ultramarinus – beyond the sea

ARCHITECTURAL GEM ON THE SEVEN TERRACES OF SAI WAN, Kennedy Town (堅尼地城), Hong Kong

In Kennedy Town, less than three hundred meters from Smithfield Municipal Market and Forbes Street Playground (site of the former slaughterhouses), a sleepy neighbourhood has been tucked away on a quiet hill slope for a hundred years. A staircase on Sands Street is all it takes to separate the two worlds, one bustling and the other tranquil. Once consisted of seven terraces built on the slope between Hong Kong University above and Belcher’s Street below, the secluded neighbourhood is commonly known as the Seven Terraces of Sai Wan (西環七臺). Also called Western District, “Sai Wan” is the general name for the area encompassing Kennedy Town (堅尼地城), Shek Tong Tsui (石塘咀) and Sai Ying Pun (西營盤). The seven terraces can be traced back to Li Sing (李陞), the richest Chinese merchant in 19th century Hong Kong. One of his sons Li Po Lung (李寶龍) inherited the sloped land when his father died in 1900. Li Po Lung decided to develop the land into residential terraces and an amusement park. He named the terraces and amusement park with references to his favorite ancient Chinese poet Li Bai (李白). Chinese pavilions, outdoor stages, dance floors, merry-go-round, playgrounds, and even an artificial pond for rowing boats, coupled with street performances, handicraft fair, small fireworks, chess competitions, etc. made Tai Pak Lau (太白樓), Li’s amusement park, into a trendy destination from 1915 and on. It was especially popular with wealthy men and prostitutes coming from the nearby Shek Tong Tsui (石塘咀), the city’s most famous red light and entertainment district in early 20th century. Just like many places in Hong Kong, Tai Pak Lau was rather short-lived, lasting for merely nine years before closing down due to financial difficulties of Li Po Lung. The park was then converted into today’s Tai Pak Terrace (太白臺) residential street. Despite the bankruptcy of Li Po Lung in 1924, the seven terraces, especially the topmost terraces such as Academic Terrace (學士臺), To Li Terrace (桃李臺) and Ching Lin Terrace (青蓮臺), continued to thrive as an upscale residential neighbourhood for wealthy Chinese.

If Tai Pak Lau was an ephemeral dream of a wealthy man, the historical Lo Pan Temple (魯班先師廟) on Ching Lin Terrace (青蓮臺) has proven to be a much more resilient establishment. Listed as a Grade 1 historical building, Lo Pan Temple was erected in 1884 by the Contractor Guild, way before Li Po Lung laid hands on the area. The temple construction was supported by 1172 donors, mostly contractors and builders from all over Guangdong (Canton) and Hong Kong. The temple is the city’s only religious establishment solely dedicated to Lo Pan, the patron saint for all Chinese contractors and builders. Lo Pan (魯班) or Lu Ban in Mandarin, was a renowned structural engineer, inventor, carpenter, builder and craftsman in the Spring and Autumn Period in China. During his lifetime, (507 – 444 BC), Lo Pan was responsible for inventing a variety of tools from the saw and prototype of a kite, to military tools and seige ladder used in warfare. Lo Pan was considered to be the master of all craftsmen in the Chinese culture, and has become a deity and patron saint for all contractors.

Maintained by a very old temple keeper “Uncle Fun” (芬叔) in his late 90s, Lo Pan Temple (魯班先師廟) is a remnant from a distinct past, a time when traditional values in the three general construction trades (三行), namely carpentry, cement work, and paint work, were strong. In the old days, paying respect to Lo Pan was a common routine to start the day for all contractors. They would celebrate Lo Pan’s birthday, on the 23rd of June in the Lunar Calendar, with heart beating drums and dragon dances, and share a big pot of “Lo Pan meal” (魯班飯). It was the contractors’ respect to the Lo Pan heritage that has sustained the temple to the present day. Even “Uncle Fun” is serving his temple keeping responsibility out of appreciation for his former patron saint, after a 60-year career in the paint trade until retirement at 80. Working together with architectural conservationist and master carpenter Wong Hung Keung (王鴻強), Uncle “Fun” was also involved in the temple’s major renovation in 2007, repairing structural damages and restoring some of the magnificent wall paintings, stone carvings, and clay sculptures that make Lo Pan Temple one of the most precious architectural gem in Hong Kong.

In this photo, the Seven Terraces of Sai Wan would be constructed somewhere on the slope at the right hand side behind the slaughterhouses, about three decades after this photo was taken. [City Of Victoria Hong Kong. Slaughter Houses & Pig & Sheep Depôts, 1894. National Archives UK Catalogue Ref: Part of CO 1069/446, Colonial Office Photographic Collection.]
The stair at the end of Sand Street is the main access to the seven terraces from Kennedy Town. [2020]
The locals’ touch to enhance the pedestrian experience expresses a sense of belonging of a close-knitted community. [Sands Street staircase, 2022]
Tai Pak Terrace, site of the former amusement park, maintains its simplicity and tranquility despite the rapid changes of adjacent streets in the past decade. [2022]
The retaining wall of Tai Pak Terrace is itself a piece of historical relic. [2020]
Further up Sands Street would bring us to Ching Lin Terrace, where Lo Pan Temple is located. [2020]
Lo Pan Temple and Ching Lin Terrace can also be reached via the stepped Li Po Lung Path. [2022]
Even the old style street sign of Ching Lin Terrace has become a rarity nowadays. [2022]
Further uphill, Ching Lin Terrace does feel a little farther away from the bustling activities of Kennedy Town. [2020]
Tuck away at the end of Ching Lin Terrace is the small but precious Lo Pan Temple. [2022]
With 26 wall paintings, Lo Pan Temple is home to the largest collection of traditional murals on Hong Kong Island. [2022]
From wall murals, wood carvings to clay sculptures, every detail of Lo Pan Temple is worth every penny and effort to preserve. [2022]
The exquisitely decorated ridge on the roof is centred with the treasure ball. [2022]
Given the fading practice of traditions among the younger generation, the temple is seeing less and less worshipers each year. [2022]
Given the pace of urban transformations in Hong Kong, every precious temple details being preserved is a small victory on its own. The edge of the roof is decorated with the sun and moon deities, with the left side being the Goddess of Moon Chang Er (嫦娥). [2022]
The last major renovation of Lo Pan Temple happened in 2007. [2022]
With great volunteer efforts by architectural conservationist Wong Hung Keung (王鴻強) and temple keeper Uncle Fun, the 2007 renovation successfully restore a number of damages of the old structure. Avoid using contemporary materials as replacement is an essential principle for heritage conservation. Wong went as far as burning his own bricks and making his own grey mortar to match the original ones used in the 19th century. [2020]
The characters “craft lasting ten thousand generations” (巧傳萬世) is written with 99.9% real gold leaf on an wooden plaque. [2022]
Due to the dark interior, many visitors may not realize the upper murals near the ceiling. [2022]
The richly detailed clay sculpture is not common in buildings on Hong Kong Island, making the Lo Pan Temple highly precious. [2022]
Other than clay sculpture, the temple also has beautiful wood carvings. [2022]
The bell in the temple is dated to the 14th year of Emperor Guangxu (光緒), 1888. [2022]
The delicate altar is another piece of precious gem. [2020]
From To Li Terrace (桃李臺), one terrace above Ching Lin Terrace, the temple roof can be conveniently appreciated. The jagged rood and elaborated parapet walls are another unique features of the historical building. [2020]
The back ridge on the roof is also decorated with beautiful sculpture, including two dragons fighting for a treasure ball. [2022]

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