Whenever I flew with Cathay Pacific, I often selected Wong Kar Wai’s (王家衛) Chungking Express (重慶森林) from their entertainment system when I was about to take a nap. Indulging myself in the repeating music of Dennis Brown’s Things in Life and The Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’, and Christopher Doyle’s dynamic shots of Tsim Sha Tsui and Central always relaxed my mind. Chungking Express is undoubtedly one of my most favorite Hong Kong films. Chungking Express is lighthearted, complex, ambiguous, and beautiful. There are two stories in the film. The first story follows policeman 233 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and a female drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin) at Chungking Mansion in Tsim Sha Tsui. The second story follows policeman 633 (Tony Leung) and a female staff (Faye Wong) at Midnight Express, a snack bar in the entertainment district of Central. Released in 1994, three years before Hong Kong was returned to China, the film did capture a mixed bag of sentiments and mood of that era: sense of uncertainty, ambiguity, loneliness, loss, affection, impermanence, desire to change, hope for a brighter future, etc. Without pretentious shots of the city’s famous skyline, Chungking Express is a visually dazzling film that captures the daily life of Hong Kongers happened in wet market, snack bar, old tenement apartment, convenience store, and the Chungking Mansion, a huge mixed use complex in Kowloon where new immigrants and tourists gather and stay the night. Director Wong Kar Wai describes the film as his love letter to Hong Kong. 27 years have passed. Chungking Express remains as an icon of Hong Kong cinema, and an exquisite documentation of the ever-changing city in that particular moment in history.
Perhaps it is because both protagonists Tony Leung (梁朝偉) and Faye Wong (王菲) are two of my favorite Hong Kong stars back in the 1990’s, or The Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’ is too overpowering, or the filming locations in Central are just a few blocks from where I spent my childhood, I always like the story of Midnight Express more. Every time watching the film would remind me the old Central before the disastrous urban renewal projects that have torn apart Graham Street Market and gentrification that have wiped out uncounted tenement apartments and small shop owners who can no longer afford the skyrocketed rent. 1994 also marked the first anniversary of the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator (中環至半山自動扶梯), a 800m escalator system from Downtown Central up to the Mid-Levels. Wong Kar Wai chose the escalator and an adjacent apartment unit (home of Christopher Doyle, the legendary cinematographer of many Wong’s films) as the major film set for Chungking Express. Wong’s selection prominently imprints the escalator in the cultural atlas of the city, and introduces such unique urban feature to the whole world. In fact, the success of Chungking Express has consolidated Wong Kar Kai’s name onto the stage of international cinema, paving the way for his triumphs in the later half of the 1990’s, including Happy Together and In the Mood for Love.
Today, the 800m escalators system remains the longest in the world, and a popular tourist attraction. In 2015, CNN website picked the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator as one of the coolest commutes in the world. The idea of building an urban escalator system began in early 1980’s, when the Hong Kong government considered various options to improve traffic and pedestrian circulation between Central, the business district of Hong Kong, and Mid Levels, the residential neighbourhood on the slope of Victoria Peak. Cable car and monorail were also considered, but an escalator system was eventually selected. After 2.5 years of construction, the system was opened to the public in 1993. Wong Kar Wai seized the opportunity and became the first director to shoot a movie there. The escalator soon became popular among residents and office workers in Central, and led to dramatic gentrification of the surroundings. Buildings along the escalator system were torn down for new apartments. Small shops were replaced by bars and upscale restaurants, forming a vibrant entertainment district that we now call Soho. For both good and bad, the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator has been a major catalyst that wipes out the old Central I have known as a child. Yet on the other hand, the convenience it brings us who live in the area has undeniably become an inseparable part of our daily routine.
Before leaving Hong Kong for Canada, I spent the first decade of my life in the same Central Sheung Wan (中上環) area where our current home is located. The sloped streets and granite stairs in the neighborhood have featured heavily in my childhood memories. Walking up and down the century-old pedestrian stairs, a unique urban feature that we call “ladder streets” (樓梯街) in Hong Kong, was part of my childhood routine. I used to hate these stairs, especially when climbing them to school during summer months. Now returning as an adult, my emotions towards ladder streets have dramatically changed. Each worn treads, old balustrade and aged retaining walls seem to be remnants from a bygone era of the city, as well as my distant childhood.
Behind the glittering skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island stands Victoria Peak, also called Tai Ping Shan (太平山) in Chinese. The once imposing ridge line is pretty much hidden nowadays, unless one ventures far enough out into the harbour for a distant view. In fact, the island’s hilly terrain once posed a big challenge for the British colonial government when founding the city in 1841. On one hand, they were determined to erect a waterfront city by land reclamation from the sea. On the other hand, they managed to conquer the unforgiving terrain of Victoria Peak, levelling slopes into terraces for housing constructions, and connecting the residential terraces with steep paths and ladder streets. From then on, the network of ladder streets connect the hillside communities of West District, Sheung Wan, Central and Wanchai with the business district along the waterfront.
No one has a concrete idea of how many ladder streets remain in Hong Kong until 2013 when Melissa Cate Christ of Hong Kong University and her team on the Stair Culture project attempted to map out the ladder streets in the city. In their mapping exercise, they found over 3000 stairs in Central-Western District (中西區) alone. Not only has their work illustrated the astonishing concentration of ladder streets in a small area of old Hong Kong (about 12.4 sq. km), they also highlighted the danger ladder streets are facing today, the importance of preserving the ladder streets and the positive impact these stairs have contributed to the livability and urban character of the surrounding neighbourhoods.
Over a century of urban makeovers, many ladder streets have become obsolete when public escalators, elevators and asphalt roads were built to bring busy urbanites up and down the hill at a much faster pace. Some have been demolished to make way for modern developments, while some have been reduced to dark narrow alleyways sandwiched between highrise blocks. Functionally, the century old staircases may no longer fit well into modern urban planning. However, beyond merely moving people, the ladder streets play a crucial role in defining the historical identity of the city and providing peaceful alternative routes for pedestrians. A number of ladder streets have become iconic backdrops for tourists, filmmakers, photographers, and advertisers, who come to seek for the city’s nostalgic, peaceful and cozy ambience, in contrast to the fast-paced and somewhat stressful financial district just a stone throw away. From movies to TV shows, ladder streets have featured in a variety of media, formulating a collective memory not just for us who live in the area, but also for all Hong Kongers.