Dr. Sun Yat-sen (孫中山), Father of Modern China, delivered a public speech at Hong Kong University in 1923. Began with a rhetorical question “Where and how did I get my revolutionary and modern ideas?” Sun’s answer was Hong Kong, the British colony where he came 30 years prior at the age of 17 and stayed for 9 years as a high school and medical student. During his time in the city, Sun was impressed by the architecture, urban order and public safety of Hong Kong, and the efficiency of the government. Whereas just 50 miles away in Heungshan (now Zhongshan), Sun’s home village in Qing China, government officials were highly corrupted and incompetent. His experience and knowledge obtained in Hong Kong had inspired Sun’s ideas of the Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命) and strengthened his will to establish a modern China.
Sun Yat-sen spent most of his time in the core area of Victoria City, now the area of Central-Sheung Wan. In 1996, the Hong Kong Government began to promote a tourist route called Dr. Sun Yat-sen Historical Trail (孫中山史跡徑) to commemorate the famous visitor. 16 spots related to Sun were identified along the 2-hour historical walk in the Central-Western District. Nine local artists were commissioned to design unique plaques that can be seen as urban artworks. These spots include the locations where Sun attended schools, places he lived, venues he met with his political partners, and sites where his organizations engaged in revolutionary activities. In 2006, the Edwardian Classical Kom Tong Hall in the Mid-Levels was converted into Sun Yat-sen Museum. Not only does the museum provides another focal point in the city to learn about Sun’s story, it also offers the perfect reason to preserve the 1914 building. Kom Tong Hall was the former mansion of businessman Ho Kom-tong (何甘棠), the younger brother of Robert Ho Tung (何東), the richest man in Hong Kong at the turning of the century. Listed as a declared monument, Kom Tong Hall (甘棠第) was one of the first buildings in Hong Kong to use reinforced concrete structure and fitted with concealed electrical wiring. The historical architecture itself is well worth a visit. The story of Sun Yat-sen remind us that Hong Kong, as a melting pot between East and West, and the old and new, has been a source of inspirations and a window to the outside world for the Chinese community in the modern era.
In 1890, a golden bell was installed at the main building of Wellington Barracks (威靈頓兵房), one of the three military barracks (the other two being Victoria and Murray Barracks) located between the business districts of Central (中環) and Wanchai (灣仔). The golden bell became a landmark and eventually led to the naming of the area, Kam Chung (金鐘), which literally means “golden bells”. The former naval dockyard known as Admiralty Dock gavethe area its English name, Admiralty. For over 120 years, the military barracks had been a major obstruction for urban development, creating a bottleneck between Central and Wanchai. This situation remained for much of the colonial era until the late 1970’s, when the governor has finally convinced the military department to release the land. Demolition of the barracks began in late 1970’s and gave way to a series of developments that make up the present Admiralty: High Court, Government Offices, metro station, transport interchange, various commercial towers, the Asia Society complex, the luxurious retail and hotel complex known as Pacific Place, and the 8-hectare Hong Kong Park on the lower slope of Victoria Peak.
Hong Kong Park occupies much of the former Victoria Barracks (域多利兵房). During construction, a number of historical buildings were preserved, including the Flagstaff House, Cassels Block, Wavell House, and Rawlinson House. The park design respected the natural topography of the site, maintaining a naturalistic setting for all to enjoy. Opened in 1991, Hong Kong Park was an instant hit for Hong Kongers. Combining the natural context and heritage buildings with the new water features, wide range of landscape elements, amphitheatre, lookout tower, large conservatory, and Southeast Asia’s largest aviary, the park has ensured that there would always be something to suit everyone’s taste. A combined visit to the nearby Zoological and Botanical Gardens would satisfy the desire of anyone who desires for a moment of tranquility in the heart of Hong Kong’s business district.
The former Victoria Prison or Gaol is the third main component of the Tai Kwun Centre of Heritage and Arts. Built in August 1841, some say the prison was the first permanent Western architecture constructed in Hong Kong. It served as the city’s first prison until 2006, when the complex was decommissioned for good. Today, the prison halls are largely preserved as listed historical buildings. Some are opened to the public to showcase the history, while some are being converted into restaurants and bars. But it’s the Prison Yard, the tranquil courtyard in the midst of the prison compound that is the real gem. Under the shade of Frangipani and Candlenut trees, movable beach chairs are provided for relaxation. In the evening, the courtyard is dimly lit to maintain a peaceful ambience.
At either end of the Prison Yard, renowned architect Herzog de Meuron has left their mark by erecting two cubic structures that appear to be floating in mid air above the prison walls. Serving as a theatre, one of the cubic structure is known as JC Cube. The other cube, named JC Contemporary, is a sleek looking museum of contemporary art. Beneath the JC Cube lies the stepped plaza Laundry Steps, where movie screening and live performances would regularly be held. Echoing the brick and stone masonry of the heritage structures, the cast aluminium facade of the cubic structures offer a dramatic contrast between the old and new.
If the Parade Ground courtyard at the lower platform is reserved for the vibrancy of retail and dining activities, the Prison Yard at the upper platform is all about the venues for cultural exhibitions and performances. While the Central Police Headquarters on Hollywood Road and Central Magistracy on Arbuthnot Road were all about establishing an authoritative image to the public, the unpretentious buildings of the Victoria Prison, which have been walled off from the city ever since 1841, offers the perfect setting for contemporary culture and architecture to establish a new identity for the compound. Converting the cold prison blocks into a welcoming urban oasis has so far proven to be successful.
For two years in a row in 2017 and 2018, part of Hollywood Road in Old Central was closed off to host an one-day street carnival known “Heritage Vogue • Hollywood Road”. Live performances, activity booths, and temporary displays were set up to promote heritage preservation in Hong Kong. Being the second oldest street in the city and home to a range of heritage buildings, Hollywood Road in Central and Sheung Wan offers the perfect venue for such an event. In fact, Hollywood Road has long been an urban magnet for all history buffs and foreign tourists. Completed in 1844, Hollywood Road in Central – Sheung Wan was the vital connection linking the military barracks at Possession Point and the city centre in Central during the early colonial times. Today, it passes by some of Hong Kong’s most well known attractions and heritage buildings: Hollywood Park (荷李活道公園), Lascar Row antique market (摩羅街), Man Mo Temple (文武廟), Former Police Married Quarters PMQ (元創方), and Former Central Police Station Tai Kwun (大館), and also popular areas including the foodie paradise of NOHO, the entertainment Mecca of SOHO, and the vibrant Graham Street Market (嘉咸街市). To the disappointment of some people, Hollywood Road has nothing to do with the Hollywood in LA. Instead, there are two main theories behind the street’s naming. First, some say there were once holly trees, also known as Christmas berries, planted along the road. However, historical accounts dispute that holly trees were actually imported to Hong Kong years after the road was built and named. One type of holly tree (冬青) were actually widely planted in the Tai Ping Shan area as a type of Chinese medicine when Western medicine has yet being widely accepted by the people in Hong Kong. The second theory refers to the Hollywood House in Henbury, which was the former residence of John Francis Davis, the second governor (1844 – 1848) of colonial Hong Kong.
For decades, visitors coming to Hollywood Road would notice the abundance of antique shops and art galleries. Before massive land reclamation took place over a century ago, Hollywood Road was not far from the waterfront. Traders, sailors and smugglers would bring their overseas merchandises to sell at Hollywood Road. Gradually, Hollywood Road has become a vibrant marketplace for trading all sorts of curios and antiques from China and around the world. Today these antique shops and galleries continue to attract tourists from all over the world. The former Police Married Quarter, a listed modernist building, was preserved, renovated and opened to the public in 2014 as a mixed use art and design compound known as the PMQ. The project has brought new life into the historical street. In 2018, the long awaited Tai Kwun, or the former Central Police Station Compound also opened its doors to the public. Took 8 years and HKD 3.8 billion to complete, Tai Kwun is the most extensive conservation and revitalization project in Hong Kong. World renowned architect Herzog & de Meuron was involved in the master planning and architectural design of Tai Kwun, transforming the former police compound into a welcoming heritage and art centre. The completion of Tai Kwun and PMQ have dramatically transformed the cultural scenery of Hollywood Road, consolidating Hollywood Road as a primary tourist attraction in Hong Kong.
Built upon the 3rd century ruined gate of the Roman fortress, layers of palm tree logs and stones were used to construct the foundation for the Hanging Church. Probably the most famous church in Coptic Cairo, the Hanging Church is also one of the oldest. Between 7th and 13th century, the Hanging Church was the residence of the Coptic Patriarch. Although much of what we see today of the church’s exterior is from the 19th century, many of the interior architectural features and objects date back to various periods in history, including the 110 Christian icons in which the oldest dates back to the 8th century. Some parts of the church was off limits to tourists during our visit, but nonetheless the Hanging Church was the highlight of our visit of Coptic Cairo.
After Coptic Cairo, we spent much of the afternoon at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the huge museum filled with treasures from ancient Egypt since 1901. The exhibits seemed disorienting at times, though its collection of the 120,000 ancient Egypt artefacts, such as papyrus, stone statues, jewellery, royal mummies (famous pharaohs such as Ramses II), and funeral accessories were truly magnificent. The most impressive of all was undoubtedly the treasures of the tomb of boy King Tutankhamen. According to plan, the Cairo’s Egyptian Museum would be replaced by the new Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza in 2021. Unfortunately, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic would likely affect the visitor numbers for the new museum at its grand opening.
Leaving the museum, we strolled along the Nile and saw a few felucca owners cleaning their boats. We didn’t have the interest to hire a felucca. Instead, we headed to Cafe Niche for a quick bite. Back at Luna Hotel, my two travel buddies rested a bit before heading to the train station for their quick visit of Upper Egypt. For me, I thought more time would be needed for a decent visit of Luxor and Aswan in Upper Egypt. Instead, I planned to spend the remaining few days in Egypt on my own. My destination was off the beaten track at Siwa Oasis and the Western Desert.
While Pharaoh Khufu stole the limelight for 4,500 years as the king who built the Great Pyramid of Giza, much few people may acknowledge that Khufu’s success was built upon the earlier experiments of his father, Pharaoh Sneferu. At 40km south of Cairo, Dahshur was the experimental ground for Sneferu, who famously built the three predecessors that ultimately led to the success of his son’s Great Pyramid. The three Sneferu’s pyramids in Dahshur reveal the evolution of pyramid construction, from Meidum Pyramid: Egypt’s first smooth-sided pyramid that had partially collapsed since the ancient times, to Bent Pyramid: another smooth-sided pyramid whose change of inclining angle midway had led to a bent effect, and finally to Red Pyramid: Egypt’s first successfully constructed smooth-sided pyramid.
After Saqqara, we intended to go to Abusir, another necropolis of Memphis just like Saqqara. However, we were told that Abusir was not open for some reason, so we turned to Dahshur instead. Dahshur was another well-known necropolis that served the royal members of Memphis in the Old Kingdom. Famous for its three unique pyramids, Dahshur is a must-see site if one is interested in Egyptian pyramids. Our taxi drove us to pass by the Bent and Black Pyramid, and then stopped at the biggest of them all, the Red Pyramid. There were not many tourists around, so we decided to pay the admission to enter the Red Pyramid. Named after the slightly reddish limestone, the Red Pyramid is Egypt’s third largest and also the oldest smooth sided pyramid.
The sloped passage down to the burial chamber at the pyramid’s heart was narrow and dimly lit. With an slope of 27 degrees down, a 1.2m width and 0.91m height, the journey down the 61m passage was no small feat. For the entire way we were forced to hunch down with our backs touching the passage ceiling, and move down carefully one step at a time. We heaved a sigh of relief after reaching the end of the tunnel, but was a little disappointed to find the empty chamber at the end. As expected no artifacts were in display in the chamber. The 15m corbel vaulted ceiling was quite impressive, given the fact that we were almost 100m below the top of the pyramid, under millions of tons of limestone.
Our next stop was Mit Rahina Museum or what commonly known as the Memphis Open Air Museum. Memphis, the ancient Egyptian capital in the Old Kingdom, was once a prosperous trading, manufacturing and religious centre in the region of Nile Delta. For many centuries, the ruins of the abandoned Egyptian capital had been pillaged for constructing other structures in the nearby Arab cities. Not much of the great city survived to the present day, except the artifacts in the open air museum and what might still lie underground. The biggest draw of the museum is an enormous limestone statue of Ramses II lying in the establishment’s feature gallery.
After our extremely lucky hitchhike back to Aleppo, we had a quick bite at a cafe across the citadel. After lunch, I split with the group and headed back to the souq to get some souvenir, went to the main post office to for stamp collections, spent a bit of time at an internet cafe, wandered around the downtown area, and reunited with the group at the National Museum. Before the Syrian Civil War, Aleppo was the largest city in the country with a population of 4.6 million as of 2010. Wandering in downtown Aleppo offered me a brief moment to see the daily lives of Syrian city dwellers. The National Museum was a delight. One of the most impressive artefacts were the cuneiform tablets from Mari. The cuneiform script is one of the earliest written language of humans. Fortunately, the museum collection largely escaped the impact of the war. Artefacts were either stored in the basement or moved to Damascus. The remaining large statues outside the building were covered by sandbags for protection.
Without the overwhelming tourists of cities like Istanbul, the bustling downtown Aleppo in 2006 was the ideal place to check out the urban living in Syria.
Back in 2006, it was safe and pretty much hassle free to wander around downtown Aleppo alone.
In downtown Aleppo, it wasn’t easy to find a quiet corner to enjoy some lone time.
Except the souq, there were hardly any shops catered for tourists. Everyone in the city was just busy with his or her own business. As an outsider, I just took my time wandering around to take photos.
In 2006, six years after Bashar al-Assad became president of Syria, pictures of Assad could be seen all over Aleppo.
Large government buildings occupied entire street block became obvious targets for the rebels during the civil war.
In 2006, Aleppo won the title as one of the “Islamic Capitals of Culture 2006”. Cultural heritage were being restored and political propaganda from the Assad regime were put up at Saadallah al-Jabiri Square, including this spherical lighting feature.
Two blocks northwest of National Museum was the Saadallah al-Jabiri Square, the main public square in downtown Aleppo. A metal ball claimed to be largest in the Middle East was erected as part of the Islamic Capital of Culture event. Today, a large and colouful installation of “I Love Aleppo” has been put up along with significant restoration of the square after the battles of 2012.
At the National Museum, we got a chance to see the clay tablets from Mari, showcasing a kind of cuneiform script that was one of the earliest writing in the world. On 11 July 2016, heavy mortar shells hit the National Museum of Aleppo, causing extensive damages to the roof and structure. The statues at the entrance were covered in sandbags for protection during the war.
Aleppo City Hall is one of the tallest building in Aleppo.
Built in 1899, Bab al-Faraj Clock tower is a major landmark in Aleppo, with Sheraton Aleppo at the background. Opened in 2007, the former 5-star hotel has been converted into military barracks during the war.
The 15 storey Amir Palace Hotel at the background in the photo was another prominent hotel in prewar Aleppo. It was damaged during the war.
With significant damages from the Battles of Aleppo, it would take years to rebuild the downtown area.
In the next morning, we left the hotel early in the morning for our ongoing journey to Hama.