ultramarinus – beyond the sea

Kowloon

SECOND LIFE OF AN INDUSTRIAL TOWN, Kwun Tong (觀塘), Kowloon, Hong Kong

We weren’t that familiar with Kwun Tong (觀塘), a major industrial district and former satellite town in East Kowloon, until recent years when work brought me to the district a couple of times. Witnessing the dramatic makeover of Kowloon East into the Hong Kong’s newest business district was like watching a time-lapse video of factory blocks being torn down and replaced by glassy towers.  Work has also gave me the opportunity to learn about the new master plan of Kowloon East, which encompasses the former industrial districts of Kwun Tong, Kowloon Bay, and Kai Tak, including the land strip point out into Victoria Harbour that once served as the runway of Kai Tak Airport. Referred as CBD 2.0 (Central Business District 2) by Energizing Kowloon East Office (EKEO), the government has high hopes in reshaping Kowloon East and its waterfront into a vibrant and highly livable neighborhood that serves as an alternative to Central, Wan Chai and Quarry Bay. Inaugurated in 2012, EKEO is the government body that oversees urban revitalization of Kowloon East with the new master plan and various different pedestrian enhancement projects. One of the first major projects by EKEO is Kwun Tong Promenade (觀塘海濱花園), a narrow strip of land between the elevated Kwun Tong Bypass and the waterfront along Kwun Tong Typhoon Shelter (觀塘避風塘). Formerly a cargo working area, the promenade was completed and opened in two stages, first in 2010 and then 2015, and has soon become the most popular public space in Kwun Tong.

Further inland from Kwun Tong Promenade lies the industrial area. From government salt ponds centuries ago to a designed landfill in 1925 and later oil depot of Shell Company, Kwun Tong was considered a back-of-house area until 1954, when massive land reclamation took place to construct the city’s first industrial estates, whereas hilly areas further inland were designated for residential developments. Centered around the commercial complex Yue Man Square (裕民坊), Kwun Tong soon became one of the two first satellite towns and industrial hubs in Hong Kong along with Tsuen Wan (荃灣) in Kowloon West. Since then, Kwun Tong flourished along with the boom of manufacturing industries, including textiles, clothing, toys, watches, plastics, etc. As costs of labour and rents grew exponentially in 1980’s and 1990’s, many factories were relocated to other parts of Asia and China. With the decline of industries, Kwun Tong was in need to reinvent itself with a new vision and identity. In recent two decades, urban revitalization has come in various forms, from replacing old factories with new commercial buildings, to retrofitting the old industrial blocks into mixed use complexes, offering affordable spaces for all sorts of small businesses, from restaurants to offices, gyms to recreational venues, retail to workshops. Despite the major makeover, traces and memories of its industrial past remain as a crucial component for the identity of Kwun Tong.

The elevated MTR metro line bisects Kwun Tong into two halves: the residential area on the hills to the north and the industrial and commercial area to the south. As the former town centre of Kwun Tong, known as the Yue Man Square (裕民坊) area, began demolition in the past decade, Hong Kong’s largest urban redevelopment officially began. [2022]
Kwun Tong MTR Station serves as the main transportation hub of the district. Kwun Tong Station was the terminus of the original Kwun Tong Line which began operations in 1979. [2022]
In central Kwun Tong, decades old industrial blocks still make up a large part of the district’s skyline. [2021]
Before emergence of the MTR in 1979, bus loads of workers arrived in Kwun Tong every morning to work at the factories. [2021]
Many industrial blocks in Kwun Tong have been converted into other uses. The multi-block Camel Paint Building (駱駝漆大廈) has become a huge outlet shopping centre. [2021]
It is impossible to tell from outside that the Camel Paint Building is a popular shopping destination for discounted cosmetics, clothing, wine, crafted beer, restaurants, etc. [2021]
Hidden on the 11th floor of an industrial building, Twenty One From Eight (廿一由八) is one of many hidden gems in Kwun Tong. The shop is a custom wood furniture maker. [2021]
Apart from custom wood furniture, Twenty One From Eight (廿一由八) also doubles as a popular cafe. [2021]
Down on street level, street art was brought into the alleys between industrial blocks. Once crowded with factory workers, these lanes are now popular with young people taking selfies. [2021]
Alley street art in Kwun Tong. [2021]
At Kwun Tong waterfront, the ferry pier was once an important transportation hub along Victoria Harbour. Beyond the pier, the apartment blocks of Laguna City (麗港城) occupied the former oil depot of the Shell Company. [2015]
While the pier receives ferry passengers from Hong Kong Island, the elevated highway Kwun Tong Bypass serves as the major vehicular route in Kowloon East. [2020]
Just like other piers along Victoria Harbour, Kwun Tong Pier also offers a sense of peace for the city dwellers. [2020]
From Kwun Tong Pier, Kai Tak Cruise Terminal (啟德郵輪碼頭) at the tip of former Kai Tak Airport runway is just a stone’s throw away. [2020]
Occupying the former cargo loading waterfront, the promenade along Kwun Tong Typhoon Shelter is teem with life. [2019]
The elevated Kwun Tong Bypass provides shelter for a portion of the promenade space below. [2020]
Running is probably the most popular activity at Kwun Tong Promenade. [2020]
People love to chill out by the Kwun Tong Typhoon Shelter at sunset. [2019]
From skateboard parks to outdoor eateries and cafes, how to utilize the space below an elevated highway is a common challenge for many cities around the world. [2020]
Kowloon Flour Mills (九龍麵粉廠) is probably the most iconic building along Kwun Tong waterfront. [2020]
Opened in 1966 and still in operations today, Kowloon Flour Mills is the last surviving flour mill in Hong Kong. [2020]
The vertical signage written in Chinese calligraphy was a work by Au Kin Kung 區建公 (1887 – 1971), a renowned calligrapher who pioneered the use of Beiwei Calligraphy Style (北魏體) for Chinese signage around the city. [2020]
As more commercial buildings emerged in Kwun Tong’s skyline, preserving the iconic Kowloon Flour Mills is an essential gesture to maintain connections with the collective memories of the neighborhood. [2015]

IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME, Cha Kwo Ling (茶果嶺), Hong Kong

This summer, the Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage (CACHE) has organized a number of guided walks in Cha Kwo Ling, hosted a small exhibition at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, and published Travelling through Cha Kwo Ling – A Memoir of the Urban Village, a free publication that documents the oral history of villagers who have spent decades in Hong Kong’s last quarry community. These personal recollections might seem fragmentary, but once pieced together they form a comprehensive set of living memories for a place pretty much frozen in time for the past few decades. The fact that Cha Kwo Ling has been able to evade bulldozers all these years was quite remarkable, especially when the adjacent Kwun Tong (觀塘), a former industrial district and Hong Kong’s most densely populated area (57,250 persons per sq.km as of 2014), has gone through series of major makeovers since 1990’s. One of the main reasons why villagers prefer not to rebuild or renovate their squatter homes was because they never knew when the government would arrive to lock down their homes. Decades have past, Cha Kwo Ling gradually becomes a special place in Hong Kong where aura of the 60’s and 70’s still rules, allowing contemporary visitors to have a sense of the village’s heyday, when granite and Kaolin clay mining were major industries in East Kowloon.

Oral history of villagers records stories of Cha Kwo Ling from a bygone era, many objects in Cha Kwo Ling, be it a set of rusty metal shutters, a stone stele with fading inscriptions, or an abandoned animal cage, can still be found today, representing tangible evidences for the villagers’ stories. If these objects can speak, what would they say about the urban village and its generations of inhabitants? These silent artefacts would probably be gone in two years’ time, along with the squatter homes, community stores, small tea shops, narrow alleys, etc. Before their disappearance, we did a small walk in Cha Kwo Ling and photo documented the village scenery. Once Cha Kwo Ling is gone, former villagers and anyone who is interested in the city’s urban transformations would sadly mourn the loss of these precious artefacts. Here are objects that caught our eyes during our two recent visits.

A notice board of Cha Kwo Ling Village Fraternity Association (茶果嶺鄉民聯誼會) listed out this year’s donors to the village’s Tin Hau Temple. [2022]
Near the village entrance, a corrugated metal wall is decorated with several columns of license plates. (2022)
Notices and posters for the village are being put up on walls of a few houses along the main alley. [2022]
Fire and water were the biggest enemies for the shanty houses in Cha Kwo Ling. Traces of previous fire and water damages can still be seen today. [2022]
A large mural depicting community celebrations of Tin Hau’s birthday. [2022]
Tropical plants root themselves on the wall of a former clay factory. [2021]
Built with Cha Kwo Ling’s granite blocks in 1951, the tiny St. Mark’s Lutheran Church also offered kindergarten and primary education in the early days. As the village population dwindled, the school has long ceased operation. The historical building would probably be demolished and even forgotten in the near future. [2022]
Many villagers have already moved out of Cha Kwo Ling, leaving behind a government’s notice on the door. [2022]
Home of Kei Lun or Qilin Dance Troupe (茶果嶺麒麟隊), is a traditional organization specialized in qilin dances performed during festivals. Like lion dance to resemble lion, qilin is a legendary creature that is also known as Chinese unicorn. [2022]
Traditional metallic mailboxes are still widely used in the village. [2022]
Established in 1950’s, Ming Tak Primary School was in operations for two decades until mid 1970’s, along with the rise and fall of the children population in the village. Half a century has past, somehow the old school sign is still visible in Cha Kwo Ling. [2022]
Wing Wah Eatery (榮華冰室) has been a prominent fixture in Cha Kwo Ling since 1960’s. It was a well known venue for local filmmakers, artists and photographers. [2022]
In Wing Wah Eatery, everything seems to be frozen in time, including the colour faded posters on the wall. [2022]
At CACHE’s exhibition, a red textile with guest signatures was on display, marking the opening of Wing Wah Eatery back in 1960’s. [2022]
With it name hollow cut into the metal, the shop shutter of Wing Wah Restaurant has been around for decades. Designed to allow natural ventilation back in the 50’s and 60’s, these traditional shutters only exist at the shopfront of decades old shops nowadays. [2022]
Some metal shutters are badly deteriorated in the village. [2022]
At the small open space where villagers used to gather and socialize, the metal shutter of Wai Kee should be part of the collective memories of many Cha Kwo Ling villagers. [2022]
Cha Kwo Ling might look chaotic to some, but for many photographers, the visual complexity makes the village is a delightful destination for exploration. [2022]
In its heyday, Cha Kwo Ling was a thriving urban village with inhabitants of various generations. Today, many villagers and their kids have moved out to other parts of the city. [2022]
A stone stele with faded inscriptions documents donor names for a bridge repair in the village. [2022]
In the old days, a wildlife lover moved to Hong Kong from Guangzhou. He had a number of big cats, bear and elephant and tried to convince the colonial government to establish a zoo in Hong Kong. Used as storage of the old animal cages can still be found in Cha Kwo Ling. [2022]
Five rows of mailboxes near Tin Hau Temple reveal a collective living environment back in the old days. [2022]
Recently renovated, the door panels of Tin Hau Temple have been beautifully preserved. Hope that the temple can be saved after the redevelopment of Cha Kwo Ling. [2022]

THE LAST URBAN VILLAGE, Cha Kwo Ling (茶果嶺), Kowloon, Hong Kong

On 21 September 1989, the city’s second harbour tunnel Eastern Harbour Crossing (東區海底隧道) officially opened between Quarry Bay of Hong Kong Island and Cha Kwo Ling of Kowloon. Cha Kwo Ling (茶果嶺), a lush green hill in East Kowloon, was once home to about 10,000 villagers in its heyday, when granite quarrying was a major industry in Hong Kong. Sitting below the green hill facing the harbour, the Hakka village of Cha Kwo Ling has a 400+ years of history, thriving long before this part of Kowloon and the New Territories were leased to Britain in 1899. In the 19th century, Cha Kwo Ling and three other mining villages in East Kowloon, namely Ngau Tau Kok (牛頭角), Sai Tso Wan (晒草灣), and Lei Yue Mun (鯉魚門), were administered as the Four Hills of Kowloon (九龍四山), each had its own leader who would report directly to the Qing government office at Kowloon Walled City. After becoming part of the British colony, the four mining villages continued to flourish as a collective community with shared schools, community facilities and temple. Similar to many neighborhoods in Hong Kong, Cha Kwo Ling saw an influx of newcomers from Mainland China during mid 20th century. Stone quarrying at Cha Kwo Ling ceased after 1967, when the government no longer licensed permits for industries using explosives. Apart from granite stones, Kaolin clay mining was also a major industry in the village. The white Kaolin clay is used in a wide range of products, from ceramics, toothpaste, cosmetics, paint, industrial insulation, paper, etc.

In 1980’s, the government put the second nail in Cha Kwo Ling’s coffin by tearing down a part of the village, including a former stone quarry, to make way for Eastern Harbour Crossing (東區海底隧道). A shrank Cha Kwo Ling continued to exist as a village of squatter houses somehow isolated from the surrounding urbanization. Since 2011, a number of government plans were released to replace Cha Kwo Ling village with a high density housing development. The 2021 plan gave the final verdict: erecting six residential towers at the Cha Kwo Ling site, and demolishing the existing village in two years’ time. As one of the last remaining urban village, Cha Kwo Ling has long been a unique place in Hong Kong where things seem to be frozen in time since decades ago, luring photographers and filmmakers seeking for a bygone Hong Kong, from a time when many poor were living in squatter homes but enjoying a strong community bonding. Cha Kwo Ling’s inevitable fate might long be sealed since granite quarrying ceased operations. Witnessing the final demise for one of Kowloon’s last remaining urban villages and anticipating yet another high density housing development that can be found all over the city is rather upsetting.

East of Kwun Tong Pier stands the cluster of residential towers of Laguna City (麗港城) estate, where the former quarry village Sai Tso Wan (晒草灣) and Shell oil depot used to be located. To the right of Laguna City stands the “new apartments” of Cha Kwo Ling. [2015]
The new apartments of Cha Kwo Ling were late additions in the 60’s and 70’s to the village of Cha Kwo Ling (hidden behind trees right of the apartment blocks). [2021]
Completed in early 1990’s, Laguna City (麗港城) is comprised of 38 residential towers and a wide range of community facilities from shopping centres to kindergartens and ball courts. The private estate was situated at Sai Tso Wan (晒草灣), home to one of the four quarry villages of Four Hills of Kowloon (九龍四山) and Shell’s former oil depot. [2021]
Cha Kwo Ling is one of the last remaining urban villages in Kowloon. [2022]
Colourful sheets on drying racks near village entrance. [2021]
At the entrance of Cha Kwo Ling village stands a small St. Mark’s Lutheran Church (路德會聖馬可堂). Built with local granite stones, the church is an early base for Lutheran Church in Hong Kong. [2022]
Ho Wa Lion Dance (壕華龍獅隊) was formed in 2015 by two youngsters who love the tradition. The NGO offers lion dance lessons for kids, and aimed to establish a museum to promote the tradition. [2021]
Vivid colours are often found in the village. [2022]
Wing Wah Restaurant (榮華冰室) is one of the two last remaining coffee houses still in business at Cha Kwo Ling. [2022]
Nothing seems to have changed in Wing Wah since 1960’s. Sixty years ago, the wooden tables and benches were secondhand furniture sourced by Mr. Ah Yeung, founder of the business. Today, his son (鏡叔) is putting great efforts to sustain the business. [2022]
Due to the lack of clarity on the village’s future, most villagers prefer not to invest money to renovate their homes. [2022]
Layers of rusting corrugated metals, cloths, nylon covers, scrap plywood boards, etc. are the most common facade materials for the squatter houses in Cha Kwo Ling. [2022]
In the village, external walls of squatter houses are used for displaying community notices. [2021]
Cha Kwo Ling is a pleasant village for an aimless stroll, and it is not that easy for visitors to get lost. [2022]
A traditional store at the major village junction offers all kinds of drinks and snacks. Stores like this Tak Kee Chan must have witnessed much better days decades ago when school children were still around. [2022]
Many residents built their houses over village lanes, creating a number of covered alleys. [2022]
A setback area in front of a low rise apartment block was a gathering and children’s play area for Cha Kwo Ling villagers in the old days. [2022]
We bumped into several cats in Cha Kwo Ling during our brief visit. Hope that they could settle in a new home when the village is being demolished. [2022]
Metal roofs of squatter homes leave a narrow strip of sky over the alleys of Cha Kwo Ling. [2022]
Built in 1900 with local granite, Law Mansion (羅氏大屋) is one of the oldest surviving building in Cha Kwo Ling. [2022]
Antennas dominate the skyline of Cha Kwo Ling. [2022]
Proudly on display near Cha Kwo Ling Village Fraternity Association, the Hop Yee Lung (合義龍) Dragon Boat is over 60 years old. In its heyday, the boat would take 48 paddlers for the annual dragon boat race at Yaumatei Typhoon Shelter. A number of victories in the 1960’sand 1970’s gave the boat a legendary status in the village. The 20m long dragon boat took artisan Chan Yau (陳有) almost a year to build. [2021]
Built in 1956, Cha Kwo Ling Village Fraternity Association (茶果嶺鄉民聯誼會) is the main gathering and event place for villagers. In the old days, the association also offer charity meals to the poor during Lu Ban (鲁班, the patron saint for the construction industries) Patron’s Day. [2021]
Adjacent to Cha Kwo Ling Village Fraternity Association stands the former Four Hill School (四山公立學校, 1952-1993), a collective memory for many residents of East Kowloon. For years, the former school was home to a sport academy. The forecourt has been turned into a practice ground for golf. [2022]
The current Cha Kwo Ling Tin Hau Temple is dated to late 1940’s, as a replacement for an older temple that was built during the reign of Dao Guan (道光, 1821-1850) of Qing Dynasty. [2022]
Not a common practice for traditional temples, but building this Tin Hau Temple at Cha Kwo Ling with granite was a convenient choice, as the building stood right adjacent to the stone quarries. [2022]
The temple interior offers a distinctly spiritual ambience in the village of Cha Kwo Ling. [2022]

QUARRY BELOW DEVIL’S PEAK (魔鬼山), Lei Yue Mun (鯉魚門), Kowloon, Hong Kong

At the east end of the Eight Mountains of Kowloon (九龍群山), dozens granite quarries had been around in the area of today’s Kwun Tong (觀塘) since late 18th century. Mostly operated by skillful Hakka workers from Guangdong, four of the largest quarry settlements, namely Cha Kwo Ling (茶果嶺), Ngau Tau Kok (牛頭角), Sai Tso Wan (晒草灣), and Lei Yue Mun (鯉魚門), were collectively known as the Four Hills of Kowloon (九龍四山). Beside stone quarries, houses were constructed for the miners and their families, and piers were erected along the harbour to export the mined granite to other parts of Hong Kong, China, and even overseas to Japan and Europe. From granite stone in the 19th century to concrete aggregates in the 20th, stone quarrying was once a major industry in East Kowloon. Not until 1967 when the government banned the use of explosives at a time of social unrest that stone quarrying in Hong Kong had officially came to an end. Since then, many former quarries and worker villages have been built over and entirely erased from the urban context. In East Kowloon, not a trace of the historical quarries and worker settlements can be found in today’s Ngau Tau Kok and Sai Tso Wan. Two years from now, Cha Kwo Ling would also get wiped out from the map. With Victoria Harbour’s last stilted houses still standing along the shore, perhaps by reinventing itself as a tourist attraction and seafood designation that Lei Yue Mun may be spared from the fate of brutal demolition a little longer. Sitting across the harbour from Shau Kei Wan (筲箕灣), Lei Yue Mun and Cha Kwo Ling have long been seen as remote and accessible only by boat from Shau Kei Wan. In the latter half of 20th century, roads were finally built to connect Lei Yue Mun with Kwun Tong industrial town. With Lei Yue Mun’s affordable rent, seafood restaurants gradually found their way into Lei Yue Mun, transforming the former quarry settlement into a vibrant tourist destination. The former quarry and ruined structures have since become selfie backdrops for visitors.

Rising 200m above Lei Yue Mun Village, the lush green Devil’s Peak (魔鬼山) offers visitors a pleasant lookout of the surrounding scenery. Long before the arrival of tourists, Devil’s Peak was a crucial military site overlooking Lei Yue Mun Channel and Victoria Harbour. Batteries and redoubts were built between 1900 and 1914 on the peak to guard the eastern gateway of Victoria Harbour. While Devil’s Peak has nothing to do with the Devil, the name does remind visitors that Lei Yue Mun was once home to notorious pirates, prompting the colonial government to name it Devil’s Peak. Today, remnants of the military structures have become popular attractions for tourists and war game players. For anyone willing to climb the stairs up Devil’s Peak would certainly be rewarded with a magnificent view of Victoria Harbour on one side and Junk Bay (將軍澳) on the other. It wasn’t the finest day when we climbed Devil’s Peak. But the hazy sunset over Victoria Harbour was still impressive, forcing us to make a brief stop to take in the scenery. Below the hill, we meandered through the narrow alleys of Sam Ka Tsuen Village (三家村), passed by the pebble beach and small lighthouse where contented sunset watchers were about to leave. Back at Sam Ka Tsuen Typhoon Shelter near the village entrance, neon signs of Gateway Cuisine (南大門), one of the village’s largest seafood restaurant, were lit up to welcome the first customers of a rather peaceful night.

During the pandemic, seafood restaurants at Sam Ka Tsuen Village of Lei Yue Mun suffered a dramatic drop of business. [2020]
Dozens of small boats occupied Sam Ka Tsuen Typhoon Shelter. [2020]
Adjacent to Sam Ka Tsuen Village, the concrete factory is about to be shut down to make way for new waterfront developments. [2020]
At Sam Ka Tsuen Village, fishing by Victoria Harbour is a popular pastime. [2020]
In recent decades, most people would associate Lei Yue Mun and Sam Ka Tsuen Village as a seafood destination. [2020]
For the younger generation, the pebble beach and lighthouse offer the best selfie spot during sunset. [2020]
Even if weather is not perfect, people would still enjoy themselves at the beach. [2017]
Due to its low terrain, Lei Yue Mun is prone to flooding during the typhoon season. [2017]
When weather is fine, Lei Yue Mun does offer a stretch of waterfront that is less crowded compared to other promenades at city centre. [2020]
Across Victoria Harbour lies the easternmost districts of Hong Kong Island, including Shau Kei Wan, Heng Fa Chuen, and Siu Sai Wan. [2020]
The former stone quarry and pier area have become a precious piece of outdoor space for all. [2020]
People come to the former quarry to take wedding or graduation photos, chat with friends, test out their drones, or just sit down and chill out in the sea breeze. [2020]
Behind Lei Yue Mun stands Devil’s Peak. Ruined military structures on Devil’s Peak include Devil’s Peak Redoubt, Gough Battery, Pottinger Battery, etc. [2020]
Despite the historical significance, the former military structures on Devil’s Peak are vulnerably exposed to vandalism. [2020]
On top of Devil’s Peak stands a redoubt complex. [2020]
Visitors love to find a quiet spot at Devil’s Peak Redoubt to chill out. [2020]
While Victoria Harbour dominates the scenery west of Devil’s Peak, on the east side lies Junk Bay (將軍澳), another hot spot for new residential developments where decades ago would be considered extremely remote. [2020]
Stretches between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, Lei Yue Mun Channel is the eastern gateway of Victoria Harbour and the narrowest gap between the island and peninsula. [2020]
Looking west from Devil’s Peak, Victoria Harbour and the distant city centre appears as silhouette in the haze. [2020]
Back down to Sam Ka Tsuen, the seafood restaurants are preparing to receive their first customers of the night. [2017]

VICTORIA HARBOUR (維多利亞港), Hong Kong

Before the pandemic, Hong Kong was a highly popular tourist destination in Asia, ranked among the top cities in the world for the number of international visitors. Just like many tourist cities around the globe, tourism in Hong Kong has suffered enormously during the pandemic. The numbers of foreign visitors have plummeted, and the once crowded sights across the city have been largely tourist free. Despite the loss of tourist activities, this situation is prompting the return of Hongkongers to places they would normally avoid before the pandemic. Apart from popular museums, beaches, amusement parks, and shopping centres, waterfront promenades along Victoria Harbour, especially in Tsim Sha Tsui at the tip of Kowloon Peninsula, has always been packed with tourists before the Covid. Just like our childhood years, today we can once again wander freely on the Avenue of Stars or linger in the shadow of the Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower without bumping into aggressive tourist groups. At night, the undulating reflections of neon lights, LED billboards, and glittering building facades in the water provides the perfect foreground for the skyline of Central, backed upon the silhouette of Victoria Peak. For decades, this postcard perfect Harbour panorama has served as the impeccable visual representation of Hong Kong’s prosperity and vibrancy, illuminating the legend of a city that never sleeps. Beyond the charming skyline on both sides of the water, the busy Victoria Harbour has much more to offer than just its visual glamour.

In Feng Shui, the traditional Chinese practice that harnesses the energy of surrounding environment, the element “water” is often associated with wealth and fortune. For Hong Kong, this water element can be definitely identified as the Victoria Harbour. From founding of the trading port, to the establishment of Far East’s finance and servicing hub, Victoria Harbour, the 41.88 km2 stretch of sea between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula, has always played a vital role. The Harbour is indeed where the story of Hong Kong begins. Known for its deep and sheltered water, the natural landform of the Harbour was one of the main reasons why Hong Kong was chosen by the British in 1841. Since the mid-19th century, the British put a great deal of effort to establish Hong Kong as their subtropical metropolis in the Far East and commercial gateway into China. The Harbour and its waterfront developments have been at the centre stage of Hong Kong’s evolution every since. To sustain population and economic growth, major land reclamation projects have never ceased to transform the urban extent of the city ever since 1840’s. More office towers, residential complexes, hotels, shopping centres, government buildings, museums, convention centre, stadiums, cruise terminals, promenades, piers, etc. would be erected after each reclamation scheme, redrawing the urban coastline at least once in every generation.

For many neighborhoods in the city, Victoria Harbour is always just a few blocks away. Exploring the everchanging waterfront areas is an interesting way to understand the past, present and future of Hong Kong. Our next series of posts will do exactly that.

British, American and Dutch ships and Chinese junks sailed through the calm waters of Victoria Harbour in 1855, under the shadow of the majestic Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island. [Painting by unknown painter, Public Domain]
165 years later, Victoria Peak has been dwarfed by the skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island. [Photo taken at Ocean Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui, 2020]
Throughout history, Hong Kong has always been a gateway of the Far East for the West. In the past 180 years, uncounted vessels have passed through Victoria Harbour. [Photo of Victoria Harbour and Kowloon Peninsula beyond, taken by Felice Beato, 1860, Public Domain]
Taking in the business district of Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsular across Victoria Harbour from Victoria Peak (太平山) has always been one of the most popular panoramic views for tourists. [Photograph by Denis H. Hazell, 1925, University of Bristol – Historical Photographs of China reference number: Bk09-05, CC BY_NC_ND 4.0]
Today, the iconic panorama from Victoria Peak (太平山) is dominated by the closely packed skyscrapers and the splendid bend of Victoria harbour. The serenity of the Harbour during the pandemic was a rarity in the city’s 180 years of history. [Photo taken from Lugard Road, Victoria Peak, 2020]
After several rounds of land reclamation, the coastline of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon have gone through dramatic transformations. The width of Victoria Harbour has been drastically reduced in the past century and a half. [Display about land reclamation of Hong Kong Island since 1842. Photo taken at Wanchai (灣仔) waterfront promenade, 2021]
In the mid 19th century, the extent of the city’s commercial district was limited to Central (中環) on Hong Kong Island. [Photography by John Thomson, 1868/1871, Public Domain]
While Central (中環) and Sheung Wan (上環) continue to serve as the city’s central business district, the panoramic skyline of Hong Kong has dramatically expanded along the north shore of Hong Kong Island, and the waterfront of Kowloon Peninsula across the Harbour. [Skyline of Central taken in Tsim Sha Tsui, 2020]
The northwestern limit of Victoria Harbour is dominated by Kwai Tsing Container Terminals (葵青貨櫃碼頭), once the world’s busiest container port between 1992 to 2004. Serving as the biggest intermediary trading hub between China, Southeast Asia and the West, international logistics means big business in Hong Kong ever since the 19th century. [Kwai Tsing Container Terminals taken at the waterfront of Sheung Wan, 2021]
Before WWII, the Triangular Pier (三角碼頭) at Victoria Harbour in Sheung Wan (上環) was one of the busiest trading ports in Asia. The pier has long disappeared after land reclamation, but the century-old trading companies and shops selling all kinds of imported dried seafood, spices, herbs, and food merchandises survive to the present day. [Photo taken at intersection of Eastern Street and Des Voeux Road West, 2021]
From West District to North Point, a 5.5km promenade along the north coast of Hong Kong Island is set to open at the end of 2021. [Photo taken at Admiralty Waterfront, 2021]
The western end of Victoria Harbour is marked by the District of Kennedy Town (堅尼地城) on Hong Kong Island (left). Beyond the Kennedy Town and the small islands of Green Island (青洲), Kau Yi Chau (交椅州), and Peng Chau (坪洲), the ridges on Lantau Island (大嶼山) form a distant backdrop for the Victoria Harbour. [Photo taken at Ocean Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui, 2020]
The reclamation land of West Kowloon is split between the 17-venue West Kowloon Cultural District (西九文化區), the high-end residential and commercial development of Union Square and the High Speed Railway Station. [Photo taken at Sai Ying Pun Waterfront, 2021]
Since 2014, the 60m Ferris wheel known as Hong Kong Observation Wheel in Central offers visitors a new vantage point to enjoy the scenery of Victoria Harbour. [Central Piers and HKOW as seen from Admiralty Waterfront, 2021]
The parabola gesture of the Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui (尖沙咀) marks the southern tip of Kowloon Peninsula. [Photo taken at Wanchai Waterfront, 2021]
The Ocean Terminal Deck offers the perfect place to take in the iconic skyline of Hong Kong, especially after dusk. [Photo taken at Ocean Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui, 2020]
For a fare less than 0.50 USD, the Star Ferry offer the most pleasant way to enjoy Victoria Harbour. [Photo taken at Ocean Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui, 2020]
The 88-storey, 415m International Finance Centre (IFC) on Hong Kong Island (left), and the 108-storey, 484m International Commercial Centre (ICC) in Kowloon (right) tower above the tranquil water of the Victoria Harbour. [Photo taken at Wanchai waterfront, 2020]
A number of typhoon shelters dot around Victoria Harbour, offering safe refuges for fishing boats and yachts during typhoons. [Causeway Bay (銅鑼灣) Typhoon Shelter with skyline of Central beyond, 2020]
The West Kowloon Cultural District (西九文化區) is finally taking shape after 20 years of planning and construction delays. In a few year’s time, a few more cultural venues would be constructed below the 108-storey ICC. [Photo taken from Tai Hang, 2018]
The northeastern waterfront of Hong Kong Island is dominated by the vehicular expressway Island Eastern Corridor (東區走廊). [Photo taken from Hung Hom Waterfront, 2020]
The waterfront of Eastern Kowloon stand the new business districts of Kowloon Bay (九龍灣) and Kwun Tong (觀塘), and the former airport runway of Kai Tak (啟德). [Photo taken from North Point Ferry Pier, 2021]
Between Lei Yue Mun (鯉魚門) and Shau Kei Wan (筲箕灣), the narrow passage of Lei Yue Mun marks the eastern gateway of Victoria Harbour. [Photo taken from Devil’s Peak in Lei Yue Mun, 2020]
The best moment to appreciate the panoramic view of Victoria Harbour is the magic moment at dusk. [Photo taken from Red Incense Burner Summit, 2020]

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]

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]