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.
After the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, we taxied back to the city centre of Xian. Before dinner, we decided to pay the beautiful Bell Tower a proper visit. Situated at the heart of a roundabout, the Bell Tower could only be accessed via an underground passage. We paid the admission and climbed the stair up to the podium deck of the building. Ornate architectural carving, including the magnificent window screens, were well restored. Since construction in 1384 during the Ming Dynasty, the Bell Tower had been restored a number of times. The tower was damaged in the Second World War, and since then five restorations had taken place to restore the building into its former glory. Originally built to house the bells to announce time for the city, Xian’s Bell Tower had also performed multiple functions throughout history: stage for public announcement, military beacon, temporary prison, and even the first ever film cinema in Xian. We stayed on the podium deck for quite some time to admire the architecture and the urban scenery at all four directions, until we were urged by hunger to leave for a dumpling dinner nearby at a traditional restaurant called De Fa Chang (德發長).
Bell Tower in the centre of the roundabout with Drum Tower in the background.
Close up of the colourful timber architectural elements of the Bell Tower.
Across the street from the roundabout stands the equally important Drum Tower.
The Bell Tower and roundabout in 1960.
The beam and purlin system that supports the big roof of Bell Tower.
Close up of the beams and purlins.
Walking out to the deck of the upper level.
A smaller version of the famous Jingyun Bell (cast in AD711 during Tang Dynasty) was on display on the Bell Tower.
Stair back down to the base of the Bell Tower.
Bell and Drum Tower Square adjacent to the Bell Tower roundabout.
The Drum Tower as seen from the Bell and Drum Tower Square.
In Mid-October, we had the opportunity to reunite with two of our travel buddies for a short trip to China. It was the week after the week-long Chinese National Holiday. We had a simple travel plan consisted of two distinct parts: Xian (西安) for history and Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝) for natural scenery. Xian, historically known as Changan (長安), was the ancient capital of China for 13 different dynasties, spanning a total period of over 1200 years, including the golden age of Han and Tang Dynasty. The ruins of ancient royal palaces and tombs, such as the magnificent Terra-cotta Warriors of the First Qin Emperor, revealed the former glory of ancient China. Jiuzhaigou, on the other hand, has been renowned for its out-of-this-world alpine scenery. It is located at the north of Sichuan Province (四川) where the plains of Eastern and Central China begins to give way to the Tibetan and Qinghai Plateau.
After a minor delay, we flew out of Hong Kong in a Saturday afternoon. It was already dusk by the time we landed at Xian Xianyang Interational Airport. We took an airport bus into the city, and taxied the rest of the way to our hostel south of Xincheung Square (新城廣場). Our taxi passed by the well-preserved Ming city wall and the brightly lit historical Bell Tower. After getting off, it took us a while to find the alleyway where our hostel was located. We were delighted to find our hostel room clean and comfortable. After checking in, we headed out immediately to grab a quick dinner. According to guidebook, an old famous restaurant of Shaanxi Muslim food called Lao Sun Jia (老孫家) was just five minutes of walk from our hostel. We found our way to the restaurant at the fourth floor of a retail centre. It was about 21:00 and there was only one table of guests finishing off their beer and noodles. We sat down and ordered the popular paomo (泡饃), or crumbled flatbread in either mutton or beef stew.
After dinner, we wanted to checked out the beautiful Bell Tower (鐘樓) right at the historical heart of Xian. It was another five minute of walk from the restaurant. The tower was already close for the day, but we could still admire the historical architecture across the street from the tower’s roundabout. This handsome piece of traditional architecture was an icon of Xian. In the old days since the 14th century, the tower’s main function was to mark the moment of dawn with its bells. A few blocks away, we noticed another historical building prominently lit up. It was the Drum Tower (鼓樓), the building that originally housed 28 drums to mark the day’s end at dusk. Around the corner from the Drum Tower, we entered a busy pedestrian streets packed with snack vendors. We had entered Beiyuanmen (北院門) Street, the core of Xian’s Muslim Quarter. It was almost 10pm but the street was still busy with visitors. There were a number of vendors selling barbecue lamb kebabs, mutton or beef sandwiches, local pomegranate juices, traditional sweets, nuts, persimmon cakes, and many other kinds of desserts. After the filling meal of paomo, we gave it a pass for the street food. We slowly walked back to our hostel, hoping to get some good rest. In the next morning we would exit Xian and head eastwards to the foot of Lishan Mountains to check out the most popular tourist attraction of Xian: the First Qin Emperor’s Terra-cotta Warriors.
Mutton paomo (泡饃) at Lao Sun Jia Restaurant (老孫家).
Beef paomo (泡饃) at Lao Sun Jia Restaurant (老孫家).
Heading towards the icon of Xian, the Bell Tower (鐘樓).
The Bell Tower stands at the centre of a large roundabout.
The 14th century structure is lit up with atmospheric lighting.
The Drum Tower at a distance, and in front, the public square between Bell Tower and Drum Tower. The square is flanked by local restaurants, a department store, and a Starbucks.
Signage at the Drum Tower.
The mighty Drum Tower near the entrance to the Muslim Quarter.
Street vendor of lamb kebabs at the Muslim Quarter. There were terrifying lamb skeletons hanging in front of each kebab store.
Beiyuanmen (北院門) Street, the main pedestrian street at the Muslim Quarter.