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.
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.
Six years before the handover of Hong Kong to China, Taiwanese songwriter and singer Lo Tayou (羅大佑) published a song called “Queen’s Road East” (皇后大道東) in 1991. Emerged as a satirical reflection of Hongkongers’ collective feelings in the eve’s of the handover, the song became an instant hit. Even today, the song still offers an interesting cultural reference to understand the city’s unsettling moment before 1997. In the face of Hong Kong’s social uncertainties and imminent changes in near future, lyricist Albert Leung (林夕) made use of a wide range of symbols in the song, from “portrait on the coin” and “noble friend” to signify Queen Elizabeth II, to “waves of pedestrians” to suggest the mass exodus of Hongkongers. But the biggest symbolism is in fact the name “Queen’s Road East” itself. Physically divided into three sections, namely Queen’s Road East, Queen’s Road Central, and Queen’s Road West, Queen’s Road was used in the song to symbolize the three main players in the city’s story: “East” for Hong Kong, “West” for Britain, and “Central” for China (in reference to “Middle Kingdom”, the Chinese name of China). While “Queen” is unmistakably a reference to the city’s colonial past, the historical and economic significance of Queen’s Road has suggested a meaning way beyond colonialism. It is in fact a symbol of the city’s success story. As Hong Kong’s first main road, Queen’s Road was home to the first city hall, first post office, first luxury hotel, first bank headquarters, first residences of government officials, first business district, etc. After almost 180 years of urban transformations, its importance in the commercial heart remains vital to this date. The rich history and symbolism of Queen’s Road has made it a sensible choice for Lo Tayou and Albert Leung in their iconic song, and a reference point to tell the story of Hong Kong.
For its architecture and luxury shops, Queen’s Road Central is indeed a popular destination for both foreign visitors and local Hongkongers. Constructed between 1841 and 1843, Queen’s Road was originally named Main Street (大馬路). It ran through the first business district in the city between Sai Ying Pun (西營盤) and Central (中環). The road was soon renamed as Queen’s Road in tribute to Queen Victoria. As the road further extended in the west and east direction, Queen’s Road was eventually divided into three main sections: West, Central and East. Connecting Sheung Wan (上環) and Central along the island’s original shoreline, Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中) has long been considered as a synonym of Downtown Hong Kong. Subsequent land reclamations in the next 180 years pushed Queen’s Road Central further and further inland. The business district has long extended way beyond its original extent around Queen’s Road Central. Yet, buildings along the road continue to be sold, torn down and replaced by taller replacements, from the 19th century Neo-classical structures to the 20th century Modernist buildings, and then to the contemporary glassy skyscrapers. Due to its historical significance, Queen’s Road Central is probably one of the most documented street in Hong Kong. Having the historical photographs in hand while taking a brief tour of Queen’s Road Central offers a fruitful way to understand the tale of constant changes, and endless cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction in one of the fastest growing metropolises in modern history.
In a spring Saturday afternoon, we went to a familiar stall at Graham Street Market (嘉咸街市集) to pick up some fruits. While the male owner gathered the fruits we wanted, his wife was busy feeding a big cat tuna-like snacks with a small spoon. The cat sat gratefully on the table to chew on its snacks with its eyes closed. The lady gently stroked the cat’s back and proudly praised about its silky fur. We soon found out that the cat actually didn’t belong to the fruit stall owners. It was a guest from the adjacent dried goods stall. Like many other cats in the open street market, the lucky one we encountered that day would roam freely and welcomed by different stall owners in the area everyday.
Such beautiful human-cat relationship is not uncommon in the old neighbourhoods of Central-Sheung Wan (中上環) and adjacent Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), where decades old shops and market stalls provide the perfect havens for cats to linger. In return for all the food and love from shop owners, the cats would catch mice, attract pedestrian’s attention, and most importantly, keep the shop owners company during the day. Similar to Japan, where the belief of maneki-neko or “beckoning cat” (招き猫) has been around since the Edo Period, shop cats in Hong Kong are often regarded as an integral member of the business. In recent years, these shop cats are often referred to as “feline shopkeepers” (貓店長). These cute shopkeepers have become beloved mascots of the old neighbourhoods, where shop doors are always kept open to the street from morning till dusk.
In Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (重慶森林), actors Faye Wong and Tony Leung often show up in an outdoor wet market in Central (中環) where fresh meat, vegetables, flowers, housewares, and even goldfish can be found, and so as outdoor street eateries known as dai pai dong (大牌檔). Defined by Graham Street (嘉咸街), Gage Street (結志街), and Peel Street (卑利街) between Hollywood Road (荷李活道) and Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中), Graham Street Market (嘉咸市集) is the city’s oldest wet market with about 160 years of history. Flanked both sides by small metal stalls, the sloped market streets present an iconic urban scenery where elderly, housewives, maids, and children rub shoulders with white-collar workers and foreign expatriates. Before the pandemic, tourists flocked to the market just to get a feel of the vibrant atmosphere and check out its decades-old shops. Artists and photographers also come to train their eyes by framing whatever that might catch their attention in a chance encounter. But it is the people from the surrounding neighbourhoods like us who regularly come for our daily needs, that have contributed in sustaining a street market culture in Central, just a block or two away from the central business district. In this ever-changing metropolis, every building, street, or neighborhood has a price tag. When the price is right, redevelopment seems to be inevitable. In 2007, a controversial announcement was made by the profit making Urban Renewal Authority to replace the Graham Street Market with HK$3.8 billion (about US$ 500 million) worth of housing, retail, office and hotel.
Months after we relocated to Hong Kong in 2014, we wrote a post on the Graham Street Market for the first time. Back then, demolition had already begun, but the majority of the market was still largely intact. 7 years have passed. While construction is still ongoing, 11 new market stores and a high rise apartment known as “My Central” have already been completed. Against the annoyance of dust, noise and construction truck traffic, Graham Street Market continues to serve the neighborhood today. In a relatively low dense neighbourhood, four new residential, hotel and commercial towers of about 30 storeys have been planned, along with their respective retail podiums. Being the heart of colonial Victoria City (維多利亞城), Central (中環) and Sheung Wan (上環) is officially the one and only old city of Hong Kong. While Hong Kong is no Rome or Paris, that doesn’t mean its old city is worthless. Instead, being an international metropolis frequented by tourists, many would expect the old city should be protected by stringent restrictions such as building height limits. Rather than keeping one or two historical facades as gimmick, the overall density, neighbourhood ambience, urban scale and fabric should be respected as a whole entity. Knocking down old neighbourhoods and replacing them with new towers is not a sensible way to rejuvenate a city, as Jane Jacobs pointed out decades ago. Not only would this kills the identity, diversity and character of the area, it would also destroy the neighbourhood’s self evolving power. In the words of Aldo Rossi, this is in fact destroying the genius loci (spirit of the place) of Old Central, like pinning four 30-storey towers right at the Campo de Fiori in Rome.
When I was a child, I used to visit Graham Street Market and the nearby Central Market (中環街市) with my aunt. Back then, I didn’t know that having such a destination of living heritage a block away from home was a privilege. Nor did I know that the market was actually an iconic filming location for photographs and movies. As a tourist attraction, the market is well received by foreigners to the point that even Queen Elizabeth II has come for a visit in 1975. For me as a child, the market was just a busy, noisy and sometimes slippery and bloody place where I could witness how chickens were slaughtered, cow’s and pig’s heads were hung for display, and live fish were de-scaled on a thick wood block. It was the 1980’s when purchased meat was still wrapped in butcher paper and tied with local salt water grass instead of using a plastic bag. Graham Street Market was where I first grasped a sense of what daily living is all about: gossiping with neighbours, picking the freshest food, bargaining with the hard working vendors, day in, day out. Three decades on, these scenes of street market culture are unfortunately fading. The “renewed” Graham Market shall be cleaner, less noisy, and perhaps have a few more planters and trees, but it may turn out that only gourmet stores selling Japanese wagyu, French cheese and Tasmanian cherries could survive the rent. The street market culture of Central might continue to fade until one day it only exists in historical photos.
Whenever I flew with Cathay Pacific, I often selected Wong Kar Wai’s (王家衛) Chungking Express (重慶森林) from their entertainment system when I was about to take a nap. Indulging myself in the repeating music of Dennis Brown’s Things in Life and The Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’, and Christopher Doyle’s dynamic shots of Tsim Sha Tsui and Central always relaxed my mind. Chungking Express is undoubtedly one of my most favorite Hong Kong films. Chungking Express is lighthearted, complex, ambiguous, and beautiful. There are two stories in the film. The first story follows policeman 233 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and a female drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin) at Chungking Mansion in Tsim Sha Tsui. The second story follows policeman 633 (Tony Leung) and a female staff (Faye Wong) at Midnight Express, a snack bar in the entertainment district of Central. Released in 1994, three years before Hong Kong was returned to China, the film did capture a mixed bag of sentiments and mood of that era: sense of uncertainty, ambiguity, loneliness, loss, affection, impermanence, desire to change, hope for a brighter future, etc. Without pretentious shots of the city’s famous skyline, Chungking Express is a visually dazzling film that captures the daily life of Hong Kongers happened in wet market, snack bar, old tenement apartment, convenience store, and the Chungking Mansion, a huge mixed use complex in Kowloon where new immigrants and tourists gather and stay the night. Director Wong Kar Wai describes the film as his love letter to Hong Kong. 27 years have passed. Chungking Express remains as an icon of Hong Kong cinema, and an exquisite documentation of the ever-changing city in that particular moment in history.
Perhaps it is because both protagonists Tony Leung (梁朝偉) and Faye Wong (王菲) are two of my favorite Hong Kong stars back in the 1990’s, or The Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’ is too overpowering, or the filming locations in Central are just a few blocks from where I spent my childhood, I always like the story of Midnight Express more. Every time watching the film would remind me the old Central before the disastrous urban renewal projects that have torn apart Graham Street Market and gentrification that have wiped out uncounted tenement apartments and small shop owners who can no longer afford the skyrocketed rent. 1994 also marked the first anniversary of the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator (中環至半山自動扶梯), a 800m escalator system from Downtown Central up to the Mid-Levels. Wong Kar Wai chose the escalator and an adjacent apartment unit (home of Christopher Doyle, the legendary cinematographer of many Wong’s films) as the major film set for Chungking Express. Wong’s selection prominently imprints the escalator in the cultural atlas of the city, and introduces such unique urban feature to the whole world. In fact, the success of Chungking Express has consolidated Wong Kar Kai’s name onto the stage of international cinema, paving the way for his triumphs in the later half of the 1990’s, including Happy Together and In the Mood for Love.
Today, the 800m escalators system remains the longest in the world, and a popular tourist attraction. In 2015, CNN website picked the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator as one of the coolest commutes in the world. The idea of building an urban escalator system began in early 1980’s, when the Hong Kong government considered various options to improve traffic and pedestrian circulation between Central, the business district of Hong Kong, and Mid Levels, the residential neighbourhood on the slope of Victoria Peak. Cable car and monorail were also considered, but an escalator system was eventually selected. After 2.5 years of construction, the system was opened to the public in 1993. Wong Kar Wai seized the opportunity and became the first director to shoot a movie there. The escalator soon became popular among residents and office workers in Central, and led to dramatic gentrification of the surroundings. Buildings along the escalator system were torn down for new apartments. Small shops were replaced by bars and upscale restaurants, forming a vibrant entertainment district that we now call Soho. For both good and bad, the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator has been a major catalyst that wipes out the old Central I have known as a child. Yet on the other hand, the convenience it brings us who live in the area has undeniably become an inseparable part of our daily routine.
If not the summer heat, wandering in Islamic Cairo around the huge Khan el-Khalili market would be the most ideal way to enjoy Old Cairo. Even without entering mosques or museums, just strolling around to feel the bustling activities, hearing the calls of prayer mingled with the yells of merchants, smelling the shisha smoke and Arabian coffee from open cafes, and searching for the highly decorative details on centuries old building facade was just a pure delight.
As the largest and most famous souq in the region, it is understandable that Khan el-Khalili has been developed into a major tourist attraction in Cairo. It was precisely the souq’s popularity among tourists that made it falling victim as a target of terrorist attacks. In 2005, just one year prior to my visit, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device near the market, killing two French and one American tourists. In 2009, another bombing incident took place at the souq and killed a 17-year-old French girl. These incidents did make some temporary impact to tourism in Egypt. But judging from the tourist crowds that I saw in 2006, just one year after the suicide bombing, the impact was rather minimal. Of course no attacks would make a greater impact to tourism than the Covid 19 pandemic that we are experiencing right now.