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ARCHITECTURAL HERITAGE AT RISK? Churches in the Mid-Levels (半山區), 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.

Union Church (佑寧堂) was founded by Reverend James Legge (理雅各), a Scottish member of the London Missionary Society, who was also the founder of Ying Wa College (英華書院), and suggested the government to set up Queen’s College (皇仁書院) in Hong Kong. Union Church began with a English chapel on Hollywood Road, then moved to the intersection of Staunton Street and Peel Street, before relocated to 22A Kennedy Road (堅尼地道). [Photograph of the second generation Union Church at Staunton Street and Peel Street in Central, by John Thomson Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Union chapel, Hong Kong. Photograph by John Thomson, 1868/1871. 1868 By: J. ThomsonPublished: 1868/1871. CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0%5D
The 4th generation Union Church was considered as a unique example of Modernist architecture from mid-20th century. After 68 years of service, the building was demolished for luxurious real estate development. [Photographed by Ceeseven, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
Opened in 1849, St John’s Cathedral (聖約翰座堂) at Garden Road (花園道) was one of the first permanent buildings erected in the city. As an Anglican place of worship, the cathedral is the only building in Hong Kong granted with a freehold land ownership by the British colonial government. [Photograph by William Pryor Floyd, Public Domain, 1873]
Being the seat of Archbishop of Hong Kong, St John’s Cathedral is the oldest Anglican cathedral in the Far East. The bell tower is decorated with a VR motif at the west face to commemorate the reign of Queen Victoria during which the church was founded. [St John’s Cathedral, Garden Road, Central, 2021]
The timber roof structure of the cathedral is a rarity in Hong Kong. [St John’s Cathedral, Garden Road, Central, 2021]
Behind the Altar stands the Bishop throne, choir stalls, High Altar and East Window. [St John’s Cathedral, Garden Road, Central, 2021]
The font in the north transept dates back to 1890. [St John’s Cathedral, Garden Road, Central, 2021]
St John’s Cathedral features stained glass windows created by William Morris from England. [St John’s Cathedral, Garden Road, Central, 2021]
Today, St John’s Cathedral is nestled in the midst of government and commercial buildings of Central. [St John’s Cathedral, Garden Road, Central, 2021]
Swiss priest Theodore Joset established a parish in 1842, and established the first Catholic church at the intersection of Pottinger Street and Wellington Street. The church was named Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (聖母無原罪主教座堂). After the church was destroyed by fire, a new cathedral with twin steeples was rebuilt at the same spot. [Second generation of Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception at the upper left with its twin steeples. [Photograph by John Thomson, 1868/1871, Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org, CC BY 4.0]
The third Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (聖母無原罪主教座堂) was completed in 1888 at a site above Caine Road (堅道). [Photograph of Henry Rue Collection. Image courtesy of Archives & Special Collections, SOAS Library, University of London (www.hpcbristol.net), (CC BY_NC_ND 4.0), 1910’s]
Instead of a grand plaza or lush green lawn, the city’s main Catholic church, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is now tightly surrounded by luxurious apartments, as well as the Caritas complex (明愛), a Catholic social welfare group, and Raimondi College (高主教書院), a Catholic school. [Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, St Joseph Terrace, Mid Levels, 2021]
The church was consecrated in 1938, 50 years after it was opened when the cathedral was free from debt of its US$15,400 construction cost. [Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, St Joseph Terrace, Mid Levels, 2021]
The cathedral was spared from plunder and serve damages in WWII. The Japanese treated the Prefecture Apostolic as under the sovereignty of Italy, with whom Japan was not at war with. [Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, St Joseph Terrace, Mid Levels, 2021]
The shrine of Virgin Mary Mount behind the cathedral is a popular spot for Catholics to stop by. [Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, St Joseph Terrace, Mid Levels, 2014]
The cathedral interior is designed in the cruciform form of the Latin cross. [Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, St Joseph Terrace, Mid Levels, 2014]
Defined as the main focal point in the cathedral, the Grand Altar represents the memory for Jesus Christ. Relics of Chinese Martyrs, Pope John Paul II and Blessed Gabriele Allegra (first translator of Chinese Catholic Bible) are some of the treasures kept in the cathedral. [Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, St Joseph Terrace, Mid Levels, 2014]
The first organ in the cathedral was built by William George Trice in 1889. It was extensively rebuilt by W.C. Blackett in 1921 and 1938. [Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, St Joseph Terrace, Mid Levels, 2014]
In the evening, the cathedral is lit up with beautiful flood lights. [Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, St Joseph Terrace, Mid Levels, 2020]
St. Joseph’s Church at Garden Road stands out from the residential apartments of the Mid Levels further above. This Catholic church is the third structure on the site, where Rev. Timoleon Raimondi founded the first St. Joseph’s Church in 1872. [St. Joseph Church, intersection of Garden and Kennedy Road, Mid Levels, 2021]
Design by architect Peter K. Ng in 1966, St. Joseph’s Church exhibits interesting modernist features on its facades. [St. Joseph Church, intersection of Garden and Kennedy Road, Mid Levels, 2021]
St. Joseph’s Church is one of the busiest Catholic church in Hong Kong with 10 masses on every Sunday. [St. Joseph Church, intersection of Garden and Kennedy Road, Mid Levels, 2017]
Reverend James Legge (理雅各) of London Missionary Society founded the English church Union Church, and also Hong Kong’s Ying Wa College (英華書院) in 1843, a school where local Chinese could come for Christian services. This led to the founding of To Tsai Church (道濟會堂), the first independent Chinese church on Hollywood Road. In 1921, To Tsai Church moved to Bonham Road (般咸道) and renamed as Hop Yat Church (合一堂). [Hop Yat Church, Bonham Road, Mid Levels, 2021]
Construction of Hop Yat Church (合一堂) took several years and went along with the expansion of the adjacent Nethersole Hospital (那打素醫院), also owned by London Missionary Society. [Hop Yat Church, Bonham Road, Mid Levels, 2021]
Hop Yat Church stands prominently as a Gothic structure decorated with bands of bricks. [Hop Yat Church, Bonham Road, Mid Levels, 2021]
Completed in 1932, Kau Yan Church (救恩堂) of Lutheran Christianity is another historical church worth preservation. Theodore Hamberg and Rudolph Lechler of Basel Mission based themselves in Sai Ying Pun to spread the gospel in Hakka and Chiu Zhou in China. Theodore Hamberg founded a Hakka church in 1851, and acquired a piece of Sai Ying Pun land in 1852. In 1860’s Rudolf Lechler urged the government to settle Hakka people in the area, and the Hakka people became the basis of the church. In 1927, the local Tsung Tsin Mission of Hong Kong (基督教香港崇真會) was founded at the church. A new church was built in 1932 known as Kau Yan Church. [Kau Yan Church, Intersection of High Street (高街), Third Street (第三街), and Western Street (西邊街), Sai Ying Pun, 2021]
Gothic details of the outer wall reflect the trend of the 1930’s. [Kau Yan Church, Intersection of High and Western Street, Sai Ying Pun, 2021]
Designed by Palmer & Turner Group (公和洋行), Kau Yan Church has become a prominent monument in Sai Ying Pun. [Kau Yan Church, Intersection of High and Western Street, Sai Ying Pun, 2021]