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LADDER STREETS PART 1: COLLECTIVE MEMORY, Central & Sheung Wan (中上環), Hong Kong

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.

Before the emergence of modern skyscrapers, the hilly terrain of Hong Kong Island was much more prominent. With only a narrow strip of flat land between the hill and the sea, the British Colonial government had little options but to rely on land reclamation and altering the sloped terrain to establish Victoria City.
[1880s skyline of Hong Kong with Central (left) and Sheung Wan (right), credit: Lai Afong, 1880s, public domain]
Today, one can hardly see the ridge line of Victoria Peak unless viewing from a distance. Almost all commercial skyscrapers are situated on reclaimed land that once belonged to the sea. [Skyline of Central (left) and Sheung Wan (right) as viewed across Victoria Harbour from Tsim Sha Tsui of Kowloon]
The old residential neighborhoods on the slopes of Central, Sheung Wan and Western District lie peacefully behind the modern skyline. [Looking downhill from Peel Street (卑利街) and Caine Road (堅道) towards the 346m The Centre (中環中心), Central (中環)]
Many ladder streets and sloped streets begin at Queen’s Road, the first major waterfront road in Hong Kong. In fact, just by mapping where the ladder streets begin can give us a rough idea on where the original shoreline of Hong Kong Island was located. After over 150 years of land reclamation, Queen’s Road has become a busy inland street with the sea nowhere to be seen. [The stepped section of Aberdeen Street (鴨巴甸街) where it meets Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中), Sheung Wan (上環)]
Layers of retaining walls from different periods in history are visible at some ladder streets. Landslides have been a constant issue in the past. Over a century of experiences and painful lessons, the city’s slope management techniques have become one of the most sophisticated in the world.[The retaining structure of Ladder Street (樓梯街) at U Lam Terrace (儒林臺), Sheung Wan (上環)]
In the past, some ladder streets have served as boundary line between two communities, such as Pottinger Street and Shing Wong Street that once separated British and Chinese communities. A ladder street might represent a means of separation, but also a venue of social mingling. Today, many ladder streets reveal the diversity of cultures where local traditions collide with contemporary trends. [A traditional temple and mural of a shisha smoking panda occupy opposite sides of Peel Street (卑利街), Central (中環)]
Ladder streets feature extensively in movies and TV shows in Hong Kong, including the 2013 movie The Way We Dance (狂舞派). A remarkable dance scene that combined Tai Chi with Hip-hop and a red balloon (essence spirit of Hong Kong: East meets West) was filmed at the steps of On Wo Lane. [On Wo Lane (安和里) as seen from Kau U Fong (九如坊), Central (中環)]
Opened in 1993, the Central – Mid Levels escalator has provided a more efficient means for pedestrians to travel up and down the lower slope of Victoria Peak. At certain areas, ladder streets have become obsolete as modern developments continue to transform the urban landscape. [Intersection of Central – Mid Levels Escalator (中環至半山自動扶梯) and Mosque Street (摩羅廟街), Mid-Levels (半山)]
There are always options in Hong Kong. On the same route, pedestrians may choose between taking the escalator on the upper deck, or take relaxing steps on the lower deck. [Central – Mid Levels Escalator (中環至半山自動扶梯) between Robinson Road (羅便臣道) and Mosque Junction (摩羅廟交加街), Mid-Levels (半山)]
Often appearing in local films and TV shows, one of the most recognizable ladder streets in Hong Kong is Duddell Street (都爹利街) and it’s four historic gas lamps in Central (中環). [Duddell Street (都爹利街), Central (中環)]
Manufactured by William Sugg & Co. in England, the four gas lamps of Duddell Street were erected in the early twentieth century. The colonial ambience of the Duddell ladder street reveals a form of urban aesthetics that once defined the entire Victoria City. [Duddell Street (都爹利街), Central (中環)]
Pottinger Street, commonly known as Stone Slabs Street (石板街), is undoubtedly the most iconic ladder street in Hong Kong. It remains as one of the top attraction for tourists visiting Central, the commercial heart of Hong Kong. [Pottinger Street (砵典乍街), between Hollywood Road (荷李活道) and Wellington Street (威靈頓街), Central (中環)]
At the junction of Pottinger Street and Wellington Street once stood the first Roman Catholic cathedral of Hong Kong. Built in 1843, the church was destroyed in a fire in 1859, and was rebuilt at another site on Caine Road. [Pottinger Street (砵典乍街) in junction with Wellington Street (威靈頓街), Central (中環)]
Today, Pottinger Street is a popular tourist attraction and a place to shop for Halloween costumes and Christmas decorations. [Pottinger Street (砵典乍街), between Wellington Street (威靈頓街) and Stanley Street (士丹利街), Central (中環)]
During Chinese New Year, Pottinger Street near Queen’s Road Central would turn into a sea of red. [Pottinger Street (砵典乍街), between Stanley Street (士丹利街) and Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中), Central (中環)]
French artist Invader’s pixelated dragon gives the century-old Pottinger Street a playful touch. [Pottinger Street (砵典乍街), near its terminus at Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中), Central (中環)]
Connecting Hollywood Road, Po Hing Fong and Bonham Road, Pound Lane was once the site of a government pound that kept cows and sheep in the 19th century. Whoever translated the street name from English to Chinese must have misinterpreted the meaning of “Pound” as in weight measurement. Late Canto-pop singer Leslie Cheung recorded the iconic music video of the song “Stand Up” with a dance troupe on the steps of Pound Lane in 1986. [Pound Lane (磅巷), in junction with Po Hing Fong (普慶坊), Sheung Wan (上環)]
The tranquil Pound Lane made news in 2013 when some pro-government politicians advocated to construct an escalator to replace the the steps. Many residents from the neighborhood opposed the idea. Not only might the proposal transform the area into a second Soho (noisy entertainment district), it might also invite developers to tear down the existing low rise apartments and replace with 30-storey luxury apartments. [Pound Lane (磅巷), between Po Hing Fong (普慶坊) and Tai Ping Shan Street (太平山街), Sheung Wan (上環)]
A landing above Po Hing Fong, Pound Lane reaches a small community piazza at Tai On Terrace. Today, Tai On Terrace is home to a cafe, photography gallery, health food store, yoga studio, etc. [Pound Lane (磅巷), in junction with Tai On Terrace (大安臺), Sheung Wan (上環)]