Smell of the sea fills the air between concrete building blocks along both sides of Des Voeux Road West. In the midst of busy traffic, wholesale workers quickly unload truck loads of dried seafood and large plastic bags of herbs at curbside and trolley them to different nam pak hongs (南北行), skillfully avoiding pedestrians, trams and buses along the way. Watching these hectic actions from the upper tram deck as a child, I used to dislike all the disorder on the Street of Dried Seafood (海味街). Revisit these streets three decades later, my feelings have completely changed. What I considered chaotic in the past actually looks full of life and energy to me now. What I saw as untidy now seems to be a precious connection to a bygone era, when the bustling docks at the Triangular Pier area was just right around the corner. Not to mention that I now find the natural odour of dried scallops and mushrooms smell much better than the artificial fragrances in shopping malls. The Triangular Pier and other Sheung Wan/ Sai Ying Pun piers are long gone. Where the shore once was has become an arterial road and concrete overpass. It is amazing to see that after a century of urban transformations, the seafood shops and nam pak hong wholesale companies are still thriving. Time may have changed, but the demands for traditional taste seems to have passed on.
Since the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) in China, a large group of merchants, mainly from Chiu Chow (潮州) in Eastern Guangdong, have migrated to various locations in Southeast Asia. The growing diaspora communities generated a great demand of Chinese goods in Southeast Asia, while there is also a strong demand in China and elsewhere for rice, spices and other products from Southeast Asia. As a free port situated right in the middle between China and Southeast Asia, Hong Kong was the perfect place for Chinese merchants (especially Chiu Chow businessmen) to set up their trading companies. These have become the original nam pak hongs (南北行), literally means ”south north companies). Situated in Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun, these nam pak hongs were the most influential Chinese businesses in the first century of colonial Hong Kong. With fleets of junk boats and aid of the monsoon winds, these companies established Hong Kong as a hub in the midst of trading routes. Some of their shipped products, such as dried seafood, were also sold by wholesale and retail shops in Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun. Clustered in several streets near the former Triangular Pier, many of these shops survived till the present day and have been promoted as the famous Street of Dried Seafood and Tonic Food (海味參茸燕窩街). As time goes by, some of their merchandises have also evolved to cater for modern lifestyle, but dried seafood, herbs, and traditional tonic food (such as ginseng) still remain popular along locals, especially as gifts during Chinese New Year.
Nowadays, there is a common development model in Hong Kong: erecting a series of residential towers atop a multi-storey shopping mall, and a transport interchange underneath for buses, minibuses, and the MTR metro. Everything from supermarkets, retail chains, food and beverage franchises, healthcare services, beauty and personal care, entertainment venues, community services, etc. would all be housed within the mall. Without much site specific character and community connections, a typical mall environment with the same group of shops that can be found everywhere in the city, essentially replaces the high street in a neighbourhood. Knocking down low rise buildings, erasing small alleys, and replacing with huge malls and high rise residential estates is luring business for developers, and is happening in many neighbourhoods across the city. So far, the majority of Sai Ying Pun has been spared from this large scale redevelopment force. Its century old urban fabric remains largely intact despite rapid gentrification in recent years. Within its grid street system, quite a number of shops have been serving the community for more than a generation. According to a university study, about 50% of Sai Ying Pun’s 35,960 population actually works in the same district. Residents have a high chance to interact with their neighbours while visiting the 700+ shops on street level. The recent arrival of foreign expats, along with new lifestyle shops, fine dining restaurants, pubs and cafes seem to harmoniously coexist with the traditional businesses of the community, reshaping the soul of a century-old neighbourhood in an interesting way.
Living in close proximity since 2019, we have become regular visitors to Sai Ying Pun. Every week we would walk over to drop off our household recyclables there, pick up grocery from our favourite tofu shop, vegetable stall, local sauce store and fishmonger, get restaurant takeouts, enjoy a traditional dim-sum breakfast or a Chinese dessert, and occasionally get haircut at an one-man salon. Sai Ying Pun has essentially become a part of our lives. Seeing the recent changes of Sai Ying Pun and the aging shopkeepers make us wonder how many of its unique old shops would remain in a decade’s time. Before all is lost, we felt it would be nice to document the urban scenery of this traditional neighbourhood as of today. With the humanistic scale and close knitted relationship within the community, this is essentially the soul of Sai Ying Pun that no shopping mall can ever replace.
East of Shek Tong Tsui, between the foothill of Victoria Peak and Victoria Harbour lies Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), one of the oldest neighborhoods in Hong Kong. Sai Ying Pun is well known for several things: very steep streets, a well mix of old and new shops, Dried Seafood Street, and perhaps the most famous of all, High Street Haunted House (高街鬼屋). In 1841, the British first set up a military camp in the area, and hence the Chinese named the area “Sai Ying Pun”, which literally means “West Camp Site”. Between 1855 and 1861, the colonial government expanded the City of Victory by establishing Sai Ying Pun adjacent to the old Chinese quarter of Tai Ping Shan. Different from Tai Ping Shan’s labyrinth of ladder streets (stepped alleys) and winding roads, the government adopted a grid street system in Sai Ying Pun, attempting to create a healthier living environment. The grid of Sai Ying Pung centered at Centre Street (正街), a steep thoroughfare that runs straight up the hill from the waterfront. On the slope, Centre Street bisects a number of horizontal streets, from First Street (第一街) near the bottom, Second Street (第二街) and Third Street (第三街) in the middle, to High Street (高街) near the top. These horizontal streets are bounded by Eastern Street (東邊街) in the east direction, and Western Street (西邊街) in the opposite. Applying this urban layout to the sloped site had created some really steep streets. Centre Street, with the steepest part at 1:4 slope, is one of the steepest streets in Hong Kong. With parts at 1:5 slope, Eastern Street is not too far behind.
With its 160+ years of history, steep streets, mix of locals and expats, and a rich variety of street shops, Sai Ying Pun presents a diverse urban scenery that is hard to find elsewhere in Hong Kong. After the MTR metro system extended to Sai Ying Pun in 2015, the area has become an instant hit for photographers and tourists, or anyone who looks for a cafe to chill out. In between the curtain wall apartments from recent years, and the postwar tenement buildings whose ground shops generate most of the area’s vibrant street life, there lies a much tranquil side of Sai Ying Pun, another half of the jigsaw which contributes to the unique identity of the neighbourhood. Behind bustling market and dining scenes, there is a range of colonial buildings standing like silent backdrops. Without notice, they have become the cornerstones of collective memory for the community. These remnants from the colonial past scatter across the entire neighbourhood. Masonry buildings of former hospitals, anonymous century-old retaining walls, stone wall trees, iron railing, historical gardens, churches, school complexes, courthouse, police station, all aged structures that have somehow managed to survive waves of urban redevelopment up to this point. On a quiet morning before the bustling day begins, wandering in Sai Ying Pun offers a poetic experience as if walking back in time, that is, for anyone who don’t mind climbing up and down some of the steepest streets in Hong Kong.
On the night of 11th November 2006, some 150,000 Hongkongers showed up at Edinburgh Place Pier to bid farewell to the third generation of Star Ferry Pier in Central, before the Modernist building was dismantled to make way for land reclamation. Politicians, opposition parities, environmentalists, conservationists, activists, NGOs, professional groups and Hong Kong Institute of Architects joined force to urge the public to fight for preserving one of the iconic structure. Their noble effort failed to stop the government’s bulldozers removing Edinburgh Place Pier and, a year later, Queen’s Pier from the urban scenery of Hong Kong. The government insisted that the 49-year-old Star Ferry Pier was not “old” enough to be classified as “historical”. But the authorities greatly underestimated the public sentiment towards the Modernist landmark, not because its architectural value could rival the most iconic world heritage, but because it was a familiar urban symbol featured well in the collective memories of many Hongkongers. The extraordinary public outcry and intense media coverage have dramatically raised public awareness about heritage conservation in Hong Kong, and eventually contributed to the preservation of the Former Police Married Quarters (PMQ) and Former Central Police Station Complex (Tai Kwun) in a few years’ time. In 2007, the same year as people were protesting about the dismantling of the Queen’s Pier, the Heritage Conservation Policy was finally passed “to protect, conserve and revitalize” historical and heritage sites and buildings in Hong Kong.
For generations before the demolition of Star Ferry Pier and Queen’s Pier, not much tears were shed in the city when old buildings were torn down to make way for new developments. To the government and real estate developers, land sales and redevelopment of old neighborhoods are often the most efficient way to make money. As the former British colony entered its post colonial era, the search of a collective identity and preservation of the collective memories have gained significant ground among the general public. Hongkongers became much more aware of how their familiar urban scenery were disappearing fast. Losing a cultural heritage is like losing a piece of precious memory in the collective psyche. In the process of strengthening a sense of belonging and self reflection of collective identity, heritage architecture plays a crucial role as tangible mediums connecting to the past. These buildings are evidences of the creativity, prosperity and memories of a bygone era, and a unique East-meet-West culture that has defined the urban diversity and architectural beauty of the city.
As the heart of the former Victoria City (維多利亞城), it is unsurprisingly that Central (中環) hosts a relatively high concentration of heritage buildings in Hong Kong. Due to limited land resources, high population density and sky high property prices, incentives for property owners to preserve historical buildings is often low in face of the lucrative rewards from redevelopment projects. In Central, however, one may notice that the surviving historical structures often serve as pleasant breathing pockets in the midst of glassy skyscrapers. These heritage buildings would introduce an exquisite character to the streetscape, and in return push up land value of the surrounding area. At the same time, successful adaptive reuse projects such as Tai Kwun, PMQ, Asia Society and Hong Kong Park, all have proven to be magnificent urban magnets and popular tourist destinations. These projects consolidate Central and surrounding areas as the historical, political and commercial heart of Hong Kong, just like how it always was since the Mid-19th Century.
A few years ago, Dutch photographer Marcel Heijnen published a beautiful photo book Hong Kong Shop Cats. The book was an instant hit and captured the heart of people both in Hong Kong and abroad. Lovely images of cats and shop owners with backdrops of traditional shops in Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun manifest a certain universal charm even for non cat lovers. It is the affection between shop cats and their owners that truly touch people, revealing a kind of human-animal bonding enrooted in the old shopping streets of Hong Kong. In the old neighborhoods, shop cats that linger at shopfront often become magnets that draw people from close and afar. Thanks to the social media, some celebrated shop cats (and owners) are even appear in foreign magazines or websites. While the need of mouse catching fades, the role of shop cats have shifted to sunbathing at shopfront, napping on cashier counter, patrolling the back alleys, and serving as social ambassadors to promote the business.
Other than old dried seafood or herbal medicine shops, cats also fit in well with all sort of businesses in the younger generation. Recent TV shows “Cat Shopkeepers” reveal that shops cats have become quite a phenomenon spreading to many businesses: bookstores, cafes, gyms, music schools, nail polishers, design shops, dance studios, musical instrument workshops, you name it. The cool yet lovely character of cats somehow become a perfect compliment to the warm-hearted and neighbourhood friendly identity of local small business. For returning customers or chance pedestrians, surprised encounters of shop cats may feel like discovering some sort of momentary antidotes to their otherwise stressful and monotonous daily life.
Entangling roots stretch across the surface of granite walls might remind people of the Ta Prohm Temple at Angkor Wat instead of the city of Hong Kong. Commonly known as “Stone Wall Trees” (石牆樹), the urban scenery of Chinese Banyan (Ficus microcarpa 細葉榕) enrooted on historical granite walls is a unique scene in Hong Kong, especially in Central-Western District where the heart of the old Victoria City was located. In 1841 when the British first landed in Hong Kong, the bare, rocky and hilly terrain of the island posed a huge challenge for establishing a settlement. Apart from land reclamation along the coast, the British also create habitable land by constructing flat terraces on the slope of Victoria Peak (Tai Ping Shan 太平山). From the mid 19th century onwards, local granite was used to construct retaining walls for the terrace constructions. To make the relatively bare island more habitable, trees were planted across the city to provide shade and visual interest. Many foreign tree species from other British colonies such as India and Australia were brought to Hong Kong. Due to its suitability to the local climate and ability to grow rapidly, Chinese Banyan (細葉榕) were widely planted. From these banyan trees, birds and bats ate the figs and spread the seeds all over the city, and into stone joints of the retaining walls. This led to the birth of the stone wall trees.
In 1996, scholar C.Y. Jim found 1275 trees with 30 or so species on about 505 stone walls. Ficus Microcarpa or Chinese Banyan is the most common type of stone wall trees. With hardly any soil to clinch into, these banyans take the wall as their host and spread their intertwining roots on the stone surfaces. After 50 to 100 years, these banyans gradually mature into shading crowns that we see today. Many of these old stone wall trees have survived to the present day, especially in Central – Western District which contains the city’s largest concentration of stone wall trees. The emergence of stone wall trees in Hong Kong, however, was no coincidence. Perfect climate conditions, suitable stone wall surface, and some good fortune of surviving the WWII when many old trees were cut down by the Japanese for timber, all played a part in the story of stone wall trees. After WWII, stone was soon replaced by concrete for retaining wall construction. Concrete walls left little room for new trees to enroot themselves by chance. After a few generations, the resilient stone wall trees have become iconic features for various old neighbourhoods.
Despite over a century serving to improve the micro-climate of the city, cultural and ecological significance of the stone wall trees have gone unnoticed until the recent two decades. In light of the government’s intention to demolish the former Police Married Quarters (PMQ) and its iconic stone wall trees in 2005, the local resident group “Central and Western Concern Group” was formed to fight for preserving the stone wall trees as well as the heritage building. Not only has their effort succeeded in convincing the government to preserve the PMQ, they have also increased the public awareness of the stone wall trees. In 2007, the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) decided to relocate a proposed exit for the new Kennedy Town Station in order to preserve the stone wall trees at Forbes Street. The admirable effort decisively preserved the largest concentration of stone wall trees in Hong Kong. Though not all cases were success stories. In 2015, five 150-year old stone wall banyans at Bonham Road were fell sneakily overnight, just because one of their neighbouring trees toppled some time ago due to heavy rain. In name of public safety, the five healthy trees were cut down before the arrival of a potential typhoon. No detailed study was made before the decision, and that particular typhoon didn’t even come close enough to pose any thread. The hasty action of the government led to a huge loss for the community and sparked public outcry. More and more people become aware that there is an urgent need to develop a strategic plan for protecting these unique urban stone wall trees before it is too late.