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.
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.