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.
In 2017, the 4th generation Union Church (佑寧堂) at 22A Kennedy Road, a 68-year Grade III listed historical building, was brutally torn down for a highly controversial real estate redevelopment. Despite efforts from conservation groups, architects, politicians, church members, media, and local community groups, the government refused to list the church as a Grade I historical building, and the Union Church refuses to back down from the project. The upcoming 22-storey mixed use building, which includes a new worshiping space and 45 luxurious apartments split between real estate developer Henderson Land Development (恒基兆業地產) and Union Church, exemplifies another bitter defeat of architectural heritage conservation in Hong Kong. Perhaps no government in 1890 (the time when Union Church acquired the site) could predict how insanely expensive land prices would become in a hundred years’ time, especially in the affluent Mid-Levels district. The original reasoning for letting missionaries to acquire land at relatively low cost may no longer be justified. Today, this has become a convenient tool for any religious institution to secure commercial profit by selling its own properties. Union Church is not the first such case and certainly won’t be the last either.
The scene of a lonely Gothic Revival church encircled by highrise apartments or commercial towers ten times its height is not uncommon in Hong Kong. Well known for its high urban density, many neighborhoods in Hong Kong appear like monotonous forests of highrise buildings. Engulfed in glittering reflections of curtain wall glazing, old churches in the city have become precious features. Each architectural detail is full of history, collective memories, and a melancholic beauty. Well worth checking out, several churches in the Mid-Levels represent some of the oldest surviving structures in Hong Kong. Churches were some of the first permanent buildings constructed after the British arrived in 1841. The 180-year heritage of church architecture tells the story of Christianity in Hong Kong, which is as old as the city itself. Early missionaries, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, built churches and used Hong Kong as their base to spread the gospel in China and beyond. They also set up local charity networks, schools and hospitals, at a time when the colonial government had little interest in lives of the locals. Today, about 1.2 million Hongkongers or roughly 16% of the population are Christians. While churches and their affiliated institutions continue to thrive, some churches, like the Union on Kennedy Road, have reached the dilemma on how to compete and expand in the era of tremendous commercialism and sky-high property value. Each big decision a church makes may lead to the daunting risk of losing a part of Hong Kong’s architectural heritage. Every time a historical church is being torn down and moved into one of the city’s 9000+ highrise buildings, it represents one irreplaceable loss for not just today’s Hongkongers, but for the next generations to come.