In a spring Saturday afternoon, we went to a familiar stall at Graham Street Market (嘉咸街市集) to pick up some fruits. While the male owner gathered the fruits we wanted, his wife was busy feeding a big cat tuna-like snacks with a small spoon. The cat sat gratefully on the table to chew on its snacks with its eyes closed. The lady gently stroked the cat’s back and proudly praised about its silky fur. We soon found out that the cat actually didn’t belong to the fruit stall owners. It was a guest from the adjacent dried goods stall. Like many other cats in the open street market, the lucky one we encountered that day would roam freely and welcomed by different stall owners in the area everyday.
Such beautiful human-cat relationship is not uncommon in the old neighbourhoods of Central-Sheung Wan (中上環) and adjacent Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), where decades old shops and market stalls provide the perfect havens for cats to linger. In return for all the food and love from shop owners, the cats would catch mice, attract pedestrian’s attention, and most importantly, keep the shop owners company during the day. Similar to Japan, where the belief of maneki-neko or “beckoning cat” (招き猫) has been around since the Edo Period, shop cats in Hong Kong are often regarded as an integral member of the business. In recent years, these shop cats are often referred to as “feline shopkeepers” (貓店長). These cute shopkeepers have become beloved mascots of the old neighbourhoods, where shop doors are always kept open to the street from morning till dusk.
For 50 years, lampposts, electrical boxes, concrete pillars, pavements, benches, planters, and retaining walls on the streets of Hong Kong could be seen as one large canvas for the “King of Kowloon” (九龍皇帝) to leave his unique calligraphy works. Sometimes, he wrote to proclaim his ancestral land ownership of the Kowloon Peninsula before the British rule, while at other times he would write about his family. Seen by many as acts of a crazy man, the “King of Kowloon” or Tsang Tsou Choi (曾灶財) was probably the most well known graffiti artist the city had seen in the 20th century. Fined by the government numerous times, insulted by neighbours, and even disowned by his own family, Tsang Tsou Choi was mocked by Hong Kong for decades. Whenever his calligraphy was washed or painted over by the authorities, he would restore the works right after. His works were largely seen as public nuisance until the 1990’s, when local artists, fashion designers, art directors, interior designers, furniture makers, graphic designers, musicians began to use Tsang’s unique calligraphy on design products. In his final years, Tsang’s works finally began to gain public recognition with successful shows both in Hong Kong and abroad, including the Venice Biennale in 2003, and even went for auctions at the Sotheby’s.
A decade after Tsang’s death (2007), street art in Hong Kong has already entered a new chapter. Far from the vibrancy and sophistication of London’s or New York’s, street art is nonetheless much widely accepted and welcomed by the public in Hong Kong nowadays. In recent years, the city has been frequented by international street artists, such as Invader from France, who has secretly put up his iconic pixelated 8-bit video game images all over the city. In December 2019, the popular show “Banksy: Genius or Vandal?” arrived in Hong Kong and created quite a stir on the social media. The free spirit, unique artistic expression, cool character, coupled with satirical imagery, political controversy, and social criticism of street art have been welcomed by the young generations, especially in the era of social media when everybody has something to say and share.
In Hong Kong, one of the most popular areas to see interesting street art is Central-Sheung Wan (中上環). Thanks to HKwalls, the non-profit organization who has been organizing annual street art festival since 2014, several neighbourhoods in Hong Kong have already become hotspots showcasing the talents of local and international artists. In their debut year of 2014, HKwalls paired artists with properties owners in Sheung Wan and successfully added 17 street murals in the neighborhood, then another 50+ works in Sheung Wan and Stanley Market in the following year. The event moved to Sham Shui Po in 2016, Wong Chuk Hang in 2017, then returned to Central and Western District in 2018 before moving on to Wanchai (2019) and Sai Kung (2021). HKwalls has successfully brought in great artistic talents from all over the world to Hong Kong, transformed the urban scenery of old neighborhoods, and raised public appreciation of street art to a whole new level.
For a city well known of its quick, dramatic and relentless urban changes, the impermanent and transient beauty of street art suit perfectly to echo the ephemeral spirit of Hong Kong. Here if you see an interesting street art, you better document it right away. Next time around, the mural may be gone forever.
Entangling roots stretch across the surface of granite walls might remind people of the Ta Prohm Temple at Angkor Wat instead of the city of Hong Kong. Commonly known as “Stone Wall Trees” (石牆樹), the urban scenery of Chinese Banyan (Ficus microcarpa 細葉榕) enrooted on historical granite walls is a unique scene in Hong Kong, especially in Central-Western District where the heart of the old Victoria City was located. In 1841 when the British first landed in Hong Kong, the bare, rocky and hilly terrain of the island posed a huge challenge for establishing a settlement. Apart from land reclamation along the coast, the British also create habitable land by constructing flat terraces on the slope of Victoria Peak (Tai Ping Shan 太平山). From the mid 19th century onwards, local granite was used to construct retaining walls for the terrace constructions. To make the relatively bare island more habitable, trees were planted across the city to provide shade and visual interest. Many foreign tree species from other British colonies such as India and Australia were brought to Hong Kong. Due to its suitability to the local climate and ability to grow rapidly, Chinese Banyan (細葉榕) were widely planted. From these banyan trees, birds and bats ate the figs and spread the seeds all over the city, and into stone joints of the retaining walls. This led to the birth of the stone wall trees.
In 1996, scholar C.Y. Jim found 1275 trees with 30 or so species on about 505 stone walls. Ficus Microcarpa or Chinese Banyan is the most common type of stone wall trees. With hardly any soil to clinch into, these banyans take the wall as their host and spread their intertwining roots on the stone surfaces. After 50 to 100 years, these banyans gradually mature into shading crowns that we see today. Many of these old stone wall trees have survived to the present day, especially in Central – Western District which contains the city’s largest concentration of stone wall trees. The emergence of stone wall trees in Hong Kong, however, was no coincidence. Perfect climate conditions, suitable stone wall surface, and some good fortune of surviving the WWII when many old trees were cut down by the Japanese for timber, all played a part in the story of stone wall trees. After WWII, stone was soon replaced by concrete for retaining wall construction. Concrete walls left little room for new trees to enroot themselves by chance. After a few generations, the resilient stone wall trees have become iconic features for various old neighbourhoods.
Despite over a century serving to improve the micro-climate of the city, cultural and ecological significance of the stone wall trees have gone unnoticed until the recent two decades. In light of the government’s intention to demolish the former Police Married Quarters (PMQ) and its iconic stone wall trees in 2005, the local resident group “Central and Western Concern Group” was formed to fight for preserving the stone wall trees as well as the heritage building. Not only has their effort succeeded in convincing the government to preserve the PMQ, they have also increased the public awareness of the stone wall trees. In 2007, the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) decided to relocate a proposed exit for the new Kennedy Town Station in order to preserve the stone wall trees at Forbes Street. The admirable effort decisively preserved the largest concentration of stone wall trees in Hong Kong. Though not all cases were success stories. In 2015, five 150-year old stone wall banyans at Bonham Road were fell sneakily overnight, just because one of their neighbouring trees toppled some time ago due to heavy rain. In name of public safety, the five healthy trees were cut down before the arrival of a potential typhoon. No detailed study was made before the decision, and that particular typhoon didn’t even come close enough to pose any thread. The hasty action of the government led to a huge loss for the community and sparked public outcry. More and more people become aware that there is an urgent need to develop a strategic plan for protecting these unique urban stone wall trees before it is too late.
Linking a number of tourist attractions like Tai Kwun, PMQ and Man Mo Temple, Hollywood Road is always popular for tourists in Hong Kong. While tourists come for the historical attractions, many locals, on the other hand, come to Hollywood Road for food and drinks. South of Hollywood Road, the narrow Staunton Street (士丹頓街) was once home to wet market vendors, trading offices, family-run stores and small Buddhist convents (庵堂). In fact, Staunton Street was once nicknamed the Street of Buddhist Nuns (師姑街). After the Central – Mid Levels Escalators opened to the public in 1993 and brought an influx of pedestrians from the business district downhill, Staunton Street and the adjacent Elgin Street(伊利近街) have quietly undergone a dramatic transformation. Expatriates started to move into the area. Old shops and Buddhist convents were gradually replaced by bars, pubs, restaurants, comedy clubs, cafes, and wine shops. In 1996, Thomas Goetz, a restaurant owner from Elgin Street, came up with the acronym “SoHo” (蘇豪) for this new entertainment and dining area of Central, referring to the location “South of Hollywood Road”. From then on, the Staunton Street that I used to go as a child to get fresh grocery and pay ritualistic respect to my grandfather at a small Buddhist convent has silently disappeared. Today, SoHo would remain sleepy most of the day, and then bursts into life after sunset. The yell of market vendors and pungent incense smoke have been replaced by causal giggles and laughter, and the smell of beer.
Further away from the Central – Mid Levels Escalators and less than 150m northwest of the buzzing SoHo, Gough Street (歌賦街), Kau U Fong (九如坊) and Aberdeen Street (鴨巴甸街) offer a much more laid-back and tranquil ambience. Once home to family run shops and small printing presses, these sleepy back streets have become a hipper cousin of the nearby SoHo. Known as NoHo for “North of Hollywood Road”, this area is particular attractive to locals who come for the foodie scene: Chinese cuisine, dai pai dong dishes, beef brisket noodles, Japanese ramen, sushi, Western fine dining, unadon, Vietnamese pho, hand-drip cafes, bubble tea, chocolate, etc. Despite its abundance of dining options, the shops here remain small and peaceful. Compared to its noisier neighbour, NoHo is much more low key, as if deliberately staying away from the public limelight. Here visitors would enjoy a sense of discovery and intimacy that is hard to find anywhere else in Central.
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.
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.
Out of the many ladder streets in Central and Sheung Wan (中上環), the roughly 350m Ladder Street (樓梯街) in Tai Ping Shan is the longest and one of the oldest. While “ladder street” is a general term for all pedestrian stair streets in Hong Kong, “Ladder Street” is also the name of a specific 316-steps stair street running from Caine Road (堅道) in the Mid Levels (半山) down to Queen’s Street Central (皇后大道中) in Sheung Wan. On its way, Ladder Street intersects with Bridges Street (必列者士街) and Hollywood Road (荷李活道), and several smaller pedestrian lanes. It also passes by a number of historical buildings and tourist attractions, including the Museum of Medical Sciences (香港醫學博物館), Chinese YMCA (中華基督教青年會), Man Mo Temple (文武廟) and Upper Lascar Row Antique Street Market / Cat Street Market (摩羅上街). Construction began in 1841 in the same year when the city was founded, Ladder Street is an iconic urban artefact of Hong Kong.
For many, Ladder Street is an iconic backdrop that represents a bygone Hong Kong. Throughout the years, Ladder Street has featured in uncounted films, TV shows (often involves chasing scenes), advertisements, photographs, etc. For foreigners, Ladder Street may be best known as one of the main filming locations of The World of Suzie Wong, a 1960 American/ British movie that tells the story of a American painter Robert Lomax (WilliamHolden) falling in love with a Hong Kong prostitute Mei Ling (Nancy Kwan). For filming, the section of Ladder Street around Hollywood Road was converted into the set of Nam Kok Hotel, a fictional hotel where the two main protagonists stay hang around. The streetscapes of Ladder Street and Hollywood Road in the movie were “enriched” with extra street vendors, Chinese signage, pulled rickshaws, and lots and lots of people.
Walking down the Ladder Street to Sheung Wan Station every morning is a pleasant start to our daily routine. Away from rush hour traffic, Ladder Street offers us a moment of relaxing air before diving ourselves into the bustling dynamics of the city. Singing birds, shadows of swaying trees, rustic balustrades, old brick walls, incense smoke from Man Mo Temple, and scenes of vendors setting up their antique market stalls, every little detail of Ladder Street come together in a poetic picture. In the past two decades, many low rise tenement buildings in the area have been torn down for new apartment towers. Many vendors have retired, and old shops being replaced by new ones. No matter how much has changed, the intimate and tranquil scenery of Ladder Street remains as an icon of an old Hong Kong. Late poet Yesi (也斯), Leung Ping Kwan, in his 1990 poem Ladder Street, imagines himself on a pair of wooden clogs wandering in Ladder Street like a flaneur, mourning for the loss of the old days and yearning for a re-connection to bygone voices. Who knows, we probably would share a similar sense of loss in a few years’ time.