy Town led us to the boundary stone in Pokfulam. [Near Junction of Pokfulam Road and Smithfield Road, Pokfulam, Southern District, 2020]
2) Boundary Stone at Pokfulam (薄扶林)
The Pokfulam boundary stone is located close to the entrance of a pedestrian underpass. [Near Junction of Pokfulam Road and Smithfield Road, Pokfulam, Southern District, 2020]
3) Boundary Stone at Hatton Road (克頓道) near Victoria Peak
As the entrance of Lung Fu Shan Morning Trail ascending up to the Victoria Peak, Hatton Road is popular for morning walkers. It is also home to one of the historical boundary stones. [Hatton Road near Kotewall Road, The Peak, 2020]
3) Boundary Stone at Hatton Road (克頓道) near Victoria Peak
The boundary stone at Hatton Road is the only boundary stone remained at its original location. The rest were somehow re-positioned throughout the years due to different constructions. [Hatton Road near Kotewall Road, The Peak, 2020]
3) Boundary Stone at Hatton Road (克頓道) near Victoria Peak
Hatton Road is one of the pedestrian paths that leads to Lugard Road and the Victoria Peak. [India Rubber Tree at Lugard Road, The Peak, 2020]
4) Boundary Stone at Old Peak Road (舊山頂道) near Victoria Peak
From the main square on the Peak, walking down Old Peak Road would bring us to the next boundary stone. Old Peak Road was once the only road connecting the Mid Levels to the Peak and the grand colonial mansions overlooking the city. Today, much of Old Peak Road has been pedestrianized. [Old Peak Road, The Peak, 2020]
4) Boundary Stone at Old Peak Road (舊山頂道) near Victoria Peak
From Old Peak Road, we could occasionally have glimpses of the city below. [Old Peak Road, The Peak, 2020]
4) Boundary Stone at Old Peak Road (舊山頂道) near Victoria Peak
Standing by the side of the steep road, the century old boundary stone silently greets every sweaty hiker. [Old Peak Road, The Peak, 2020]
4) Boundary Stone at Old Peak Road (舊山頂道) near Victoria Peak
The markings from 1903 are still clearly visible on the stone. [Old Peak Road, The Peak, 2020]
5) Boundary Stone at Bowen Road (寶雲道)
Not counting the lost boundary stone at Magazine Gap Road, the next one further east is at Bowan Road (寶雲道), another popular spot for runners and hikers. The relatively flat fitness trail on the eastern slope of the Peak offers visitors splendid views of Wanchai below. The 64-storey cylindrical Hopewell Centre near the lush green slope was the tallest building in Hong Kong from 1980 to 1989. Further out towards the waterfront, the 78-storey Central Plaza was the tallest building in Asia from 1992 to 1996. [Bowen Road Fitness Trail, Mid-Levels, 2020]
5) Boundary Stone at Bowen Road (寶雲道)
The boundary stone is located close to the east end of Bowan Road, where the horse racecourses in Happy Valley and the buildings of Causeway Bay appear within walking distance. [Bowen Road Fitness Trail, Mid-Levels, 2020]
5) Boundary Stone at Bowen Road (寶雲道)
The Bowen Road boundary stone stands comfortably by the side of the fitness trail. [Bowen Road Fitness Trail, Mid-Levels, 2020]
5) Boundary Stone at Bowen Road (寶雲道)
[Bowen Road Fitness Trail, Mid-Levels, 2020]
6) Boundary Stone at Happy Valley (跑馬地)
From the eastern end of Bowen Road Fitness Trail, Stubbs Road and Blue Pool Road leads the way down to Happy Valley Racecourses. Happy Valley Racecourse was established by the British in 1846. Since then, Happy Valley has become a synonym of horse racing in Hong Kong. [Bowen Road Fitness Trail, Mid-Levels, 2020]
6) Boundary Stone at Happy Valley (跑馬地)
Along Wong Nai Chung Road, all apartments contain large windows facing the racecourses of Happy Valley. The last boundary stone is located just outside the wall of the racecourses. [Wong Nai Chung Road (黃泥涌道), Happy Valley, 2020]
6) Boundary Stone at Happy Valley (跑馬地)
The Happy Valley boundary stone stands in a small parkette outside the racecourses. [Wong Nai Chung Road (黃泥涌道), Happy Valley, 2020]