ultramarinus – beyond the sea

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MARKET BY THE NULLAH, Wanchai (灣仔), Hong Kong

North of Queen’s Road East (皇后大道東), Stone Nullah Lane (石水渠街) continues to head north until it hits Johnston Road (莊士敦道), one of the main road in Wan Chai where the tram passes back and forth. This section of Stone Nullah Lane forms the main north-south artery of the outdoor market network that extends to Cross Street (交加街) and Tai Yuen Street (太原街) to the west, and to Wanchai Road (灣仔道) and the historical Streamline Moderne Wan Chai Market Block to the east. In 1990’s, a section of Stone Nullah Lane was erased from the map of Wan Chai in 1990’s. Part of where the outdoor market of Stone Nullah Lane once stood has been roofed over and transformed into an indoor market, above which erected the Zenith (尚翹峰), three 40+ storey residential towers that signified the arrival of a new Wan Chai, an affluent neighbourhood catered for expats and young professionals. Soon after, the 1930’s Streamline Moderne historical market was also taken back by the government and became another real estate development known as One Wanchai. Despite the dramatic changes to the area and occasional threats from the government’s Urban Renewal Authority (URA) and real estate developers, the outdoor market at Tai Yuen Street and Cross Street somehow manage to survive, while the wet market of Wanchai Road continues to go strong. Years have passed. This 90 year old market network has become a unique feature of Wan Chai, attracting both tourists and the local community to enjoy a part of the old Wan Chai.

A decade or so ago, a community interest group did a survey of the outdoor market of Tai Yuen Street and Cross Street. Back then, they found that the average age of the market stalls was 35 years old: 1 stall even has a 70 year old history, 2 with 60 years, 9 with 50 years, 7 with 40 years, 10 with 30 years, 9 with 20 years. It is obvious that many stall owners have been in business for over a generation after the war. These stores and their owners are essentially living memories of the community. When Tai Yuen Street is mentioned, many Hongkongers would immediately associate with toy stores. Still regarded as the official street of toy stores on Hong Kong Island, the remaining toy merchants at Tai Yuen Street remind visitors of the 1970’s and 1980’s, when Hong Kong was the largest toy manufacturer and exporter in the world. Instead of toys, we often come to the wet market at Wan Chai Road and Cross Street for local produces, chicken from New Territories, shellfishes, hand sliced beef, and dried herbs for Chinese soup. We love the vibrancy and diversity of Wan Chai Market, as well as its convenient location from Downtown Hong Kong.

Marked the intersection of Queen’s Road East and Wan Chai Road, the historical Streamline Moderne Old Wan Chai Market building stands soullessly as the entrance of a luxury residential apartment. [2022]
The 1959 Wanchai House (灣仔大樓) stands as a eyecatching backdrop to wet market of Wan Chai Road. [2022]
View of the 78 storey Central Plaza (中環廣場) reminds visitors that the business district is never far away from the outdoor market. [2022]
Beyond the tranquil Stone Nullah Lane at the Blue House and Pak Tai Temple, the northern section of Stone Nullah Lane extends right from the heart of a bustling wet market. [2022]
Walking down the northern section of Stone Nullah Lane feels like going back to the Hong Kong in my childhood. [2022]
Residential blocks of the redeveloped Lee Tung Avenue tower over the skyline from the outdoor market of Cross Street. [2022]
From produces to spices, or clothing to toys, we can find most of what we need in our daily needs at Cross Street. [2022]
Some old vendors still offer traditional items like salted fish, despite demand has been greatly diminished in recent years. [2022]
Despite being the district with the second highest income in Hong Kong, the outdoor market of Cross Street reflects street scenes of Wan Chai’s humble past. [2022]
The outdoor market in Wan Chai appears like a miniature version of its counterparts in Kowloon. [2022]
Adequate lighting allow customers to choose the products after sunset. [2022]
From traditional sauces, Canton noodles to Indonesian snacks, shops at the market have evolved according to the gradual change of demography and culture. [2022]
At the intesection of Cross Street and Tai Yuen Street, a down to earth eatery is a popular venue for the community, especially during breakfast time. [2022]
There are also shops that keep on changing their merchandises according to the time of year. [2022]
Tai Yuen Street was once the official “Toy Street” on Hong Kong Island. [2022]
Many toy shops at Tai Yuen Street are remnants from the era when tiny Hong Kong was the biggest toy manufacturer in the world. [2022]
Hong Kong is still home to many toy manufacturing company headquarters, just that their factories have been relocated elsewhere in the past three decades. [2022]
Neighbourhood shops offer another option for customers other than the chains in shopping malls and department stores. [2022]
In old Hong Kong, pawn shops represented an integral part of the market street. Some still survive to the present day. [2022]
From Johnston Road, the lights and crowd in Triangle Street reveal the vibrant market scene of Wan Chai Road within. [2022]
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The intersection of Wan Chai Road and Johnston marks the entrance of the wet market from the business district to the north. [2022]
From Johnston Road, the business centre of Wan Chai and shopping district of Causeway Bay are just a stone throw away. [2022]

TEMPLE BY THE NULLAH, Pak Tai Temple (灣仔北帝廟), Wan Chai, Hong Kong

For a city with 1,113 sq.km of land, Hong Kong has an astonishing 1,178km (some say 733km depending if all 261 outer islands are counted) of coastline. From a fishing village to a global trading port, Hong Kong’s relationship with the sea is the most essential character for the city. Before the arrival of the British, the city was no more than a scattered collection of fishing communities across the territory. Where there were fishing villages there would also be shrines dedicated to guardian deities of the sea. Many of these communities were made up with diasporas from different regions of China, where each has their unique customs and guardian deity, thus bringing a wide range of temples to the city. Popular sea deity in Hong Kong includes Tin hau (天后), a Fujianese sea goddess also named Mazu in Taiwan and Southeast Asia; Hung Shing (洪聖), god of the southern seas originated from a Guangdong official in the Tang Dynasty; Pak Tai (北帝), a Taoist cosmological god from Northern China; Tam Kung (譚公), a sea god common in Huizhou of Guangdong; Lung Mo (龍母), another sea goddess from Southern China known as the Dragon Mother, etc.


In Wan Chi, 500m from the Hung Shing Temple (洪聖古廟), Pak Tai Temple(灣仔北帝廟) stands as a much bigger temple complex hidden under the shadows of an imposing old Banyan tree in a public park at the upper end of Stone Nullah Lane. Hidden at the tranquil end of the Stone Nullah neighbourhood, visiting the temple feels like entering a distinct world from the commercial district of Wan Chai, despite the iconic 78 storey Central Plaza and the waterfront skyline are just 800m to the north. Built in 1863, Pak Tai Temple is the largest temple complex on Hong Kong Island, and home to a 400 year old bronze statue and a 160 year old antique bell. Also called Yuk Hui Kong (玉虛宮), Pak Tai Temple is mainly dedicated to Pak Tai (北帝), a Taoist god from Northern China that is also called Xuanwu (玄武) or Xuantian Shangdi (玄天上帝). Pak Tai is a powerful god related to the Northern Star and one of the 28 constellations of the north, controlling the power of water in the five elements, and thus he is also considered as a sea god. Apart from Pak Tai, the temple also serves as an one stop worshipping hall for a number of traditional Chinese deities, such as Ji Gong (濟公), Eight Immortals (八仙), Guan Yu (關公), Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音), City God Shing Wong (城隍), God of Wealth Choi Sen (財神), constellation deities Tai Sui (太歲), Dragon Mother Lung Mo (龍母), etc. Perhaps of its central location, Pak Tai Temple continues to attract worshippers from across the city even in the 21st century. It is definitely one of the busiest temples we have visited in Hong Kong.

Pak Tai Temple is also called Yuk Hui Kong (玉虛宮). [2022]
Adjacent to the main hall stands Hall of Three Treasures (三寶殿), a Buddhist worshipping hall for more quiet prayers. [2022]
A pleasant forecourt links up all the worshipping halls. [2022]
Outside the main hall, two large lanterns are hung from the eaves to mark the entrance elegantly. [2022]
Exquisite decorative woodwork can be appreciated without entering the hall. [2022]
Elegant decorations of the timber beams. [2022]
Lung Sai Bowl (龍洗盆), a copper bowl with two handles which allows user to rub in quick motion until the reverberated vibrations to trigger fierce rhythm of dancing water, is commonly found at entrance of a Chinese temple. [2022]
Through the main gate, the first worship hall with a prominent statue of Pak Tai can be reached. [2022]
Casted in 1603 (萬曆三十一年), the 3m bronze statue of Pak Tai is the oldest artefact in the temple. It was originally housed in a temple in Guangdong, China. A wealthy businessman bought the statue during the civil war years and housed it in his Kowloon villa. After his villa was demolished by the Japanese to make way for the airport expansion, the statue was eventually relocated to the temple in Wan Chai. 2022]
Apart from the bronze statue, the decorations in the temple ate equally splendid. [2022]
A stone plaque with names of early donors quietly sits at a side wall in the temple. [2022]
A traditional drum is often used during rituals that communicate with the gods. [2022]
Before the drum, a bronze bell dated to 1863 is also a tool for rituals. [2022]
The main altar sits by another statue of Pak Tai, flanked both sides by his four generals. [2022]
Apart from calligraphy, the ceiling temple is decorated with rows of lanterns donated by worshippers. [2022]
Pak Tai Temple is one of the busiest temples we have been to in Hong Kong. [2022]
Each of the four generals has his unique outfit, weapon and facial expression. [2022]
The serious expression of the four generals help to create a solemn ambience for the main hall. [2022]
Statues of the four generals are beautifully decorated. [2022]
The detail touches on the statues are not easy to find nowadays in Hong Kong. [2022]

BLUE HOUSE BY THE NULLAH, Wan Chai (灣仔), Hong Kong

From Victoria Peak, a stream flowed down to Kennedy Road and then found its way down a stone nullah into Victoria Harbour next to the imposing Naval Hospital (today’s Ruttonjee Hospital). Despite the water’s occasional foul smell, the community regularly came to the nullah for laundry. In 1959, the nullah was covered and turned into Stone Nullah Lane (石水渠街). Today, apart from some car mechanics and restaurants, Stone Nullah Lane is best known as one of the oldest neighborhoods in Wan Chai, and its tourist attractions: Pak Tai Temple (灣仔北帝廟) and Blue House (藍屋). Among all the historical buildings in Wan Chai, Blue House is probably one of the most well known, partly due to its importance as one of the city’s last remaining prewar tenement buildings (tong lau) with balconies, and partly due to its vivid blue colour. Passing by the intersection of Queen’s Road East and Stone Nullah Lane, it is almost impossible to miss the Blue House complex and its colourful neighbours. To many’s surprise, the Blue house complex was not always blue. In 1990’s, two decades after the building was acquired by the government, blue paint was used to dress up the structure simply because there was blue paint available from the Water Department.

Long before the complex was painted blue, the Blue House was already a well known destination in the neighborhood for its healthcare and educational roles in the community. Long before the complex was even erected, the site was home to Wah Tuo Hospital (華佗醫院), a clinic serving the local community. After the clinic was merged into a larger facility in Sheung Wan, the clinic was converted into a small temple dedicated to Wah Tuo (華陀), the legendary Chinese physician in the 2nd century AD. In 1920, a tenement block with exquisite balconies were erected at 72, 72A, 74 and 74A Stone Nullah Lane, which later became the Blue House that we know today. In 1950’s, descendant of a student of the famous Chinese martial artist and physician Wong Fei-hung (黃飛鴻) opened a martial arts school and dit da (跌打) or Chinese bone-setting clinic at the Blue House. Apart from healthcare, the Blue House also housed a charity school (鏡涵義學) and Wan Chai’s only prewar English school (一中書院), a grocery shop, wine shop, union of the seafood trade, and residential units. Over half a century from its completion, in 1978 the complex was acquired by the government. After the complex was listed as heritage building in 2000, the project “Viva Blue House” was put forward by St Jame’s Settlement (聖雅各福群會), the NGO serving the Stone Nullah Lane community since 1949. Began in 2006, “Viva Blue House” aims to revitalize the complex and the adjacent Yellow House and Orange House into a tourist attraction/ apartment compound. As part of the project, a visitor centre called Hong Kong House of Stories (香港故事館) was established at the Blue House, telling neighborhood stories to outsiders through workshops, exhibitions, tours, and talks, as well as organizing community events such as communal dinners and film screening.

The open stone nullah at Stone Nullah Lane was a community laundry spot a century ago. [Photo: 1910’s, public domain]
The splendid Pak Tai Temple (灣仔北帝廟) and Stone Nullah Stone Garden (石水渠街公園) mark the end of Stone Nullah Lane. [2022]
An old street sign of Stone Nullah Lane was preserved at the temple wall. [2022]
Apart from the renovated Blue House and Yellow House, only a few original old tenement buildings remain in the neighborhood of Stone Nullah Lane. [2022]
From Queen’s Road East, Stone Nullah Lane can be easily recognized by its colourful tenement blocks. [2022]
Among all the colourful buildings, the most famous block is undoubtedly the Blue House. It remains as one of the last surviving prewar tenement building or tong lau equipped with balconies. [2022]
Vivid colour has become a symbol of the Blue House neighborhood. [2022]
With workshops, small exhibitions, talks, community events, vegetarian restaurant, and organic shop, the Blue House is a popular destination during weekends. [2020]
The unintended blue paint has become an iconic character for the Blue House. [2020]
Once a year, tour of a selected flat is available during the open house event. [2022]
The ground floor of no. 72 was the former location of Wah Tuo Temple and martial art school of Lam Jo (林祖). Lam was the nephew of Lam Sai Wing (林世榮), the student of legendary martial artist and physician Wong Fei-hung (黃飛鴻). [2022]
After a thorough renovation, the Viva Blue House revitalization project continues to organize events for the community and outside visitors. [2022]
The Blue House has become an official hub of the Stone Nullah Lane community. A blackboard at the courtyard outlines the list of events for the week, from community dinner, workshops, recycling collection, to public interpretative tours. [2020]
Occupied the ground floor of no. 74, Hong Kong House of Stories (香港故事館) serves as a small visitor centre at the Blue House. [2022]
A Christmas tree made with recycled plastic bottle caps was on display at the Blue House courtyard in 2021. [2022]
We have been to the lovely Local Ginger Veggie Bistro (本地薑) at the Blue House courtyard a few times. The restaurant actually occupies the ground floor of the adjacent building, the Orange Building (橙屋) at King Sing Street (景星街). [2020]
Local Ginger Veggie Bistro (本地薑) uses local produces and ingredients for their vegetarian dishes. [2020]
Built in 1957, the Orange House (橙屋) almost got demolished in 2006. In 2007, the government decided to preserve Orange House as part of the Blue House revitalization project. [2022]
1927 saw the completion of the beautiful Yellow House (黃屋) right next to the Blue House at Hing Wan Street (慶雲街). [2022]
After the revitalization of Blue House, the Stone Nullah Lane neighborhood has welcomed a new wave of artistic and youthful culture. [2022]
Across the street from Yellow House, Tai Lung Fung (大龍鳳) has become a cool venue in the neighborhood for drinks and local snacks. [2022]
Apart from Lockhart Road and the redeveloped Lee Tung Avenue and Starstreet Precinct, the Blue House neighborhood is an off the beaten destination to chill out after work. [2022]

SUN, MOON & STAR, Wanchai (灣仔), Hong Kong

6pm, December 1st 1890. On a hill close to Wan Chai historical waterfront, two British steam turbines began to generate power in Hong Kong’s first power plant, lighting up a group of electric street lamps in Central. Back then, no one could imagine that the small group of street lamps would one day turned into a world famous night view. As the demand for electricity surged, the power plant was relocated to a bigger facility in North Point, then a bigger one in Ap Lei Chau, and lastly to the current one on Lamma Island. On the slope where the city’s first power plant once stood, a bronze plaque in a shaded parkette is all that is left. In the past, electricity meant light, and light meant the sun, moon and stars. Centred around the parkette, three tiny streets, namely Sun Street (日街), Moon Street (月街) and Star Street (星街), and a network of small streets and alleys form what we now call the Starstreet Precinct (星街小區). Cosy cafes, lovely restaurants, galleries, boutiques, and design shops draw visitors every weekend and Friday night to explore the precinct. Tucked away on a slope with less than 100m from the busy Queen’s Road East and just a stone throw away from the financial district, the pedestrian friendly Starstreet Precinct is the best kept secret of Wan Chai, offering a relaxing and otherworldly ambience that some have described as “European”. What does it mean by “European” is subject for debate, the tranquil neighborhood nonetheless serves well as an urban oasis. In 1988, Swire Properties, the owner of the adjacent Pacific Place, began to purchase properties in the precinct and gradually revitalize the area into a vibrant and multicultural quarter. Their effort apparently paid off. Among with Melbourne’s Smith Street, London’s South Bank, Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard, and Tokyo’s Cat Street, Wan Chai’s Starstreet Precinct was named one of 30 coolest streets in the world by Timeout in 2021.

Today, a bronze plaque in a parkette is all that is left for Hong Kong’s first power plant. [Photo: Kwong Ming Street Children’s Playground, 2022]
Through Sik On Street (適安街) from Queen’s Road East, one can enter a network of hidden alleys on the slope of Victoria Peak. [Photo: Sik On Street and Queen’s Road East, 2020]
The stepped Sik On Street leads up to the network of hidden alleys away from the busy commercial roads of Wan Chai. [Photo:Sik On Street, 2020]
Some of the tenement buildings at Sik On Street have been renovated for rental. [Photo: Sik On Street, 2022]
A turn at Sik On Street leads to another alley called Sau Wa Fong (秀華坊), where the unique character of Starstreet Precinct begins to appear, with small cafes and shops occupying the ground floor of low rise residential buildings. [Photo: Sau Wa Fong, 2022]
Offering all sort of pottery and household items designed by local and Japanese artists, Co Ninety is one of main draw of Sau Wa Fong. [Photo: Sau Wa Fong, 2022]
Famed barber shop Hair House by Adam Chan also chooses Sau Wa Fong as its home. [Photo: Sau Wa Fong, 2022]
Ethos, Jouer and Bogu are some of the cafes and cake shops frequented by the younger generation at Sau Wa Fong. [Photo: Sau Wa Fong, 2022]
The sleepy Sau Wa Fong terminates at St Francis Street (聖佛蘭士街), a sloped street with sleek restaurants and boutique where the Starstreet Precinct officially begins. [Photo: St Francis Street, 2022]
Having its flagship store at St Francis Street, local trainer brand Lane Eight is getting its name known in both Hong Kong and the US in recent years. [Photo: St Francis Street, 2022]
Turning into the deadend of St Francis Yard (進教圍), tailor shop Sarto Lab focuses on making Italian style suit jackets. [Photo: St Francis Yard, 2020]
Founded by Frenchman Arnault Castel in 2006, Kapok is one of the most popular new boutiques in Hong Kong selling a wide range of causal European and Japanese fashion. [Photo: St Francis Yard, 2022]
With a 60+ years of history, Tak Yu Hong Kong Style Cafe (德如茶餐廳) is selected by CNN as one of the four best Hong Kong milk tea in the city. [Photo: St Francis Yard, 2020]
Hong Kong is one of the base offices of Monocle Magazine around the world. A Monocle Shop gives a global ambience to the Starstreet Precinct. [Photo: St Francis Yard, 2020]
The pedestrian friendly Sun Street (日街) is home to a range of boutiques, including White Do (白做研究所). First opened in Tainan, White Do sells a range of Japanese and Finnish knitwear, items and works from local and Japanese designers. [Photo: Sun Street, 2022]
White Do also sells the leather products by Cappello & Martello, a Sicilian leather workshop based in Hong Kong. [Photo: Sun Street, 2020]
A Personal Tailor (APT) has been a popular cafe in the Starstreet Precinct in the last two years. [Photo: Moon Street, 2020]
Occupying an old tenement building, Greek Taverna Artemis Apollo offers a taste of the Mediterranean to visitors of the Starstreet Precinct. [Photo: Moon Street, 2020]
Pici is a casual pasta bar with semi outdoor seating at St Francis Yard. [Photo: St Francis Yard, 2020]
California coffee roaster Blue Bottle has been a popular player of third wave coffee shops since its introduction into Hong Kong. [Photo: St Francis Yard, 2022]

STORY OF WAN CHAI (灣仔) IN 13 BUILDINGS, Hong Kong

East of Central and Admiralty lies another old neighborhood of Hong Kong Island – Wan Chai (灣仔). Throughout the past two centuries, Wan Chai has developed from a fishing community around a shrine called Hung Shing Temple (洪聖古廟) to a prominent extension of the city’s central business district where commercial buildings race to the sky. Yet, in the shadows of skyscrapers, Wan Chai is a highly walkable neighborhood dotted with small alleys and interesting buildings from different eras. From modern skyscrapers near the Harbour to the hundred-year-old temples at the foothill of Victoria Peak, and all the renovated tenement buildings in between, half an hour walk in the area offers quite a variety of urban scenery. If buildings can tell stories, visiting a handful of buildings in the neighborhood would reveal a general overview of how Wan Chai has evolved and continued reinventing itself. Apart from Fenwick Pier, the arrival point of foreign sailors that gave us the world of Suzie Wong and the exotic Wan Chai where the neon signs and bar music once ruled, there is actually a whole lot more buildings telling a completely different story. Along with the city’s changing fortunes, this story of Wan Chai has never ceased to evolve, shifting from founding a residential community, to developing a business centre, and to reinventing itself from its historical past.

1847: Hung Shing Temple (洪聖古廟)

Probably erected in 1847, Wan Chai’s Hung Shing Temple is one of 42 temples in Hong Kong dedicated to Hung Shing, the God of Southern Seas. Believed to protect people from natural disasters, Hung Shing was widely worshiped by fishing communities in Southern China. Situated 800m away from the harbourfront, Hung Shing Temple was once standing right by the shore before series of land reclamation that completely transformed Wan Chai in the next 170 years. The area around Hung Shing Temple was home to the earliest settlements in Wan Chai, a fishing community predated the arrival of the British. 170 years ago, the temple was probably the most prominent structure in Wan Chai. Now, it is dwarfed by highrise concrete buildings in all directions.

Today, Hung Shing Temple is dwarfed by the surrounding concrete buildings along Queen’s Road East. [Photo taken from Queen’s Road East, 2020]
Hung Shing Temple was home to the original seaside shrine erected on a piles of boulders. [2020]
Despite Wan Chai is no longer a fishing community, Hung Shing Temple is still popular among local worshipers. [2020]

1915: Old Wan Chai Post Office (舊灣仔郵政局)

From 1860’s on, Wan Chai was predominately occupied by Chinese residents, and soon became one of the most populated areas in the city. Less than 300m down Queen’s Road East from Hung Shing Temple stands one of the earliest surviving post office buildings in Hong Kong. Opened in 1915, the post office served the community of Wan Chai for 77 years. The small post office had witnessed Wan Chai’s dramatic transformations throughout much of the 20th century. With Chinese tiled roof and Western moulding, arched windows and gable ends, the building reflects a fusion architectural approach that was not uncommon in the colonial days.

Being the oldest surviving post office building in Hong Kong, the Old Wan Chai Post Office is a declared monument of Hong Kong. [Photo taken from Queen’s Road East, 2020]
In response to the pandemic, the environmental conservation interpretation centre at the Old Wan Chai Post Office is currently closed to public and windows got screened off. [Photo taken from Queen’s Road East, 2022]

1929: Southorn Playground (修頓遊樂場)

Leaving an urban void like Central Park of New York City is a common strategy in many cities around the world. While Southorn Playground is not exactly a building, it has however played an essential role in the urban context of Wan Chai for many generations. After reclaiming land from Victoria Harbour (Praya East Reclamation Scheme in 1920’s), Colonial Secretary Thomas Southorn suggested preserving the land between Johnson Road and Hennessy Road for use of children recreation. The layout and uses of the playground have changed several times throughout history. The last time of major transformation for Southorn Playground occurred in 1980’s, when the Island Line of the MTR metro passed beneath Wan Chai. Part of the playground was demolished to make way for Wan Chai MTR Station, along with the erection of Southorn Stadium, Southorn Centre and Southorn Garden (residential tower) above the station. Today, Southorn Playground remains as the main recreational venue and social gathering place for Wan Chai residents, providing a football pitch, four basketball courts and a children’s playground.

In the old days, Southorn Playground would usually be occupied by different ball games from day to night. At night, the seating would be filled by cheering spectators, who were mostly residents from the neighbourhood. Today, all social and sporting activities have temporary suspended. The playground is currently a designated Covid testing station. [2022]

1937: Old Wanchai Market (灣仔街市)

From 1937 to 2007, Wan Chai Market was at the heart of the Wan Chai community. Constructed in Streamline Moderne style, the market was at the forefront of design trends of 1930’s. During Japanese occupation between 1941 to 1945, basement of the market building was used as a makeshift mortuary for corpses. In 2009, half of the building was demolished to make way for a 35-storey residential development. The front half of the old market were preserved and converted into a retail facility below the new residential tower.

Today, part of the old Wan Chai Market has become the podium of a highrise residence, one of the many joint venture projects that involve the Urban Renewal Authority and a private developer. [Photo taken from Queen’s Road East, 2022]
The curvy and elaborated shadings dominate the facades of the old Wan Chai Market. [Photo taken from Queen’s Road East, 2022]

1980: Hopewell Centre (合和中心)

1980’s was often regarded as the golden age of Hong Kong. The decade also saw the rise of Wan Chai as a commercial district between the Cross Harbour Tunnel and the financial district of Central. Completed in 1980, the 64-storey skyscraper Hopewell Centre was the tallest building in the city for nine years. Situated at the foothill of Victoria Peak, Hopewell Centre can be accessed at ground floor from Queen’s Road East and at 17th floor from Kennedy Road. The building was designed by Gordon Wu, the founder and chairman of Hopewell Holdings Ltd. Wu’s tower expresses the confidence of the his era by doing something that no body else has done in the city: building a 222m cylindrical tower, cladded with vertical fins and topped with a revolving restaurant and a rooftop pool (mainly for fengshui purpose). After four decades, the building no longer holds the title of the city’s tallest building (no. 28 nowadays), but continues to stand as an urban icon of Wan Chai.

Standing against the residential towers of Lee Tung Street, the cylindrical Hopewell Centre immediately stand out from the surrounding urban context. [Photo taken from Podium Garden of Lee Tung Street, 2022]
Highlighted by yellow rings, the revolving restaurant forms the crown of Hopewell Centre. [Photo taken from Queen’s Road East, 2022]
Many locals would take the lifts in Hopewell Centre to go between Queen’s Road East (ground floor) and Kennedy Road (17th floor). [2022]

1992: Central Plaza (中環廣場)

For ten years between 1992 and 2003, the 374m (78 storeys) Central Plaza was the tallest building in Hong Kong, and one of the tallest reinforced concrete building in the world. Designed by local firm Dennis Lau & Ng Chun Man Architects, a triangular plan was adopted for the design to maximize office area with sea views. While steel structure is much more common for buildings at such height, a concrete system was selected to save construction cost. Sky City Church, the world’s highest church, is a tenant of Central Plaza, and so as offices of a number of international businesses. The creation of Central Plaza almost coincided with the completion of the adjacent Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. These projects further established Wan Chai as the extension of Central, the main business district of Hong Kong.

The mast at the tip of Central Plaza is more than 100m in height. [2020]
Central Plaza is surrounded by other Grade A office towers and Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (HKCEC). [2022]

1997: Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (香港會議展覽中心)

1997 marked a historical moment for Hong Kong when the former British colony was handed back to China. While Hong Kong was briefly at the center-stage of international news, Wan Chai was under spotlight as the main venue of the handover ceremony. In front of Central Plaza and the old wing of Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (HKCEC), a new event hall was erected on a newly reclaimed island. Designed by Chicago firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in gesture of a flying bird, and completed in four years from land reclamation to construction, the new wing of HKCEC served well as the main stage for Jiang Zemin of China and Prince Charles of Britain to define a new era for Hong Kong. After 1997, the hall continues to serve as an exhibition venue for events such as Art Basel and Hong Kong Book Fair, etc.

In front of Central Plaza, the new wing of Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre [2020]
To meet the deadline of 1997’s handover ceremony, the construction of HKCEC’s new wing took only 48 months from land reclamation to completion. [2022]
From the new wing, the skyline of the financial district is just less than 1km away. [2015]

1998: Chinese Methodist Church (循道衛理聯合教會香港堂)

The red bricks facades, rooftop Chinese pavilion, green glazed roof tiles and triangular building shape, the iconic Chinese Methodist Church has guarded the western entry of Wan Chai for six decades. In 1990’s, the church decided to partner with a developer on a redevelopment project, demolishing the historical church building and replacing it with a 22 storey commercial building. The building was completed in 1998, with floors dedicated for church functions and also office rentals (levels above 10th floor). This religious institution and developer partnership is a luring business for both sides: developer can lay hands on a prestige site while the religious institution can expand its floor area for free. The project was somewhat controversial and opened up a debate on the appropriacy of a commercial deal between a religious institution and a private developer.

The 1998 Chinese Methodist Building still enjoys its prominent site at the intersection of Hennessy Road and Johnson Road. [2021]
Between 1936 – 1994, the red brick Chinese Methodist Church stood at the mouth of Wan Chai for sixty years. [Photo: Ted Tharme, probably taken at around 1936. Commando Veterans Archive: Views and life in S.E Asia as seen through the lens of No5Commando, http://gallery.commandoveterans.org/cdoGallery/main.php, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]

2003: Foo Tak Building (富德樓)

In 2003, the landlady decided to find tenants for her refurbished 14-storey Foo Tak Building on Hennessy Road. At a public talk, she learnt from speaker May Fung (馮美華), a prominent promoter of visual arts in Hong Kong, that the artist community was having hard times finding affording studio spaces in Hong Kong. After the talk, the landlady approached May Fung and offered to rent out her flats in Foo Tak Building at affordable prices for artists, and invited May Fung to manage what would become the city’s longest surviving artist village. At first, 18 units are rented out to selected artists, bookshops and cultural organizations. After some time, the entire building was donated out to serve as the vertical artist village. In comparison to government run establishments, tenants at Foo Tak Building enjoy much more freedom and less management control. While the 1968 concrete building may not look attractive from outside, Foo Tak Building has silently become one of the most unique cultural oases at the heart of Hong Kong.

Standing right beside the construction site of 369 Hennessy Road, Foo Tak Building appears no different than any other concrete buildings erected in the 1960’s and 1970’s in Hong Kong. [2022]
Today, the vertical artist village is frequented by anyone who is interested in art. Small exhibitions are occasionally held, as well as cultural talks and small social gatherings. Bookstores on art and philosophy are also the main draw for visitors. Many visitors would take the elevators up to the top floor and walk down level by level to check out if anything interesting is opened to the public. [2021]
A small art exhibition was on show at Foo Tak Building. [2021]

2007: Woo Cheong Pawn (和昌大押)

Conservation of heritage buildings and urban revitalization have been recent hot topics in Hong Kong, particularly in old districts such as Sheung Wan and Wan Chai. In 2007, Urban Renewal Authority (URA) engaged with a private developer to erect a highrise residential tower at Johnston Road. The fate of the historical Woo Cheong Pawn building was also included in the project. Built in 1888 and 1900 on land reclaimed in 1887, the four tenement buildings (tong lau) have been a prominent fixture at Johnston Road for over a hundred years. The buildings were constructed with timber structures, brick walls, wood floors, verandas and high ceilings. Such design was common for commercial buildings in that era. At the end, the buildings were designated for a thorough restoration, and have since been converted into a destination of highend restaurants.

Today, the building group of Woo Cheong Pawn has become a landmark of Wan Chai. [Photographed at Johnston Road, 2022]
Before revitalization, the building was at risk of demolition after a century of deterioration. [Photographed at Johnston Road, 2004]
Throughout much of the 20th century, 66 Johnston Road was always occupied by Woo Cheong Pawn, while its neighboring businesses have changed hands a number of times. [Photo taken in 1960’s, wikimedia commons, public domain]

2013: 7 Mallory Street (茂蘿街7號), formerly Comix Home Base (動漫基地)

In 2013, the opening of another URA revitalization project in Wan Chai has captured public attention. Known as the Green House in the past, a cluster of ten prewar tenement buildings was under spotlight for conservation. While facades of the 1922 buildings are preserved, much of the interior spaces have been transformed to suit contemporary purposes: shops, restaurants, multi function rooms, exhibition spaces, and public outdoor nodes. For the first five years, the restored building was occupied by Comix Home Base, a NGO that promotes the art of comics. After the NGO moved out, the upper levels of the restored building have become venues for public hire.

The 1922 facade of 7 Mallory Street is largely preserved. [2020]
Consisted of tenement buildings facing two parallel streets, interior spaces of half the historical buildings have been removed to create a public courtyard in the middle. [2020]
Temporary exhibitions would be held inside 7 Mallory Street. [2020]
Wall mural depicting an old street shop in Wan Chai offers visitors at 7 Mallory Street a glimpse of the former street life in the neighborhood. [2020]

2015: Tung Tak Pawn (同德押)

Not all prewar heritage buildings share the same fate like the preserved Woo Cheong Pawn. At 369 Hennessy Road, another famous historical building Tung Tak Pawn had sadly met its end in 2015. With a prominent round corner, the 1930’s tenement building was the last of its kind on Hong Kong Island. During the heat debate of heritage conservation and a possible reassessment of historical building classification for the structure, Tung Tak Pawn was brutally torn down overnight before the debate could reach a final conclusion. Today, Tung Tak Pawn represents a significant loss for heritage preservation in Hong Kong, and a vivid reminder of the impotency of the city’s conservation policies.

Scaffolding were suddenly put up at Tung Tak Pawn in 2015, prompting a heat debate of heritage conservation in the first half of 2015. [2015]
The two neon signs of Tung Tak Pawn on Hennessy Road from the mid 20th century are also important urban artifacts for Wan Chai. [2015]

2015: Lee Tung Street (利東街), formerly Wedding Card Street (喜帖街)

Some see the recent redevelopment of Lee Tung Street, formerly known as Wedding Card Street due to its concentration of wedding card printing shops, as another big loss of heritage conservation. While printing businesses have long been established in the area, it was not until 1970’s that Lee Tung Street has made its name by becoming the unofficial “Wedding Card Printing Street” in Hong Kong. In 1998, the URA announced the revitalization project of Lee Tung Street and McGregor Street. After years of compensatory negotiations and conservation outcries, Lee Tung Street was eventually wiped out from the map in 2007, and reopened in 2015 as a highend residential and commercial development managed by the URA and private developers. No matter if one agrees or not on the “demolition and redevelopment model”, the consequences for such large scale urban redevelopment is inevitable leaning towards in favour of the big developers and government. Not only does the unique character of the neighborhood was eliminated, but the existing flat and shop owners were also forced to leave their own home. The URA offered flat owners on Lee Tung Street a compensatory scheme of HK$4000 per square feet (USD 510), but at the end the new apartment flats were sold for at least HK$23,000 (US$2,930) in 2013. Since 2015, the new Lee Tung Street has become a popular dining destination in Wan Chai. At big festivals, large scale decorations would be put up to draw the crowds.

With most wedding card shops moved out, the new Lee Tung Street has nothing to do with the wedding business anymore, except some statues to remind visitors the not so distant memories. [2022]
Beneath the expensive residential towers lies the pedestrian shopping street of Lee Tung Street. With nothing to do with the original Lee Tung Street or the context of Wan Chai, the intentional creation of a neoclassical atmosphere for the new Lee Tung Street makes one feels like walking into a tacky movie set. [2022]
During Christmas or Chinese New Year, visitors would come to the new Lee Tung Street to take selfies with the dazzling decorations. [2020]

FAIR WINDS AND FOLLOWING SEAS: Goodbye Fenwick Pier (分域碼頭), Wan Chai (灣仔), Hong Kong

Earlier version of Fenwick Pier and the Servicemen’s Guides Association at the waterfront of Gloucester Road, with the Royal Navy Dockyard in Admiralty at the back. [Photographed in 1962, wikimedia commons, public domain]

On 2 February 2022, we had our final visit to Gia Trattoria Italiana, an Italian restaurant at Fenwick Pier in Wan Chai. Two months have passed, and we have already missed their Bistecca alla Fiorentina, lobster pasta, and all the delightful moments we spent at the restaurant. A few days after our February visit, the restaurant was closed for good, as the government decided to terminate the lease of Fenwick Pier. The pier was set for demolition and the site would be redeveloped into a fire-station. A little out of the way from the closest MTR station, the 4-storey pier building looked a little worn out, with paint peeling off here and there. Occupying a small piece of land less than 150m inland from the new Wan Chai Harbourfront, the utilitarian box structure probably wouldn’t be missed if it was just an ordinary building. But Fenwick Pier was no ordinary building. For two months before returning the closing the pier, people flocked to Fenwick Pier to photograph and bid farewell to this remnant from the colonial times. The nostalgic visitors even formed a queue outside the gate in the midst of pandemic. For the latter half of 20th Century, Hong Kong was the first port of call in Asia for many American seamen and navy personnel, while Fenwick Pier served like the arrival gateway in the city. The pier fulfilled its duty till the very end, offering foreign sailors and seamen free guidebooks, free local sim cards, transportation shuttles, tourist information, shops and services such as tailoring, hairdressing, souvenirs, etc. Local Hongkongers could also join the pier membership right at the door, so that they could enjoy the facilities in the complex. Fenwick Pier offered locals a “taste of America” from fast food to fine dining, and foreign seamen a place where they could enjoy products and services that defined the concept of East meets West.

While 2022 marks the end for Fenwick Pier, and its NGO operator, the Servicemen’s Guides Association (SGA – 香港軍人輔導會), the story began in 1953 with a humble information desk on the sidewalk next to Fenwick Street to serve the arriving American military sailors during the Korean War. Later on, the SGA was granted by the colonial government a small piece of land to establish the Fenwick Pier. The pier was moved and rebuilt a few times due to typhoon damages and land reclamation, until 1970 when the current building was erected. In 1994, Fleet Arcade (海軍商場), the 4-storey shopping centre, was founded serving mainly visiting sailors. As incoming vessels have significantly declined since 1997 and the pier became landlocked in 2016 due to land reclamation, the final demise for the pier was almost certain. At its peak, the pier received almost 100 vessels with 97,000 visitors a year. Wan Chai, the area where Fenwick Pier stood, was the official hub for all foreign sailors. Restaurants, bars, strip clubs and all sort of entertainment businesses flourished in Wan Chai, during the golden age of Fenwick Pier. After receiving 1.26 million sailors in 69 years, Fenwick Pier was finally sealed off by the government, and officially became an important piece of history for Hong Kong.

Nothing fancy about the decor of Gia Trattoria Italiana, but the decent food and harbour views made the restaurant our favorite Italian restaurant in the city. [2022]
With buffet appetizer an dessert, the restaurant was a popular place for weekend brunch. [2022]
Cheese is always important for any Italian restaurant. [2022]
The once open harbour views have been lost due to recent reclamation. [2022]
The tasty Bistecca alla Fiorentina was perfect for sharing. [2021]

***

Fenwick Pier just before permanently closing for demolition. [2022]
Windows of Gia Trattoria Italiana and the main signage of the pier. [2021]
Entrance gate of Fenwick Pier across the street from Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. [2021]
The tree at the forecourt has grown to as tall as the building itself. [2021]
Towering behind the complex, the International Financial Centre (IFC) reminded visitors how close Fenwick Pier actually was from the central business district. [2021]
The exterior facades of Fenwick Pier looked a little worn out from the corrosive marine air. [2022]
The lobby of Fenwick Pier was rather low key. [2021]
With the decorations from 1990’s, stepping in the Fenwick Pier was like stepping back in time. [2021]
Despite vessels were no longer coming, colours of the interiors reminded visitors the marine identity of the complex. [2021]
The sailor wall art was one of the most eye-catching thing in the lobby of Fenwick Pier. [2021]
The entire building of Fenwick Pier was filled with a causal ambience, like a North American school building. [2021]
Many visitors loved to take selfies at the old rickshaw and the former Mac Donald’s seating from 1990’s. [2021]
Coat of arms plaques of marine related organisations lined up on walls and columns on the ground floor of Fenwick Pier. [2021]
As numbers of foreign sailors declined in recent years, the heyday of the Fleet Arcade felt like a distant past. [2022]
Bespoke tailoring was one of the most popular services at Fleet Arcade in the good old days. [2022]
11 February 2022 was the official last day for Fenwick Pier before being closed off by the government. [2021]

OASES IN THE CULTURAL DESERT, Hong Kong Arts Centre (香港藝術中心) & Academy of Performing Arts (香港演藝學院), Wan Chai (灣仔), Hong Kong

When I was a kid, my parents used to take me to the children art workshops at Hong Kong Arts Centre (香港藝術中心) in Wanchai. I don’t remember much about my earliest ”artworks”, but I do remember bits and pieces about the Arts Centre building in the 1980’s: ceiling consisted of small triangles, exposed yellow air ducts, staircase with yellow handrails spiraling up the atrium which took me forever to climb. Today, after series of renovations, the iconic yellow ductwork and stair handrails are gone, but the Arts Centre remains as a prominent non-government institution for art exhibitions, theatre shows, film screenings, and children workshops. As a competitive commercial city where people spent most of their time working to earn a living, Hong Kong is reputed for being a cultural desert. In the 1970’s, some Hongkongers tried to do something to advocate the development of art and culture, including the late architect Tao Ho (何弢). Graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Ho studied and worked under Walter Gropius, the master of Modernist architecture and founder of the Bauhaus School in prewar Germany. Tao Ho returned to Hong Kong and established TaoHo Design Architects in 1968. In 1971, Tao Ho, Bill Bailey and King-man Lo came together to form the organization Hong Kong Arts Centre. After negotiations with the government and series of fundraising campaigns, construction of the building began in 1975 and completed in 1977. As chief architect, Tao Ho’s challenge was enormous. In a 10,000sf triangular site, Ho needed to incorporate galleries, theatre, rehearsal rooms, auditoriums, classrooms, restaurants, offices, and a four-storey atrium plus disabled facilities (first in Hong Kong) within a 16-storey building, all under a limited budget from donors. A triangular system was adopted from spatial planning, structural modules to facade treatment. From the use of functional forms, simple colour scheme, industrial materials, holistic design language, to incorporating geometric shapes into architecture, the spirit of Bauhaus is clearly shown. Since opening, Hong Kong Arts Centre has become a cultural icon in the city, exhibiting works by masters like Paul Klee and Zao Wou Ki as well as supporting the local art scenes. Before his death in 2019, Tao Ho was also responsible for a number of design projects in Hong Kong and China, including Hong Kong Pavilion for the 1986 World Expo in Vancouver, Tsuen Wan MTR Station, renovation of Hong Kong Governor House, Panda Pavilion in Ocean Park, Wing Kwong Pentecostal church, the Bauhinia emblem and the Hong Kong flag, etc.

In 2019, we finally got a chance to visit Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts (HKAPA-香港演藝學院) to watch 887, a solo play by renowned playwright, actor and stage director Robert Lepage from Quebec. Before the show, we wandered a little bit in the atrium hall, where a model of the building complex was on display, showing the two triangular blocks: the academy and theatre blocks separated by a driveway. Serving as both the main campus for performing arts education and a venue for theatre performances, the HKAPA has been a prominent establishment in Hong Kong since 1985. It was founded as the city’s only place that offers professional education on music, dance, drama, technical arts, film and television. Equipped with state of the art acoustics and stage equipment, its Lyric Theatre and other performance halls have served the audience well throughout the last three decades. Like the Arts Centre across the street, HKAPA was conceptualized during the reformative decade of Governor Murray MacLehose (麥理浩), who dramatically improved the social welfare of Hongkongers by introducing new ordinances and policies, and boldly transformed the city into a diverse metropolis with a wide range of public projects, from the metro system to satellite towns, country parks to the Ocean Park (amusement park), Jubilee Sport Centre to the HKAPA. In 1981, architect Simon Kwan (關善明) won the design competition for HKAPA. Restricted by underground utilities, Kwan uses a driveway to break the complex into two triangular volumes, academy and administrative block on one side and theatre block on the other.

The bold geometry, prominent outlines, functional planning, industrial materials, and modular structure of the Arts Centre can be traced back to the Bauhaus. [2022]
After 45 years, Hong Kong Arts Centre remains as a non-government establishment that promotes arts in the city. [2021]
Architect Tao Ho stacked a wide range of spaces including theatre, classrooms and galleries into a 16 storey building. [2021]
Despite the yellow vertical ductwork and handrails are long gone, the 4-storey atrium remains as the prominent point of arrival. [2021]
The atrium stair of the Arts Centre also serves as an exhibition space. [2021]
Many choose to climb the stairs over taking the lifts at the Arts Centre. [2021]
The triangular waffle slabs and light fixtures are pretty unique in Hong Kong. [2021]
Despite land reclamation in recent years, the Arts Centre still enjoys fine views of Victoria Harbour. [2021]
Comparing to the government managed Hong Kong Museum of Art, exhibitions at the Arts Centre are more catered for art lovers, instead of families or couples looking for selfie opportunities. [2021]
The Arts Centre building is like an artwork of architect Tao Ho, where visitors are free to explore spatially. [2021]

***

Along Gloucester Road, windows of the teaching rooms and structural bracing of the Academy Block create a geometric presence to the urban scenery of Wan Chai. [2022]
At the age of curtain walls, the simple, solid and geometric beauty of HKAPA stands as a unique example of Late Modernist architecture in Hong Kong. [2022]
Bamboos go well with the verticality of the wall cladding of HKAPA. [2022]
Bold lines on the facade and soft tree shadows form the basic aesthetics for the building elevation. [2022]
Since 1980’s, HKAPA becomes a humble beginning for many successful actors, directors, playwrights and all kinds of theatre professionals in the city. [2022]
Interlocking triangular volumes form the basis of the architectural massing of HKAPA. [2022]
A grand atrium provides a sense of arrival in the theatre block of HKAPA. [2021]
Most theatre visitors would take the escalators up to the performance halls. [2019]
At the atrium, a stone plaque says “The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts was funded and built by the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club on land granted by the Hong Kong Government.” [2021]
Three glass elevators stand as the focal point in the atrium of the theatre block. [2021]