In March 1992, Space Design, a Japanese monthly journal of art and architecture published a special feature on “Hong Kong: Alternative Metropolis” as its Issue 330. One of its articles was “Ue-no-michi”: Floating Way – Central New Town, which introduces to Japanese readers the Central Elevated Walkways, an extensive footbridge network that connects a significant numbers of office towers and shopping centres in the central business district of Hong Kong. The authors mapped out the system, and examined its significance on master planning and urban development of the city. In fact, this pedestrian circulation system has long been a well known reference case for urban planning studies around the world. Without touching the ground, one can pass from one office tower to another, or transfer from a ferry pier to a bus terminal, or access to restaurants, shops, services, hotels, apartments, post office, banks, or ascend to the Mid Levels from the harbourfront. Not only does the network enhances pedestrian connectivity in Downtown Hong Kong, it also offers a safe, weather protected, well lit, clean, convenient, and sometimes air conditioned public space network several metres above the dust, noises and air pollution of the streets. Separating pedestrian and vehicular circulations is also beneficial to vehicular traffic on the streets, where pedestrian traffic lights can be placed much further apart.
The Central Elevated Walkway began in 1970’s, when developer and Central’s biggest landlord Hongkong Land (置地) constructed a footbridge between Connaught Place (now Jardine House), Swire House (now Chater House) and the General Post Office. From then on, the government, developers and banking corporations continue to expand the network to include more buildings and bridge connections. Similar strategy has been adopted elsewhere in the city, notably in business districts Admiralty and Wan Chai, entertainment district Mong Kok, industrial district Tsuen Wan, etc. In 2012, architects and scholars Adam Frampton, Jonathan Solomon and Clara Wong published Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook. The three architectural scholars provide a detailed analysis of the elevated walkways in Hong Kong with beautiful isometric maps. Apart from pedestrian circulation, the book also celebrate the social aspects of the raised spatial system as an essential and integral layer of the city.
Navigating the labyrinth of elevated walkways in Central is not as difficult as one may think, as users can always rely on the clear signage and street scenes below to orient themselves. Elevated several metres above ground, the walkways offer a unique vantage point to enjoy the urban scenery of the financial district. Every Sunday, the covered elevated walkways and adjoining podiums would be turned into a gathering point for foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong. Sitting in small groups on folded cardboard, the domestic helpers (mainly from Philippines and Indonesia) would gather and eat, chat, pray, dance, sing karaoke, tell jokes, watch smartphone videos, play card games, make long distant video calls, etc. The walkways where normally dominated by quick pace pedestrians would suddenly become a vibrant social hub as if a public park.
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.