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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.