For several occasions a year, usually in summer, fiery red skies would blanket Victoria Harbour. People at both sides of the harbour would flock to the waterfront after work to take photos of the beautiful skies. For me, the closest harbourfront lookout is North Point Pier, a public ferry pier situated below the expressway Island Eastern Corridor (東區走廊) at the northernmost point of Hong Kong Island. Built in 1963, North Point Pier connects Hong Kong Island with Kowloon City, Hung Hom, and Kwun Tong in Kowloon. Together with the adjacent bus terminal and MTR station, the pier has established North Point as a transportation hub in eastern Hong Kong Island. But for many, North Point Pier is much more than just a transport interchange. It is also a community node where neighbours mingle, a dog park, a fishing spot for retirees, a dining destination, a seafood market, a venue for the controversial fish release ceremonies for Buddhist believers, and most recently, a hotspot for real estate investors. For us, North Point Pier is where we would hop on and off bus 23 to and from work, and have Japanese omurice or Vietnamese pho for lunch at the new Harbour North Shopping Centre (北角匯) below the luxury apartments of “Victoria Harbour” (海璇). Awkwardly, “Victoria Harbour” here is used as the name of the real estate development, the project that pushed up the record square foot rate of North Point to HK$65,846 (US$ 8,400) in 2018.
But North Point Pier was not always about money and luxurious living. Back in my childhood, North Point Pier was also home to North Point Estate (北角邨), a public housing estate comprised of seven 11-storey blocks with a total of 1,956 flats. Completed in 1957, the famous social housing complex was designed by architect Eric Cumine. With its convenient location at city centre, North Point Estate was a highly popular social housing estate back at its heyday. In late 1980’s, I often come to take lessons with Mr. Ip, a dedicated art teacher and traditional Chinese painter. I still remember walking in the open corridors and stairs of the housing complex where sea breeze would come all the way to the unit doors. Many residents would keep their doors open behind the metal gates so that sea breeze could reach their living spaces. Through the gate, I would count on seeing Mr. Ip’s paintings, images of Virgin Mary and photos of Mrs. Ip’s visit to the Vatican on the wall to ensure that I had arrived at the right flat for my art lessons. North Point Estate was cleared in 2002 and demolished in 2003. The land was subsequently sold to a local real estate developer and became what we now know as “Victoria Harbour”.
North Point (北角) has long been referred to as Little Fujian (小福建) and Little Shanghai (小上海) since waves of immigrants from Mainland China flocked to settle in the area during the turbulent first half of 20th century. Among the refugees came a group of cultural elites and merchants from Shanghai. Many of them chose to reside in the quiet streets at the foothill of Braemar Hill (寶馬山) in North Point, just a block or two up from bustling King’s Road. This neighborhood was once dominated by multi-storey tenement apartments, with fine terrazzo portal, Art Deco motifs and Streamline Moderne building profiles that echoed the architectural trend of old Shanghai. Today, despite most tenement buildings have been replaced by highrise apartments, these sloped streets remain tranquil most of the day, except when students get out of Kiangsu & Chekiang Primary School (蘇浙小學), Hong Kong’s first school that offer all lessons in Mandarin, at the end of school day.
In 2019, Yonfan (楊凡)’s animation No.7 Cherry Lane(繼園臺七號) won the Best Screenplay Award at the Venice International Film Festival. In the film, the stepped lane where the protagonists walk down to North Point, and the tenement apartment on Cherry Lane where Shanghaiese and Taiwanese immigrants reside, is actually based on the sloped street of Kai Yuen Street (繼園街). During the pandemic, the peaceful Kai Yuen Street has gone through drastic transformation as many old tenement buildings were locked down for new luxury apartments. The neighbourhood where renowned Shanghaiese writer Eileen Chang (張愛玲) often came to visit the family of Stephen Soong (宋淇), a famous writer and literary critic who came to Hong Kong in escape of the Chinese Civil War, is all but gone. A few blocks west of Kai Yuen Street lies another sloped street Ming Yuen Western Street (明園西街). Ming Yuen Western Street is probably one of the last spots in “Little Shanghai” where there are a few original tenement blocks still standing today. Ming Yuen Western Street and the adjacent Metropole Department Store form part of the site of the former Ming Yuen (名園) amusement park. Opened in 1918, the design of Ming Yuen was based on another amusement park in Shanghai. After the amusement went out of business, the area was soon turned into a residential neighbourhood. At nearby Ching Wah Street (清華街), a five-storey apartment with curved balconies and Art Deco motifs stands as a lone reminder of what Little Shanghai might have look like in the bygone era.
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
In Canada, there has long been a debate of tearing down the elevated Gardiner Expressway in Toronto waterfront. Maintaining the deteriorating and somewhat underused infrastructure has become a burden for the city. As the trend of urban sprawl reversed in recent two decades, land in downtown Toronto, especially along the waterfront of Lake Ontario, has become precious asset for the city. Since 1960’s, the Gardiner has been a prominent barrier that cut off the city from its waterfront. The uninviting wasteland underneath the expressway has prevented most pedestrians walking to the waterfront especially at night. Since 1990’s, studies have been made for replacing the expressway, such as turning it into a tunnel or an urban park like the Highline in New York. Despite all the studies and debates, most of the Gardiner Expressway still remains in Toronto waterfront today. On confronting an aging waterfront expressway that hinders urban development and pedestrian connection, Toronto wasn’t alone. Negative aspects of these waterfront expressway are quite universal: poor waterfront access, wasteland below the structure, discontinued harbourfront, undesirable air ventilation, unattractive streetscape, high maintenance cost, etc. Since 1990’s, a wave of waterfront revitalization projects and demolition of elevated expressways have sprung up across the globe. Double decker Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco was torn down in 1991, and so did Rio de Janerio’s Perimetral Elevated Highway in 2014, and Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct in 2019.
In Hong Kong, sections of elevated expressways flank the Victoria Harbour in Western Kowloon and Eastern Hong Kong Island. The idea of building an expressway in Eastern Hong Kong Island was brought out in 1968 to tackle the traffic problems of King’s Road. It wasn’t until 1980’s that an elevated expressway, namely Island Eastern Corridor (東區走廊), was erected between Causeway Bay at the centre of Hong Kong Island and Chai Wan (柴灣) at the eastern end. The expressway includes a viaduct along the harbour between Causeway Bay (銅鑼灣) and Quarry Bay (鰂魚涌), passing by North Point (北角) along the way. East of Quarry Bay, the expressway shifts slightly inland from the coast, leaving a strip of waterfront promenade between Quarry Bay and Shau Kei Wan (筲箕灣). Designating the waterfront for public enjoyment was never the top priority in the 1980’s. From Causeway Bay to Quarry Bay, there are only a few boat landings and viaduct pillar supports where the public can walk out to have a peek of the harbour. In 2008, the authority proposed to construct a waterfront promenade between Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter and Shau Kei Wan. In the past decade, stretches of waterfront promenades have been built to connect the harbourfront from Central to Causeway Bay, up to East Coast Park Precinct. East of Causeway Bay however, the waterfront promenades remain fragmented. After years of speculations, boardwalk constructions under the expressway have finally commenced in North Point. If the works can really deliver a continuous walkway below Island Eastern Corridor, then sooner or later we can walk along the north coast of Hong Kong Island all the way from Central Pier to Aldrich Bay Promenade (愛秩序灣海濱花園) in Shau Kei Wan, via a 9.5km pedestrian path. Then the barrier that separates the harbour from Eastern Hong Kong Island would finally be broken.
At the east end of Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter (銅鑼灣避風塘) sits one of the hottest attractions in recent months. Officially opened on 25 September 2021, East Coast Park Precinct is one of the several projects aiming to enhance the waterfront experience along Victoria Harbour. The main feature of the park is the 100m long breakwater that marks the eastern end of Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter. Unlike most harbourfront promenades in the city, the majority of this breakwater is handrail free to avoid interruption to the seaview. At its tip stands a cylindrical structure spiraling up two to three storey high. The strange looking tower is actually a vent shaft of the Central-Wanchai Bypass East, constantly bringing fresh air into the submerged tunnel. East of the breakwater, a harbourfront promenade may not be the biggest open space in the city, but it offers an inviting and safe space for skateboarders and roller-skaters to practice their tricks and socialize with each other. Unlike most parks in the city, there aren’t that many restrictions at this space, not a piece of lawn that cannot be stepped on, or planter edges tilted to prevent people sitting down, or signs prohibiting people to eat and drink. Although not a big park, at least East Coast Park Precinct is easily accessible and welcoming in design, drawing large crowds of visitors, either for the skyline views, or for the recreation spaces.
Compared to most big cities in the world, Hong Kong is particularly problematic on the issue of public space. Worse than residents of Tokyo, Singapore or Shanghai, a 2018 study shows that urban Hongkongers have only 2.7 sq.m of open space per person, which is slightly larger than a toilet cubicle. In comparison, New Yorkers enjoy over 10 sq.m of public space per capita. Furthermore, these open spaces are not evenly distributed across the city. For some of the most vibrant and busy districts, such as Mongkok and Causeway Bay, the number drops to 0.6 to 1 sq.m per person. Many studies around the world have shown that having access to open spaces can bring great health and social benefits to people. Perhaps there is great opportunity for Hong Kong to tackle the open space issue today. As many old godowns and piers along Victoria Harbour become obsolete, expanding the extent of public promenade along the harbour is definite a good move to enhance the well-being for everyone.
Before the pandemic, Hong Kong was a highly popular tourist destination in Asia, ranked among the top cities in the world for the number of international visitors. Just like many tourist cities around the globe, tourism in Hong Kong has suffered enormously during the pandemic. The numbers of foreign visitors have plummeted, and the once crowded sights across the city have been largely tourist free. Despite the loss of tourist activities, this situation is prompting the return of Hongkongers to places they would normally avoid before the pandemic. Apart from popular museums, beaches, amusement parks, and shopping centres, waterfront promenades along Victoria Harbour, especially in Tsim Sha Tsui at the tip of Kowloon Peninsula, has always been packed with tourists before the Covid. Just like our childhood years, today we can once again wander freely on the Avenue of Stars or linger in the shadow of the Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower without bumping into aggressive tourist groups. At night, the undulating reflections of neon lights, LED billboards, and glittering building facades in the water provides the perfect foreground for the skyline of Central, backed upon the silhouette of Victoria Peak. For decades, this postcard perfect Harbour panorama has served as the impeccable visual representation of Hong Kong’s prosperity and vibrancy, illuminating the legend of a city that never sleeps. Beyond the charming skyline on both sides of the water, the busy Victoria Harbour has much more to offer than just its visual glamour.
In Feng Shui, the traditional Chinese practice that harnesses the energy of surrounding environment, the element “water” is often associated with wealth and fortune. For Hong Kong, this water element can be definitely identified as the Victoria Harbour. From founding of the trading port, to the establishment of Far East’s finance and servicing hub, Victoria Harbour, the 41.88 km2 stretch of sea between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula, has always played a vital role. The Harbour is indeed where the story of Hong Kong begins. Known for its deep and sheltered water, the natural landform of the Harbour was one of the main reasons why Hong Kong was chosen by the British in 1841. Since the mid-19th century, the British put a great deal of effort to establish Hong Kong as their subtropical metropolis in the Far East and commercial gateway into China. The Harbour and its waterfront developments have been at the centre stage of Hong Kong’s evolution every since. To sustain population and economic growth, major land reclamation projects have never ceased to transform the urban extent of the city ever since 1840’s. More office towers, residential complexes, hotels, shopping centres, government buildings, museums, convention centre, stadiums, cruise terminals, promenades, piers, etc. would be erected after each reclamation scheme, redrawing the urban coastline at least once in every generation.
For many neighborhoods in the city, Victoria Harbour is always just a few blocks away. Exploring the everchanging waterfront areas is an interesting way to understand the past, present and future of Hong Kong. Our next series of posts will do exactly that.
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.