In 1888, the same year when Peak Tram began operating up the slope of Victoria Peak, “Kowloon Ferry Company” was also established for managing the first regular steamboat services between Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island. Soon, the company expanded to a fleet of four ferries, and was renamed to “Star Ferry Co Ltd” (天星小輪), the name that is still in use today. Named by National Geographic Traveler as one of the “50 Places of a Lifetime” and topping the list of “Top Ten Most Exciting Ferry Rides” by the Society of American Travel Writers, it is no doubt that Hong Kong’s Star Ferry has been on the radar of international travelers for quite some time. For about HK$4 (US$ 0.50), anyone can enjoy a moment of peace crossing Victoria Harbour. In the past century, as a series of land reclamations have shortened the distance between Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island, piers in Central and Wanchai have been moved numerous times, and ferry rides across the Harbour have become shorter. No matter how short the ride has become, the star ferry experience still offers some of the most rewarding views of Hong Kong’s skyline. To have a moment of relaxation, we always prefer taking the ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side when time allows. The ride is particular lovely at sunset and night.
In 1888, Indian Parsee businessman Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala established Kowloon Ferry Company and operated the first regular ferry service between Hong Kong and Kowloon, taking bread, cargo and passengers with his steamboat Morning Star. In 1890, three more boats, Evening Star, Guiding Star and Rising Star joined the service. Upon retirement, Mithaiwala sold his ferries and company to another British-Indian businessman Sir Paul Chater’s (遮打), one of the first business mogul who was responsible and involved in establishing many large corporations in Hong Kong, including Hongkong Land (置地), Hongkong Electric (港燈), Dairy Farm (牛奶公司), Kowloon Wharf (九龍倉), etc. In the 20th century, the fleet of Star Ferry continued to grow as different generations of ferry piers were erected in Central, Wanchai and Tsim Sha Tsui. Today, the Star Ferry has eight boats in total, with an average age of 58 years old. Since the completion of Cross-Harbour Tunnel in 1972 and the Harbour crossing Mass Transit Railway (MTR) in February 1980, Star Ferry is no longer the main means of public transportation between Hong Kong and Kowloon. It does, however, carry a sense of history and collective memory of the bygone era. For both locals and tourists, the ferry also offers arguably the best way to enjoy the skyline of Hong Kong. Taking the MTR or driving through the Cross Harbour Tunnel, one can hardly notice the famous harbour.
On 27th of June 2021, the fifth generation Peak Tram made its last trip up the Victoria Peak. The service would then be shut down for an extensive upgrade, laying new tracks and introducing larger funicular trains in the next six months. From the 30-seat wooden train operated by a steam engineer in 1888, to the upcoming 210-seat fully computerized and universally accessible aluminium train, the Peak Tram is about to enter its sixth generation in 133 years. The Peak Tram is, in fact, the oldest funicular system in Asia, and the first public transportation system in Hong Kong. We would occasionally hike up the Peak via Lung Fu Shan Country Park and descend by taking the Peak Tram to Kennedy Road Stop, where we would walk through the Botanical Gardens to return home. It was a 7-minute treat of lovely scenery from 28m to 368m above sea level every time we hopped onto the peak tram and sat on those inclined seats at the maximum of about 27 degrees. Before the pandemic, riding the peak tram was almost a compulsory activity for all foreign tourists. Today, the funicular is popular with local visitors during weekends.
The Peak Tram has always been a means of transportation for leisure. At 552m above sea level, the Peak is the perfect retreat from the summer heat. In 1881, Alexander Findlay Smith, who worked for the Scottish Highway Railway before, convinced Governor John Pope-Hennessy to operate a funicular route between the south of Murray Barracks (now Admiralty) and Victoria Gap on the Peak. He hoped the new transportation system would boost visitor numbers to his prestige Peak Hotel. Apart from hotel visitors and tourists, the Peak Tram also served the wealthy expatriates who lived on the Peak. Findlay Smith soon put the Peak Hotel and Peak Tram onto the market. At the end, the hotel and funicular landed in the hands of Hongkong Hotel Company, the current owner of Peninsula Hotel Group. Before 1920, the funicular was the only means of transportation connecting the Peak with Central, the downtown of Hong Kong. It has been 83 years since the Peak Hotel was burnt down in 1938. Its former site is now occupied by the shopping centre Peak Galleria (山頂廣場). Opposite to Peak Galleria now stands the Peak Tower (凌霄閣), another eye-catching retail complex that also doubles as the Upper Peak Tram Terminus. Below the Peak, the city’s skyline has changed dramatically in the past century. Perhaps the only thing that stays recognizable in the past 130 years is the funicular system itself.
Well known for its skyscrapers, Hong Kong actually has another face of lush green hills and pristine beaches to counterbalance the overwhelming urbanity. In fact, out of 1092 sq.km, about three quarters of Hong Kong’s land area is countryside comprised of hills, woodlands and beaches. No matter from which district in the city, nature is never far way. In 1976, the Country Park Ordinance was passed to enforce nature conservation. Under the ordinance, 24 country parks (郊野公園) have been established so far, protecting about 440 sq.km of natural landscape. Across the city, many neighbourhoods are situated within close proximity from one of these country parks, where Hongkongers treat them as urban backyards for morning exercises, afternoon picnics or evening hikes. For us living in Central and Western District, our closest backyard is Lung Fu Shan Country Park on the hill right behind Hong Kong University. We sometimes thought of walking up Lung Fu Shan and the adjacent Victoria Peak to catch the first glimpse of morning sun over the famous Hong Kong skyline. This has yet happened, but we do occasional short hikes when weather permits. From our home, it is just several minutes of bus ride to the trailhead of the 2.75km Lung Fu Shan Trail. Between Victoria Peak (太平山) and Mount High West (西高山), Lung Fu Shan or Hill Above Belcher’s (龍虎山) is a 253m hill right above the main campus of Hong Kong University. In 1998, Lung Fu Shan Country Park was established to protect the small patch of forest around the hill. With just about 0.1% of the total area of all country parks, the city’s smallest country park is home to almost one third of all species of birds, butterflies, amphibians, reptiles and mammals found in Hong Kong. Given the park is situated at less than 30 minutes walking distance to the central business district, Lung Fu Shan is surprisingly valuable to the city’s biodiversity.
Before Lung Fu Shan Country Park was established, I visited the Pinewood Battery (松林炮台) on Lung Fu Shan with my parents several times. Completed in 1905 by the colonial government, the historical battery was heavily damaged during WWII. In the Battle of Hong Kong (December 1941), the battery was under rounds of air raids before it was abandoned on 15th of December 1941. In the 1980’s the military structures were pretty much lying in ruins. For me as a child, the ruined battery was a great place for picnic or to play hide and seek. 11 years after the establishment of Lung Fu Shan Country Park, the ruined structures were listed as Grade II historical buildings in 2009 and become one of the main features in the park. Display boards and a trail linking all the major structures are set up are provided on site to tell the story.
On a fine Friday afternoon, we decided to drop by Lung Fu Shan Environmental Education Centre near the park entrance at Kotewall Road (旭龢道). Operated by Environmental Protection Department and University of Hong Kong, the small interpretation centre housed in a listed historical bungalow just a stone throw away from Hong Kong University was a pleasant surprise. Built in 1890, the 131-year bungalow was home for the watchman who protected the adjacent Pokfulam Filter Beds, the facility used to filter drinking water for Pokfulam Reservoir nearby. The former watchman’s residence is now converted into the visitor centre of Lung Fu Shan Country Park, welcoming anyone who wishes to know more about the ecology and biodiversity of the area. Apart from insect specimens and wildlife photographs, we were particularly interested in the videos interviewing the former residents of the bungalow complex, who were occupying the three historical houses in the complex until 1996. At the centre, we had a delightful chat with the staff there and picked up The Pulse of Nature – Mid-Levels West, a book of writings, illustrations and photographs that offers a variety of perspectives that explores the natural context of Mid-Levels West around Lung Fu Shan.
In the Cat Street neighbourhood, the story of Uncle Tim might have come to an end, but another piece of collective memory from the 1960’s continues to live on. Not a cool vintage store, nor a hip design shop, the down to earth Chu Wing Kee (朱榮記) just happens to make its name as an honest and ordinary homeware shop. Local homewares shops like Chu Wing Kee were pretty common in Hong Kong before 1970’s. As the city entered the decades of economic boom, most of these shops have faded out from the urban scenery. Supermarkets, department stores, dollar shops, convenient store chain, and even online shopping have virtually wiped out these shops. As property prices skyrocketed in recent decades, a 1000 sq.ft ground floor retail space in central Hong Kong could worth about USD 4 million. For a shop owner selling housewares at a few USD a piece, selling the shop makes much more sense than continuing the business. Paying a high rent to sell everyday merchandises also doesn’t make it profitable either. The gradual death of traditional homeware shops in Hong Kong seems inevitable. But there are exceptions. Chu Wing Kee is one of these rarities.
Chu Wing Kee started in 1959 by the father of Mr. Chu, the current owner of the shop, with a street stall selling “shan for” (山貨), or “goods from the mountains”. “Shan for” literally refers to housewares and furniture made of natural materials, notably handicrafts made of rattan, bamboo, reed, wood or grass. In mid 20th century, wickenworks made with rattan were very popular. In Hong Kong, these products were handmade and sold during the dry season. In the 1970’s, Hong Kong had became a major manufacturing city of plastic products. Traditional handmade “shan for” proved to be no match against the cheaper and mass produced plastic products. “Shan for” has quietly faded out from most homes. Rattan was perceived as dated and dull, not as exciting as the colourful plastic products. Two generations have since passed. Rattan decor is making a comeback in recent years. So what actually is rattan? Rattan is a climbing plant belongs to the palm family. It can be found in rainforests in Asia, Africa and Australia. It is light, durable and relatively flexible. It serves as a good alternative to timber. Rattan usually grows under shade in rainforests, and can even be cultivated under fruit or rubber trees. However, as deforestation intensifies in recent decades, so as the population of rattan.
As a traditional shop selling “shan for” (山貨), Chu Wing Kee still offers a wide range of rattan goods and other products made locally with natural materials. Since most local craftsmen are getting quite advance in age, Mr. Chu might eventually have to rely on imported products from Southeast Asia. For now, Mr. Chu still manages to offer some local “shan for”, and other vintage housewares dated back to the 1960’s. For many, checking out Chu Wing Kee might be a nostalgic journey to hunt for childhood memories from a treasure trove. Apart from rattan items, ceramic and plastic piggy banks are two of the most popular merchandises Mr. Chu is offering Hongkongers. Other notable vintage products include plastic toys, traditional thermal bottles, metal mailboxes, ceramic chicken bowls, ceramic cooking pots and rice storage, wood laundry washboard, etc. For us living in the area, Mr. Chu’s shop offers some handy products that even supermarkets or department stores no longer carry. In early spring this year, we couldn’t resist but picked up a handmade rattan/bamboo chair. Touching the pencil marks on the bamboo chair arms reminded us how the chair was made by the chair maker, who had soaked, bend and tied the pieces together with his dexterous hands.
18th June 2021 was the deadline for developers to bid for the latest waterfront site in Central, between Jardine House and Central Ferry Pier. With an estimated value at around USD 5 – 7.1 billion, the 47,970 sq.m site encompasses a piece of reclaimed land and the iconic General Post Office at Connaught Place. Completed in 1976, the fourth generation postal headquarters has been a prominent fixture in the city’s evolving skyline for 45 years. Despite efforts from conservationists, the building would inevitably be replaced by another glassy skyscraper in the near future. While few people see the modernist post office as an architectural masterpiece, many Hongkongers have expressed their resentment about the potential loss in the business district. With its horizontal features, modular brise soleil, and concrete vaults, the General Post Office is a decent example of modernist architecture in Hong Kong, the design movement that first emerged in the West between the World Wars. Using modern construction methods and materials like steel, reinforced concrete and glass, Modernism rose to become the dominant architectural style after WWII. In Hong Kong, the Modernist style in the city is often referred to as the “Bauhaus style”.
Founded by German architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus was probably the most famous and avant-garde design and art school between the world wars (1919 – 1933). From art to graphic design, architecture to interiors, typography to industrial design, influences of the Bauhaus have been an omnipresence in our lives. Commonly known as International Style, the minimalist and rationalist approach of the Bauhaus reflect the rapid modernization of the 20th century. To envision Modernism, architectural masters like Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, or Mies van de Rohe might be looking for a novel design methodology and architectural tectonics that define the functionalism and aesthetics of the Modern Age. By the time Modernism has arrived to Postwar Hong Kong, the style was quickly adopted due to pragmatic reasons such as construction speed, design modularity, minimal detailing, and versatile functionality. Modernist apartment blocks, office towers, factories, schools, sport centres, parking garages, market complexes, and government buildings flourished across the city to cope with the population and economic boom, replacing earlier colonial structures and pre-war tenement buildings.
As Hong Kong further developed into one of Asia’s most prominent financial hubs in the 1980’s, the architectural world has already entered the age of Post-Modernism. Some notable Modernist buildings such as Gropius’ Bauhaus in Dessau, Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa’s City of Brasilia, Le Corbusier’s various projects in Europe, Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, etc. have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, but many more Modernist buildings have become subjects of demolition and redevelopment. Modernist architecture has yet been widely recognized as a precious heritage, nor have them been well loved by the public. Many have already been torn down in Hong Kong in the past three decades. In recent years, this attitude has finally come to a twist. The potential demolition of buildings like the General Post Office have raised public awareness of the modern heritage. This is a realization of what heritage and cultural legacy really are in the making of a diverse urban culture and defining the zeitgeist of an era.
Not all Modernist buildings are designated for demolition in Hong Kong. Some have been preserved and revitalized with new uses and appearances, such as the Murray Building (美利大廈) on Cotton Tree Road. The 1969 government office tower was recently converted into a 5-star hotel by architect Norman Foster. Such adaptive reuse of the Modernist building is a convincing way to preserve memories and manage urban changes while retaining the essence of the original architecture.
In 2014, local film Dot 2 Dot (點對點) was screened in the Hong Kong International Film Festival. The film was often described as low key, low budget and slow paced love story to the city. Amos Wong’s film explores the history and identity of Hong Kong through the encounter of a graffiti artist and a Mandarin teacher. It begins with the Mandarin teacher, newly arrived from Mainland China, discovering mysterious graffiti composed of dots at every metro station in Hong Kong. She is able to decode the graffiti by connecting the dots into meaningful imagery related to the local history of the particular neighborhood. She then comes up with her own graffiti and engages the unknown graffiti artist in a battle of graffiti riddles. It turns out that the graffiti artist is actually one of her students, who himself is a professional designer returned to Hong Kong from Canada. The movie follows both characters to explore different neighborhoods, including the quest to check out the boundary stones of the former Victoria City (維多利亞城). At the end of the film, the teacher finally realizes the true identity of the graffiti artist after visiting the westernmost boundary stone in Kennedy Town (堅尼地城). The story ends with them enjoying the peaceful sunset together at Kennedy Town ‘s praya.
Considered the capital of the former British Colony, Victoria City at the northern shore of Hong Kong island was the city’s first urban settlement. Victoria City was defined by the four “wans” (四環) or districts: Sai Wan (西環), Sheung Wan (上環), Chung Wan (中環), and Ha Wan (下環) or present’s day Wanchai. In 1903, the government erected seven stones to mark the boundary of Victoria City. The city soon expanded beyond the boundary limits and the stones became obsolete. Measured 98cm in height, tapered at the top and marked with the inscription “City Boundary 1903”, these historical boundary stones are mostly forgotten, except for history buffs who occasionally check on these urban artifacts and share their photos on the Internet. Six out of seven boundary stones survive to the present day, except the one at Magazine Gap Road in the Mid-Levels that was negligently removed by retaining wall contractors in 2007. For the remaining six boundary stones, it is possible to visit them all in a 5-6 hour hike. The hike offers hikers an interesting opportunity to walk around the old city centre, from the waterfront of Kennedy Town, halfway up the Victoria Peak and down to the Happy Valley Racecourses to the east.
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.