What does “fort”, “oil”, “electric”, “power”, and “wharf” have in common? They are all street names in North Point that reveals the neighborhood’s strategic location and utilitarian past. The “fort” or battery hill is long gone, leaving behind a parkette up on Fortress Hill Road that even local residents may not know about its existence, and the name “Fortress Hill” that defines the westernmost area of North Point District. The former oil depot, powerplant and wharf facilities that gave us the street names “oil”, “electric”, “power”, and “wharf” have all been replaced by high density residential developments. In the 20th century, North Point has gone through series of transformations, from just a defensive battery at the northernmost point of Hong Kong Island and a cluster of infrastructure facilities that supported the adjacent Victoria City, to an area teeming with domestic life where amusement park, theatres, swim sheds, department stores, and red-light businesses sprang up and then mostly faded away. Due to a large influx of mainland immigrants in mid 20th century, especially the Hokkien Fujianese and Shanghaiese, North Point has become the most densely populated place on earth in late 1960’s, according to the Guinness Book of Records. Today, the urban density of North Point may no longer ranked top of the world, but a stroll on King’s Road, the district’s main thoroughfare where blocks after blocks of concrete apartments encroaching in all directions, can still be disorienting for many.
Published by Hong Kong Art Centre as part of “Via North Point” art programme in 2020, a local magazine did a poll with a group of local residents about their favorite landmarks in North Point. Unlike the monumental and glamorous urban icons in Central or Tsim Sha Tsui, their top five selected landmarks include two theatres, a pier, a market and even a street intersection. For them, these daily scenery have defined the collective identity and a sense of belonging for the community. For us who have been working in the adjacent Quarry Bay for the past eight years, North Point is also an area we would pass by almost everyday. We share some of their sentiments and also find beauty from these what may seem like ordinary street scenery by first glance. Here are their top five favorite landmarks in North Point:
NO. 5: King’s Road (英皇道) and the North Point Road (北角道) Intersection (4.3%)
NO. 4: State Theatre (皇都戲院) 8.7%
NO.3 : North Point Pier (北角碼頭) 10.9%
NO. 2: Sunbeam Theatre (新光戲院) 17.4%
NO.1: Chun Yeung Street Market (春秧街街市) 21.7%
LANDMARKS IN FORTRESS HILL:
Situated between Causeway Bay and the heart of North Point, Fortress Hill (炮台山) has long been under the radar. In recent months, East Coast Park Precinct in Fortress Hill has emerged as one of the hottest new attractions in Hong Kong. Apart from the harbourfront lookout, the following two spots in Fortress Hill are also gaining popularity on Instagram as well.
Oi! Art Space (油街實現), Former Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club
Staircase at Fortress Hill MTR Station
North of Queen’s Road East (皇后大道東), Stone Nullah Lane (石水渠街) continues to head north until it hits Johnston Road (莊士敦道), one of the main road in Wan Chai where the tram passes back and forth. This section of Stone Nullah Lane forms the main north-south artery of the outdoor market network that extends to Cross Street (交加街) and Tai Yuen Street (太原街) to the west, and to Wanchai Road (灣仔道) and the historical Streamline Moderne Wan Chai Market Block to the east. In 1990’s, a section of Stone Nullah Lane was erased from the map of Wan Chai in 1990’s. Part of where the outdoor market of Stone Nullah Lane once stood has been roofed over and transformed into an indoor market, above which erected the Zenith (尚翹峰), three 40+ storey residential towers that signified the arrival of a new Wan Chai, an affluent neighbourhood catered for expats and young professionals. Soon after, the 1930’s Streamline Moderne historical market was also taken back by the government and became another real estate development known as One Wanchai. Despite the dramatic changes to the area and occasional threats from the government’s Urban Renewal Authority (URA) and real estate developers, the outdoor market at Tai Yuen Street and Cross Street somehow manage to survive, while the wet market of Wanchai Road continues to go strong. Years have passed. This 90 year old market network has become a unique feature of Wan Chai, attracting both tourists and the local community to enjoy a part of the old Wan Chai.
A decade or so ago, a community interest group did a survey of the outdoor market of Tai Yuen Street and Cross Street. Back then, they found that the average age of the market stalls was 35 years old: 1 stall even has a 70 year old history, 2 with 60 years, 9 with 50 years, 7 with 40 years, 10 with 30 years, 9 with 20 years. It is obvious that many stall owners have been in business for over a generation after the war. These stores and their owners are essentially living memories of the community. When Tai Yuen Street is mentioned, many Hongkongers would immediately associate with toy stores. Still regarded as the official street of toy stores on Hong Kong Island, the remaining toy merchants at Tai Yuen Street remind visitors of the 1970’s and 1980’s, when Hong Kong was the largest toy manufacturer and exporter in the world. Instead of toys, we often come to the wet market at Wan Chai Road and Cross Street for local produces, chicken from New Territories, shellfishes, hand sliced beef, and dried herbs for Chinese soup. We love the vibrancy and diversity of Wan Chai Market, as well as its convenient location from Downtown Hong Kong.
East of Central and Admiralty lies another old neighborhood of Hong Kong Island – Wan Chai (灣仔). Throughout the past two centuries, Wan Chai has developed from a fishing community around a shrine called Hung Shing Temple (洪聖古廟) to a prominent extension of the city’s central business district where commercial buildings race to the sky. Yet, in the shadows of skyscrapers, Wan Chai is a highly walkable neighborhood dotted with small alleys and interesting buildings from different eras. From modern skyscrapers near the Harbour to the hundred-year-old temples at the foothill of Victoria Peak, and all the renovated tenement buildings in between, half an hour walk in the area offers quite a variety of urban scenery. If buildings can tell stories, visiting a handful of buildings in the neighborhood would reveal a general overview of how Wan Chai has evolved and continued reinventing itself. Apart from Fenwick Pier, the arrival point of foreign sailors that gave us the world of Suzie Wong and the exotic Wan Chai where the neon signs and bar music once ruled, there is actually a whole lot more buildings telling a completely different story. Along with the city’s changing fortunes, this story of Wan Chai has never ceased to evolve, shifting from founding a residential community, to developing a business centre, and to reinventing itself from its historical past.
1847: Hung Shing Temple (洪聖古廟)
Probably erected in 1847, Wan Chai’s Hung Shing Temple is one of 42 temples in Hong Kong dedicated to Hung Shing, the God of Southern Seas. Believed to protect people from natural disasters, Hung Shing was widely worshiped by fishing communities in Southern China. Situated 800m away from the harbourfront, Hung Shing Temple was once standing right by the shore before series of land reclamation that completely transformed Wan Chai in the next 170 years. The area around Hung Shing Temple was home to the earliest settlements in Wan Chai, a fishing community predated the arrival of the British. 170 years ago, the temple was probably the most prominent structure in Wan Chai. Now, it is dwarfed by highrise concrete buildings in all directions.
1915: Old Wan Chai Post Office (舊灣仔郵政局)
From 1860’s on, Wan Chai was predominately occupied by Chinese residents, and soon became one of the most populated areas in the city. Less than 300m down Queen’s Road East from Hung Shing Temple stands one of the earliest surviving post office buildings in Hong Kong. Opened in 1915, the post office served the community of Wan Chai for 77 years. The small post office had witnessed Wan Chai’s dramatic transformations throughout much of the 20th century. With Chinese tiled roof and Western moulding, arched windows and gable ends, the building reflects a fusion architectural approach that was not uncommon in the colonial days.
1929: Southorn Playground (修頓遊樂場)
Leaving an urban void like Central Park of New York City is a common strategy in many cities around the world. While Southorn Playground is not exactly a building, it has however played an essential role in the urban context of Wan Chai for many generations. After reclaiming land from Victoria Harbour (Praya East Reclamation Scheme in 1920’s), Colonial Secretary Thomas Southorn suggested preserving the land between Johnson Road and Hennessy Road for use of children recreation. The layout and uses of the playground have changed several times throughout history. The last time of major transformation for Southorn Playground occurred in 1980’s, when the Island Line of the MTR metro passed beneath Wan Chai. Part of the playground was demolished to make way for Wan Chai MTR Station, along with the erection of Southorn Stadium, Southorn Centre and Southorn Garden (residential tower) above the station. Today, Southorn Playground remains as the main recreational venue and social gathering place for Wan Chai residents, providing a football pitch, four basketball courts and a children’s playground.
1937: Old Wanchai Market (灣仔街市)
From 1937 to 2007, Wan Chai Market was at the heart of the Wan Chai community. Constructed in Streamline Moderne style, the market was at the forefront of design trends of 1930’s. During Japanese occupation between 1941 to 1945, basement of the market building was used as a makeshift mortuary for corpses. In 2009, half of the building was demolished to make way for a 35-storey residential development. The front half of the old market were preserved and converted into a retail facility below the new residential tower.
1980: Hopewell Centre (合和中心)
1980’s was often regarded as the golden age of Hong Kong. The decade also saw the rise of Wan Chai as a commercial district between the Cross Harbour Tunnel and the financial district of Central. Completed in 1980, the 64-storey skyscraper Hopewell Centre was the tallest building in the city for nine years. Situated at the foothill of Victoria Peak, Hopewell Centre can be accessed at ground floor from Queen’s Road East and at 17th floor from Kennedy Road. The building was designed by Gordon Wu, the founder and chairman of Hopewell Holdings Ltd. Wu’s tower expresses the confidence of the his era by doing something that no body else has done in the city: building a 222m cylindrical tower, cladded with vertical fins and topped with a revolving restaurant and a rooftop pool (mainly for fengshui purpose). After four decades, the building no longer holds the title of the city’s tallest building (no. 28 nowadays), but continues to stand as an urban icon of Wan Chai.
1992: Central Plaza (中環廣場)
For ten years between 1992 and 2003, the 374m (78 storeys) Central Plaza was the tallest building in Hong Kong, and one of the tallest reinforced concrete building in the world. Designed by local firm Dennis Lau & Ng Chun Man Architects, a triangular plan was adopted for the design to maximize office area with sea views. While steel structure is much more common for buildings at such height, a concrete system was selected to save construction cost. Sky City Church, the world’s highest church, is a tenant of Central Plaza, and so as offices of a number of international businesses. The creation of Central Plaza almost coincided with the completion of the adjacent Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. These projects further established Wan Chai as the extension of Central, the main business district of Hong Kong.
1997: Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (香港會議展覽中心)
1997 marked a historical moment for Hong Kong when the former British colony was handed back to China. While Hong Kong was briefly at the center-stage of international news, Wan Chai was under spotlight as the main venue of the handover ceremony. In front of Central Plaza and the old wing of Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (HKCEC), a new event hall was erected on a newly reclaimed island. Designed by Chicago firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in gesture of a flying bird, and completed in four years from land reclamation to construction, the new wing of HKCEC served well as the main stage for Jiang Zemin of China and Prince Charles of Britain to define a new era for Hong Kong. After 1997, the hall continues to serve as an exhibition venue for events such as Art Basel and Hong Kong Book Fair, etc.
1998: Chinese Methodist Church (循道衛理聯合教會香港堂)
The red bricks facades, rooftop Chinese pavilion, green glazed roof tiles and triangular building shape, the iconic Chinese Methodist Church has guarded the western entry of Wan Chai for six decades. In 1990’s, the church decided to partner with a developer on a redevelopment project, demolishing the historical church building and replacing it with a 22 storey commercial building. The building was completed in 1998, with floors dedicated for church functions and also office rentals (levels above 10th floor). This religious institution and developer partnership is a luring business for both sides: developer can lay hands on a prestige site while the religious institution can expand its floor area for free. The project was somewhat controversial and opened up a debate on the appropriacy of a commercial deal between a religious institution and a private developer.
2003: Foo Tak Building (富德樓)
In 2003, the landlady decided to find tenants for her refurbished 14-storey Foo Tak Building on Hennessy Road. At a public talk, she learnt from speaker May Fung (馮美華), a prominent promoter of visual arts in Hong Kong, that the artist community was having hard times finding affording studio spaces in Hong Kong. After the talk, the landlady approached May Fung and offered to rent out her flats in Foo Tak Building at affordable prices for artists, and invited May Fung to manage what would become the city’s longest surviving artist village. At first, 18 units are rented out to selected artists, bookshops and cultural organizations. After some time, the entire building was donated out to serve as the vertical artist village. In comparison to government run establishments, tenants at Foo Tak Building enjoy much more freedom and less management control. While the 1968 concrete building may not look attractive from outside, Foo Tak Building has silently become one of the most unique cultural oases at the heart of Hong Kong.
2007: Woo Cheong Pawn (和昌大押)
Conservation of heritage buildings and urban revitalization have been recent hot topics in Hong Kong, particularly in old districts such as Sheung Wan and Wan Chai. In 2007, Urban Renewal Authority (URA) engaged with a private developer to erect a highrise residential tower at Johnston Road. The fate of the historical Woo Cheong Pawn building was also included in the project. Built in 1888 and 1900 on land reclaimed in 1887, the four tenement buildings (tong lau) have been a prominent fixture at Johnston Road for over a hundred years. The buildings were constructed with timber structures, brick walls, wood floors, verandas and high ceilings. Such design was common for commercial buildings in that era. At the end, the buildings were designated for a thorough restoration, and have since been converted into a destination of highend restaurants.
2013: 7 Mallory Street (茂蘿街7號), formerly Comix Home Base (動漫基地)
In 2013, the opening of another URA revitalization project in Wan Chai has captured public attention. Known as the Green House in the past, a cluster of ten prewar tenement buildings was under spotlight for conservation. While facades of the 1922 buildings are preserved, much of the interior spaces have been transformed to suit contemporary purposes: shops, restaurants, multi function rooms, exhibition spaces, and public outdoor nodes. For the first five years, the restored building was occupied by Comix Home Base, a NGO that promotes the art of comics. After the NGO moved out, the upper levels of the restored building have become venues for public hire.
2015: Tung Tak Pawn (同德押)
Not all prewar heritage buildings share the same fate like the preserved Woo Cheong Pawn. At 369 Hennessy Road, another famous historical building Tung Tak Pawn had sadly met its end in 2015. With a prominent round corner, the 1930’s tenement building was the last of its kind on Hong Kong Island. During the heat debate of heritage conservation and a possible reassessment of historical building classification for the structure, Tung Tak Pawn was brutally torn down overnight before the debate could reach a final conclusion. Today, Tung Tak Pawn represents a significant loss for heritage preservation in Hong Kong, and a vivid reminder of the impotency of the city’s conservation policies.
2015: Lee Tung Street (利東街), formerly Wedding Card Street (喜帖街)
Some see the recent redevelopment of Lee Tung Street, formerly known as Wedding Card Street due to its concentration of wedding card printing shops, as another big loss of heritage conservation. While printing businesses have long been established in the area, it was not until 1970’s that Lee Tung Street has made its name by becoming the unofficial “Wedding Card Printing Street” in Hong Kong. In 1998, the URA announced the revitalization project of Lee Tung Street and McGregor Street. After years of compensatory negotiations and conservation outcries, Lee Tung Street was eventually wiped out from the map in 2007, and reopened in 2015 as a highend residential and commercial development managed by the URA and private developers. No matter if one agrees or not on the “demolition and redevelopment model”, the consequences for such large scale urban redevelopment is inevitable leaning towards in favour of the big developers and government. Not only does the unique character of the neighborhood was eliminated, but the existing flat and shop owners were also forced to leave their own home. The URA offered flat owners on Lee Tung Street a compensatory scheme of HK$4000 per square feet (USD 510), but at the end the new apartment flats were sold for at least HK$23,000 (US$2,930) in 2013. Since 2015, the new Lee Tung Street has become a popular dining destination in Wan Chai. At big festivals, large scale decorations would be put up to draw the crowds.
At midnight 12th of November 2006, Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier (also known as Star Ferry Pier 天星碼頭) Clock Tower played its last chimes of its 48-years service, before being decommissioned and demolished along with the third generation Star Ferry Pier. Manufactured by Dent (London clock maker who was responsible for the clock of the Big Ben), the clock had told the time and chimed every 15 minutes since 1958. Although the timepiece mechanism was eventually preserved, the clock tower was discreetly toppled in early morning on 16th December 2006 amid public outcries and activist protests. Then four months later, just a stone throw from the toppled clock tower, Queen’s Pier (皇后碼頭) became the next harbourfront icon to fall victim for the Central and Wan Chai Reclamation project. Named after Queen Victoria, Queen’s Pier was the main arrival and departure point for all colonial governors since 1925, and the landing spot for British royal visits (Queen Elizabeth II in 1975, and Prince and Princess of Wales in 1989). After their failed attempt to save the Star Ferry Pier, local conservationists reunited at Queen’s Pier to held rallies, hunger strikes and candlelight vigils to fight against the demolition. While winning support from the public and even some celebrities, the activists once again failed to convince the government to consider preservation the colonial pier. Despite their fruitless attempts, the incidents of Star Ferry Pier and Queen’s Pier have significantly raised public awareness on heritage preservation in Hong Kong, and triggered widespread support for later conservation projects such as Central Market, Police Married Quarter (PMQ) and Tai Kwun Police Headquarters.
As a port city, pier structures have always been essentials to Hong Kong. Based on an university study of photos from 1863, there were once 56 piers and jetties between Western District and Causeway Bay in mid 19th century. Excluding the restricted zones, that works out to be 56 piers in 5.5km of shoreline, or roughly a pier every 98m. As port facilities were moved away from the heart of Victoria Harbour and the opening of Cross Harbour Tunnel in 1970’s, pier activities along the north coast of Hong Kong Island have significantly declined, except for the pleasant Star Ferry and the other boat services to the outlying islands. I still remember the excitement as a kid in 1980’s when arriving at the Outlying Islands Ferry Pier (港外線碼頭) boarding a boat for day trips to Lantau or Yamma Island, or rubbing shoulders with foreign tourists taking photos of traditional rickshaws at Star Ferry Pier (天星碼頭), or watching couples taking wedding photos at Queen’s Pier (皇后碼頭) after tying the knot at the adjacent City Hall. Each pier had its own ambience and scenery. Each pier has become a unique piece of memory. Since the completion of Central and Wan Chai Reclamation project, the old Central piers are all but gone. About 300m north of the former piers, a cluster of ten new piers were established between 1990’s and 2000’s as the new Central Piers. Assigned with Pier No. 7 and 8, the current Star Ferry Pier was erected in Edwardian style mimicking its second generation predecessor from 1910’s. The “fake antique” and “theme park” approach of the architecture have drawn heavy criticism from the public. Between Pier No. 9 and 10, Hong Kong Observation Wheel, a 60m Ferris wheel, was erected in 2014 as a new tourist attraction. Despite being skeptical about the necessity of a new attraction, many do see the Ferris wheel as a delightful focus for the harbourfront, and a welcoming feature upon arriving at the Central Piers by ferry.
Tucked in a small street less than 20m off the busy Des Vouex Road West (德輔道西), Coffee & Laundry, a hybrid cafe/ self laundry shop is hardly noticeable from the main street. At the shop, we specifically picked up a bottle of cold brew coffee with a label designed by local artist Don Mak (麥東記). On the label, the artist illustrates the nearby street intersection of Des Voeux Road West and Wing Lok Street (永樂街), with a tram making a right turn towards Connaught Road West (干諾道西) before reaching the highway overpass. What really interesting about the label was its hidden backside, visible only when the bottle was emptied. The hidden picture depicts the same street intersection based on a 1925 photo, long before the overpass construction and land reclamation that erased the historical waterfront. Beyond the road bend stands a pier structure with a sign that says “Hong Kong, Canton and Macao Steamboat Company”, a British shipping company that has long dissolved. This was Wing Lok Pier (永樂碼頭), or more commonly known as the Triangular Pier (三角碼頭). Among the dozen or so cargo piers lining along the waterfront between Sheung Wan (上環) and Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), Triangular Pier was one of the largest.
Almost as soon as the British set foot on Hong Kong Island back in 1841, this relatively unknown island was declared a free port, a hub of the British Empire for international trading at the Far East. Their aim was to turn this scarcely populated fishing island into a port city and gateway into China. For the next hundred years or so, Triangular Pier and its adjacent piers had played crucial roles in establishing Hong Kong as an entrepôt between the West and East, and setting the basic economic and logistic infrastructure for the later development of manufacturing, servicing and finance sectors. In the 19th century, Hong Kong was a trading hub for tea, silk, and most important of all, opium. Between 1845-49, just a few years since the founding of the city, Victoria Harbour was already handling three quarters of opium from British India to China. Next came the export of Chinese laborers to Western countries, especially during the gold rushes in United States and Australia. From the Triangular Pier and its adjacent docks, 320,349 Chinese workers departed for their oversea destinations between 1851 and 1872 alone. In the next few decades, more Chinese went through the piers, either as temporary workers with 3-year contracts, or as immigrants who would eventually settle in the West. In the end, over one million Chinese had left their homeland from the piers of Sheung Wan. Triangular Pier also served as the entrepôt between the five global trading networks: China, Southeast Asia, India, Britain/ Europe, and the Americas. In 1899, more than 40% of China’s trade was handled in Hong Kong. Because of the piers’ success, many local and overseas (Chinese and Western) merchants chose to set up their offices in Hong Kong, establishing all kinds of trade related businesses, from the obvious shipping and trading companies, to banks, insurance offices, hotels, retail, ship builders, and the Nam Pak Hongs (南北行), trading companies that served as middle person between China and the outside world, namely United States, Australia and Southeast Asia. Entering the 20th century, Hong Kong was promoted as a tourist destination. Apart from cargo shipping, the Sheung Wan piers also emerged as a popular terminal for passenger steamships serving regional coastal cities, and as a stopover port for ocean liners between Asia and the West. In 1930 alone, 1,509,557 passengers traveled by ship between Hong Kong and the outside world. As air travel gained popularity after WWII, the opening of the Kwai Chung container port in 1972, and further land reclamation works along the north shore of Hong Kong Island, the story of Triangular Pier had officially come to the end.
Despite their vital roles for the city’s development, memories of Triangular Pier and other Sheung Wan/ Sai Ying Pun piers are fading fast in Hong Kong. After series of land reclamations, pedestrians would find no traces of the former piers. The only major pier remains is the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal (港澳碼頭), providing regular turbojets to Macau and ferries to Zhuhai and Shenzhen in China. While ferry services between Macau and Hong Kong has been departing from Sheung Wan since early colonial times, the current terminal at Shun Tak Centre (信德中心) was completed in 1985, beside the former Sheung Wan Gala Point (上環大笪地), the biggest night bazaar in the city before its closure in 1992. Highly popular with locals, Gala Point offered a variety of affordable entertainments and services, including outdoor eateries, street performances, storytelling, fortune telling, puppet shows, kungfu display, etc. Across the street from Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal, the majestic North Block of Western Market proudly occupies an entire city block since 1906. Known as the oldest market building in Hong Kong, the four-storey Edwardian-style building is perhaps the only remnant left from the times of Triangular Pier at Sheung Wan waterfront today.