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.
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.
Staycation has become a new normal for most of us. Since the pandemic began in early 2020, international tourism has come to a complete halt. We have taken this peculiar opportunity to explore Hong Kong, walking away from our usual routes, making detours into unfamiliar alleyways, and find out more about the city’s fading memories. In the next little while, we are going to write about Hong Kong, the city where we stationed ourselves since 2014. Out of the city’s 1,106 sq. km of land, we will first focus on places within 15 – 20 minutes of walking distance from our apartment, in a 2.5 sq.km area between Victoria Peak and Victoria Harbour that we consider as our own neighborhood.
In the shadow of Hong Kong’s glittering skyline lies the historical Tai Ping Shan area (太平山) in Sheung Wan District (上環). Hundreds if not thousands of staircases crisscross the terraced terrain where streets are often narrow, steep and sometimes inaccessible to cars. Centered around the streets of Po Hing Fong and Tai Ping Shan, a fashionable neighborhood known as Poho has been the focus of the Tai Ping Shan area for quite some time. A diverse combination of fine dining restaurants, causal eateries, sleepy cafes, wine store, cheese and ham shop, antique shops, cool boutiques, bookstores, barber shops, Buddhist temples, churches, schools, small design offices, small museums, youth centres, residential apartments, etc make up a multifaceted community that is quite unique in Hong Kong, not to mention the rich architectural history and collective memories since the founding of the city. Poho is a neighborhood where east meets west, traditions collide with contemporary trends, elderly mingle with young expats, and where the beauty of urban diversity still prevails over the hustle of urban gentrification.
On 20 January 1841, the British landed on the shore of Sheung Wan and established 156 years of colonial rule on Hong Kong island. Just east of Sheung Wan, the British picked the waterfront and hillside area known as Central to established the heart of their newly founded Victoria City, the capital city of Colonial Hong Kong. On the slope of Sheung Wan just above the British landing spot, the city’s first Chinese residential neighborhood Tai Ping Shan emerged right away and soon developed into the densest place in Hong Kong. Wealthy Chinese businessmen mingled with newcomers from China looking for job opportunities in this dense neighborhood. A devastating plague in 1894 swept through the streets of Tai Ping Shan, and completely transformed the physical characteristics of the neighborhood as the British decided to tackle the density and hygiene of the area and established the first hospital catered for Chinese patients. Since then, Tai Ping Shan never looked back and has transformed into the cool Poho. With the world’s most expensive property prices, Hong Kong is a synonym for rapid urban transformations. Residents across the city are used transient living conditions throughout their lives. Poho’s narrow alleyways and staircases have somehow managed to escape dramatic changes and remained a tranquil but energetic urban oasis just a stone throw away from the world famous financial district.