Six years before the handover of Hong Kong to China, Taiwanese songwriter and singer Lo Tayou (羅大佑) published a song called “Queen’s Road East” (皇后大道東) in 1991. Emerged as a satirical reflection of Hongkongers’ collective feelings in the eve’s of the handover, the song became an instant hit. Even today, the song still offers an interesting cultural reference to understand the city’s unsettling moment before 1997. In the face of Hong Kong’s social uncertainties and imminent changes in near future, lyricist Albert Leung (林夕) made use of a wide range of symbols in the song, from “portrait on the coin” and “noble friend” to signify Queen Elizabeth II, to “waves of pedestrians” to suggest the mass exodus of Hongkongers. But the biggest symbolism is in fact the name “Queen’s Road East” itself. Physically divided into three sections, namely Queen’s Road East, Queen’s Road Central, and Queen’s Road West, Queen’s Road was used in the song to symbolize the three main players in the city’s story: “East” for Hong Kong, “West” for Britain, and “Central” for China (in reference to “Middle Kingdom”, the Chinese name of China). While “Queen” is unmistakably a reference to the city’s colonial past, the historical and economic significance of Queen’s Road has suggested a meaning way beyond colonialism. It is in fact a symbol of the city’s success story. As Hong Kong’s first main road, Queen’s Road was home to the first city hall, first post office, first luxury hotel, first bank headquarters, first residences of government officials, first business district, etc. After almost 180 years of urban transformations, its importance in the commercial heart remains vital to this date. The rich history and symbolism of Queen’s Road has made it a sensible choice for Lo Tayou and Albert Leung in their iconic song, and a reference point to tell the story of Hong Kong.
For its architecture and luxury shops, Queen’s Road Central is indeed a popular destination for both foreign visitors and local Hongkongers. Constructed between 1841 and 1843, Queen’s Road was originally named Main Street (大馬路). It ran through the first business district in the city between Sai Ying Pun (西營盤) and Central (中環). The road was soon renamed as Queen’s Road in tribute to Queen Victoria. As the road further extended in the west and east direction, Queen’s Road was eventually divided into three main sections: West, Central and East. Connecting Sheung Wan (上環) and Central along the island’s original shoreline, Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中) has long been considered as a synonym of Downtown Hong Kong. Subsequent land reclamations in the next 180 years pushed Queen’s Road Central further and further inland. The business district has long extended way beyond its original extent around Queen’s Road Central. Yet, buildings along the road continue to be sold, torn down and replaced by taller replacements, from the 19th century Neo-classical structures to the 20th century Modernist buildings, and then to the contemporary glassy skyscrapers. Due to its historical significance, Queen’s Road Central is probably one of the most documented street in Hong Kong. Having the historical photographs in hand while taking a brief tour of Queen’s Road Central offers a fruitful way to understand the tale of constant changes, and endless cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction in one of the fastest growing metropolises in modern history.
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.