In March 1992, Space Design, a Japanese monthly journal of art and architecture published a special feature on “Hong Kong: Alternative Metropolis” as its Issue 330. One of its articles was “Ue-no-michi”: Floating Way – Central New Town, which introduces to Japanese readers the Central Elevated Walkways, an extensive footbridge network that connects a significant numbers of office towers and shopping centres in the central business district of Hong Kong. The authors mapped out the system, and examined its significance on master planning and urban development of the city. In fact, this pedestrian circulation system has long been a well known reference case for urban planning studies around the world. Without touching the ground, one can pass from one office tower to another, or transfer from a ferry pier to a bus terminal, or access to restaurants, shops, services, hotels, apartments, post office, banks, or ascend to the Mid Levels from the harbourfront. Not only does the network enhances pedestrian connectivity in Downtown Hong Kong, it also offers a safe, weather protected, well lit, clean, convenient, and sometimes air conditioned public space network several metres above the dust, noises and air pollution of the streets. Separating pedestrian and vehicular circulations is also beneficial to vehicular traffic on the streets, where pedestrian traffic lights can be placed much further apart.
The Central Elevated Walkway began in 1970’s, when developer and Central’s biggest landlord Hongkong Land (置地) constructed a footbridge between Connaught Place (now Jardine House), Swire House (now Chater House) and the General Post Office. From then on, the government, developers and banking corporations continue to expand the network to include more buildings and bridge connections. Similar strategy has been adopted elsewhere in the city, notably in business districts Admiralty and Wan Chai, entertainment district Mong Kok, industrial district Tsuen Wan, etc. In 2012, architects and scholars Adam Frampton, Jonathan Solomon and Clara Wong published Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook. The three architectural scholars provide a detailed analysis of the elevated walkways in Hong Kong with beautiful isometric maps. Apart from pedestrian circulation, the book also celebrate the social aspects of the raised spatial system as an essential and integral layer of the city.
Navigating the labyrinth of elevated walkways in Central is not as difficult as one may think, as users can always rely on the clear signage and street scenes below to orient themselves. Elevated several metres above ground, the walkways offer a unique vantage point to enjoy the urban scenery of the financial district. Every Sunday, the covered elevated walkways and adjoining podiums would be turned into a gathering point for foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong. Sitting in small groups on folded cardboard, the domestic helpers (mainly from Philippines and Indonesia) would gather and eat, chat, pray, dance, sing karaoke, tell jokes, watch smartphone videos, play card games, make long distant video calls, etc. The walkways where normally dominated by quick pace pedestrians would suddenly become a vibrant social hub as if a public park.
Linking a number of tourist attractions like Tai Kwun, PMQ and Man Mo Temple, Hollywood Road is always popular for tourists in Hong Kong. While tourists come for the historical attractions, many locals, on the other hand, come to Hollywood Road for food and drinks. South of Hollywood Road, the narrow Staunton Street (士丹頓街) was once home to wet market vendors, trading offices, family-run stores and small Buddhist convents (庵堂). In fact, Staunton Street was once nicknamed the Street of Buddhist Nuns (師姑街). After the Central – Mid Levels Escalators opened to the public in 1993 and brought an influx of pedestrians from the business district downhill, Staunton Street and the adjacent Elgin Street(伊利近街) have quietly undergone a dramatic transformation. Expatriates started to move into the area. Old shops and Buddhist convents were gradually replaced by bars, pubs, restaurants, comedy clubs, cafes, and wine shops. In 1996, Thomas Goetz, a restaurant owner from Elgin Street, came up with the acronym “SoHo” (蘇豪) for this new entertainment and dining area of Central, referring to the location “South of Hollywood Road”. From then on, the Staunton Street that I used to go as a child to get fresh grocery and pay ritualistic respect to my grandfather at a small Buddhist convent has silently disappeared. Today, SoHo would remain sleepy most of the day, and then bursts into life after sunset. The yell of market vendors and pungent incense smoke have been replaced by causal giggles and laughter, and the smell of beer.
Further away from the Central – Mid Levels Escalators and less than 150m northwest of the buzzing SoHo, Gough Street (歌賦街), Kau U Fong (九如坊) and Aberdeen Street (鴨巴甸街) offer a much more laid-back and tranquil ambience. Once home to family run shops and small printing presses, these sleepy back streets have become a hipper cousin of the nearby SoHo. Known as NoHo for “North of Hollywood Road”, this area is particular attractive to locals who come for the foodie scene: Chinese cuisine, dai pai dong dishes, beef brisket noodles, Japanese ramen, sushi, Western fine dining, unadon, Vietnamese pho, hand-drip cafes, bubble tea, chocolate, etc. Despite its abundance of dining options, the shops here remain small and peaceful. Compared to its noisier neighbour, NoHo is much more low key, as if deliberately staying away from the public limelight. Here visitors would enjoy a sense of discovery and intimacy that is hard to find anywhere else in Central.