TEMPLE • SCHOOL • RESIDENCE • DESIGN CENTRE – REINCARNATION OF THE PMQ (元創方), Sheung Wan (上環), Hong Kong
Between Sheung Wan and Central lies a tranquil stepped alleyway known as Shing Wong Street (城皇街). In Chinese tradition, “Shing Wong” is the guardian deity of city wall, or in a broader sense, the patron saint of the neighbourhood. Shing Wong Street reminds us that there was once a Shing Wong Temple (城皇廟) stood at the site bounded by Shing Wong Street (城皇街), Staunton Street (士丹頓街), Aberdeen Street (鴨巴甸街), and Hollywood Road (荷李活道), a relatively large plot of land in the old Victoria City. Probably built in 1843 or earlier, some consider the former Shing Wong Temple the oldest temple in colonial Hong Kong. Its importance was soon overtaken by Man Mo Temple (文武廟) further down Hollywood Road. In 1870’s, Shing Wong Temple was temporarily converted into a mental health asylum. And then in the 1880’s the government bought the temple and redeveloped it into the new campus of Central School (中央書院), the city’s first upper primary and secondary school to provide modern education. The school was later renamed as Victoria College (維多利亞書院) in 1889 and later the Queen’s College (皇仁書院). Merchant tycoon Sir Robert Ho Tung, and Sun Yatsen, the Father of Modern China were some of the well known graduates from the college’s early years. The Neo-Classical college building was one of the most expensive construction projects in 19th century Hong Kong.
For half a century the splendid Queen’s College building stood proudly in Upper Sheung Wan, until 1941 when the school was forced to close down due to WWII. The building suffered devastating destruction during the war and became nothing more than ruins and rubble when the city was liberated from Japanese occupation. In 1948, the ruins were cleared to make way for a new era. In 1951, a functionalist building was erected for a completely different purpose: residential compound for the police force. Sitting on four levels of platforms, the Police Married Quarters offered about 170 dwelling units. The functionalist compound served its intended purpose for another half a century, until the last residents moved out in 2000. Subsequently the government rezoned the site for private residential development. The heritage site was at risk to be lost forever.
“Save the Trees” was the first slogan local resident Katty Law put up in 2005 to protest against the felling of the Hollywood Road “stone wall trees” of the Police Married Quarters. Among a few other residents from the local neighborhood, Law found a NGO known as Central and Western Concern Group (中西區關注組). The neighborhood group successfully persuaded the government to consider removing the site from residential redevelopment and engaging in archaeological examination of the site. The government agreed to study the site. This eventually led to discovering the historical foundation of the former Queen’s College. In 2009, the government finally announced preserving the former Police Married Quarters and revitalizing it into a hub for art and design that is known as PMQ today. In 2014, the PMQ reincarnated one more time. A glass canopy was constructed over the central court, where public events would now be held. The former residential units were retrofitted into studio spaces for selective tenants including designers, artists, galleries, fashion designers, jewellery designers, lifestyle shops, vintage stores, cultural institutions, cafes, bakeries, and restaurants. A new hub for tourists and art lovers has been reborn upon the legacies of a temple, school and police residence.
Filmed and narrated by female Syrian journalist Waad Al-Kateab, the 2019 documentary For Sama followed five years of Waad’s life in war torn Aleppo with Hamza Al-Kateab, her husband who worked as one of the few doctors remained in Aleppo, and Sama, their baby girl who was born and raised in Aleppo during the bloody civil war. Her first person account of daily life in the rebel held Aleppo, and in particular, documentation of how warfare was affecting the innocent children in the city was heartbreaking. For Sama did generate some international attention at least in the film circles. It was critically acclaimed worldwide and won a number of the year’s best documentary award, including the BAFTA and Cannes. The documentary was a visual testimony for Waad to tell her story to her own child Sama, explaining to her what they were fighting for during the Syrian uprising, why they have insisted to stay in Aleppo to operate the only hospital left in the rebel territory, how they have attempted to support each other in the diminishing local community, how they have lived through the Russian and government bombardment in their neighborhood at a regular basis, and how they have witnessed death and desperation day in, day out for five long years. For Sama reminds me of the Syrian children we have encountered during our sojourn in Syria back in 2006. We could never fully comprehend and truly feel how terrible the situations must have been for each of these children during the decade long civil war. Our hearts go out to every one of them and their families, and hope that they can return to Syria and rebuild their homes as soon as situation allows.
* * *
Before hiring a Jordan-bound service taxi from Baramke Station, we wandered in the old city of Damascus one last time. In a narrow alleyway, we saw a group of school boys, all dressed in blue school uniforms, perhaps just finished their morning school. We soon encountered another group of cheerful school children, this time they were all girls. We followed the girls to a popular neighborhood ice-cream parlour. How lucky we were. After the girls picked up their cones, we got ourselves some of the best vanilla ice-cream we had during the trip, and each cone was only 15 cents USD. Another group of school children arrived at the parlour as we were about to walk off.
At Baramke, we hired a taxi to make the trip to Amman of Jordan. We picked a driver in his fifties. Wearing a grey blazer despite the heat, the driver drove between the Syrian and Jordanian capital regularly. It didn’t take us much time to go through the passport controls at both the Syrian and Jordanian sides. After 1.5 hour we were already arriving at downtown Amman. We dropped off our bags at Sydney Hotel, and headed off immediately to look for the guidebook-acclaimed Palestinian juice stand for a cup of refreshment.
Before leaving Damascus, we wandered in the old city one last time.
Houses that have stood for centuries might have gone forever after the civil war, especially for cities like Aleppo where even the UNESCO World Heritage listed old city was bombarded by explosives, poisonous chemicals, and missiles from Russian warplanes.
It is always the most innocent and vulnerable people would suffer the most during wartime. Seeing the deaths of families, the fleeing of school friends, and the destruction of neighborhoods, and living along with the deafening noises of gunfire and explosives everyday is just too much for the children to bear.
We followed a group of school girls to a neighborhood ice-cream parlour.
We were curious about the school children and so were they on us.
Scenes of cheerful school children buying ice-cream from a neighborhood ice-cream parlour was perhaps a regular daily scene in prewar Syria. Now it may only happen in a handful of government strongholds.
For us, the ice-cream was delicious and affordable, but the most essential thing was the joy that it brought to everyone of us, school children and curious travelers alike, at that particular moment of spring 2006, in one of the narrow alleys of old Damascus.
No fancy shop decoration or special ice-cream flavours, just simple vanilla ice-cream has brought out the purest happiness from the Syrian children.
Every time seeing news of devastating destruction and haunting human sufferings in Syria would make me worry about all the children that we met during our visit.
Despite our brief encounter might only involve exchanges of eye contacts and smiles, these simple smiling faces represent the most unforgettable and precious imagery of my Middle East trip.
I sincerely wish that one day all Syrian children may safely return to their homeland, and have the chance, resources and freedom to rebuild a better country for their next generation.
The bus ride from Huangshan to Hangzhou took about 4 hours. By the time we checked into our hotel near West Lake in Hangzhou it was already dinner time. After a good night of rest for our legs, in the morning we decided to visit the Xiangshan Campus (象山中心校區) of China Academy of Art (中國美術學院) in the outskirt of Hangzhou. We grabbed a Chinese pork bun and walked to the waterfront promenade by West Lake. We stood by the waterlilies and finished our simple breakfast. Soon we walked over to the nearby bus stop and took a local bus heading to the direction of Xiangshan. The entire bus journey took a little over half a hour. Contemporary architecture was the reason for our visit to Xiangshan, and was our only major activity planned for our brief stay in Hangzhou.
Wang Shu (王澍), dean of the School of Architecture at China Academy of Art, is one of the most well known Chinese architects. In 1997, he and his wife Lu Wenyu (陸文宇) found their firm Amateur Architecture Studio. The couple had been teaching at the School of Architecture at China Academy of Art ever since 2000. Based in Hangzhou, their works represent a unique critical regionalism, deriving their own architectural character with contemporary reinterpretation of local heritage. Their most famous works include the Ningbo Museum (2008), and Xiangshan Campus of China Academy of Art near Hangzhou (2007). After receiving a number of international awards for their effort on redefining contemporary Chinese architecture, in 2012 Wang Shu was rewarded with the Pritzker Prize, which considered to be the highest award in the international architectural industry.
In 1928, China Academy of Art was founded in Hangzhou. It is the oldest and most famous art school in China. Today the academy has two campuses in Hangzhou, one right by West Lake at city centre, and a newer one in Xiangshan, at the southwest outskirt of the city. Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu began the design of Xiangshan Campus in 2002. Many buildings, including a library, a gallery, 6 school buildings, 2 studio buildings, 2 bridges, etc., were completed in 2004. The campus continued to expand until today, and has undoubtedly become one of the most influential projects of Amateur Architecture Studio. The campus presents a good example of Wang and Lu’s design ideology of capturing the spirit of the place and reinventing the Chinese architectural traditions into contemporary uses. Many buildings at Xiangshan were actually built in traditional construction methods, despite the use of modern materials such as glass and metal. Old roof tiles were salvaged from all over the province of Zhejiang and reused at Xiangshan as shading device and wall cladding.
We spent about three hours wandering around the campus, visited about half a dozen of buildings before heading back to the city.
Footbridges connect many buildings in Xiangshan. This is one of the interestingly designed pedestrian bridge that crosses a small canal, and has been temporarily turned into an open air exhibition space for students’ art pieces.
Despite the overall brutal finishes and craftsmanship, Wang’s and Lu’s design concepts have successfully created interesting architecture out of traditional Chinese architecture and Modernist design approaches.
Distinct brise-soleil of the two School of Architecture buildings: concrete vertical fins and masonry cross openings, create a coherent atmosphere for the exterior forecourt where the flanking contrasting textures complement each other.
Entrance to one of the School of Architecture building: Bricks are used to form a perforated skin. The word “TOMORROW” is highlighted on the wall surface by filling in the wall openings with glass bottles, like a pin art effect.
* * *
Read other posts on 2015 Anhui and Hangzhou
1. History, Scenery, Architecture, 5-day tour of Anhui and Hangzhou, China
2. Laojie (Old Street), Tunxi, China
3. Hongcun, Anhui, China
4. Xidi, Anhui, China
5. West Sea Canyon, Huangshan, Anhui, China
6. From Monkey Watching the Sea to Welcome Pine, Huangshan, Anhui, China
7. Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, China
8. Folk Art Museum, Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, China