ultramarinus – beyond the sea

Posts tagged “tenement

BLUE HOUSE BY THE NULLAH, Wan Chai (灣仔), Hong Kong

From Victoria Peak, a stream flowed down to Kennedy Road and then found its way down a stone nullah into Victoria Harbour next to the imposing Naval Hospital (today’s Ruttonjee Hospital). Despite the water’s occasional foul smell, the community regularly came to the nullah for laundry. In 1959, the nullah was covered and turned into Stone Nullah Lane (石水渠街). Today, apart from some car mechanics and restaurants, Stone Nullah Lane is best known as one of the oldest neighborhoods in Wan Chai, and its tourist attractions: Pak Tai Temple (灣仔北帝廟) and Blue House (藍屋). Among all the historical buildings in Wan Chai, Blue House is probably one of the most well known, partly due to its importance as one of the city’s last remaining prewar tenement buildings (tong lau) with balconies, and partly due to its vivid blue colour. Passing by the intersection of Queen’s Road East and Stone Nullah Lane, it is almost impossible to miss the Blue House complex and its colourful neighbours. To many’s surprise, the Blue house complex was not always blue. In 1990’s, two decades after the building was acquired by the government, blue paint was used to dress up the structure simply because there was blue paint available from the Water Department.

Long before the complex was painted blue, the Blue House was already a well known destination in the neighborhood for its healthcare and educational roles in the community. Long before the complex was even erected, the site was home to Wah Tuo Hospital (華佗醫院), a clinic serving the local community. After the clinic was merged into a larger facility in Sheung Wan, the clinic was converted into a small temple dedicated to Wah Tuo (華陀), the legendary Chinese physician in the 2nd century AD. In 1920, a tenement block with exquisite balconies were erected at 72, 72A, 74 and 74A Stone Nullah Lane, which later became the Blue House that we know today. In 1950’s, descendant of a student of the famous Chinese martial artist and physician Wong Fei-hung (黃飛鴻) opened a martial arts school and dit da (跌打) or Chinese bone-setting clinic at the Blue House. Apart from healthcare, the Blue House also housed a charity school (鏡涵義學) and Wan Chai’s only prewar English school (一中書院), a grocery shop, wine shop, union of the seafood trade, and residential units. Over half a century from its completion, in 1978 the complex was acquired by the government. After the complex was listed as heritage building in 2000, the project “Viva Blue House” was put forward by St Jame’s Settlement (聖雅各福群會), the NGO serving the Stone Nullah Lane community since 1949. Began in 2006, “Viva Blue House” aims to revitalize the complex and the adjacent Yellow House and Orange House into a tourist attraction/ apartment compound. As part of the project, a visitor centre called Hong Kong House of Stories (香港故事館) was established at the Blue House, telling neighborhood stories to outsiders through workshops, exhibitions, tours, and talks, as well as organizing community events such as communal dinners and film screening.

The open stone nullah at Stone Nullah Lane was a community laundry spot a century ago. [Photo: 1910’s, public domain]
The splendid Pak Tai Temple (灣仔北帝廟) and Stone Nullah Stone Garden (石水渠街公園) mark the end of Stone Nullah Lane. [2022]
An old street sign of Stone Nullah Lane was preserved at the temple wall. [2022]
Apart from the renovated Blue House and Yellow House, only a few original old tenement buildings remain in the neighborhood of Stone Nullah Lane. [2022]
From Queen’s Road East, Stone Nullah Lane can be easily recognized by its colourful tenement blocks. [2022]
Among all the colourful buildings, the most famous block is undoubtedly the Blue House. It remains as one of the last surviving prewar tenement building or tong lau equipped with balconies. [2022]
Vivid colour has become a symbol of the Blue House neighborhood. [2022]
With workshops, small exhibitions, talks, community events, vegetarian restaurant, and organic shop, the Blue House is a popular destination during weekends. [2020]
The unintended blue paint has become an iconic character for the Blue House. [2020]
Once a year, tour of a selected flat is available during the open house event. [2022]
The ground floor of no. 72 was the former location of Wah Tuo Temple and martial art school of Lam Jo (林祖). Lam was the nephew of Lam Sai Wing (林世榮), the student of legendary martial artist and physician Wong Fei-hung (黃飛鴻). [2022]
After a thorough renovation, the Viva Blue House revitalization project continues to organize events for the community and outside visitors. [2022]
The Blue House has become an official hub of the Stone Nullah Lane community. A blackboard at the courtyard outlines the list of events for the week, from community dinner, workshops, recycling collection, to public interpretative tours. [2020]
Occupied the ground floor of no. 74, Hong Kong House of Stories (香港故事館) serves as a small visitor centre at the Blue House. [2022]
A Christmas tree made with recycled plastic bottle caps was on display at the Blue House courtyard in 2021. [2022]
We have been to the lovely Local Ginger Veggie Bistro (本地薑) at the Blue House courtyard a few times. The restaurant actually occupies the ground floor of the adjacent building, the Orange Building (橙屋) at King Sing Street (景星街). [2020]
Local Ginger Veggie Bistro (本地薑) uses local produces and ingredients for their vegetarian dishes. [2020]
Built in 1957, the Orange House (橙屋) almost got demolished in 2006. In 2007, the government decided to preserve Orange House as part of the Blue House revitalization project. [2022]
1927 saw the completion of the beautiful Yellow House (黃屋) right next to the Blue House at Hing Wan Street (慶雲街). [2022]
After the revitalization of Blue House, the Stone Nullah Lane neighborhood has welcomed a new wave of artistic and youthful culture. [2022]
Across the street from Yellow House, Tai Lung Fung (大龍鳳) has become a cool venue in the neighborhood for drinks and local snacks. [2022]
Apart from Lockhart Road and the redeveloped Lee Tung Avenue and Starstreet Precinct, the Blue House neighborhood is an off the beaten destination to chill out after work. [2022]

LADDER STREETS PART 2: TREASURE HUNT, Tai Ping Shan (太平山), Hong Kong

Surprise Encounters

For a whole year we walked by the junction of Ladder Street (樓梯街) and Circular Pathway (弓弦巷) every morning and never did we notice Nhau, a new contemporary Vietnamese restaurant just 30m down Circular Pathway, until one Saturday morning when we decided to give it a try after reading about it on the Internet. We ended up enjoying the lovely food by Chef Que Vinh Dang and the relaxing ambience of the restaurant. But what truly amazed us was the fact that we have never noticed the restaurant’s existence despite it is just 3 minute walk away from our apartment and we passed by the junction almost everyday. In fact, Nhau was not the only pleasant surprise we have encountered during our strolls in Tai Ping Shan. Be it a hidden restaurant, or a tiny vintage shop, or a new hand-drip coffee house, or an alleyway full of street art, the labyrinth network of ladder streets in our neighborhood are full of hidden treasures. Every spontaneous detour we make may end up a journey of discoveries. Being a flaneur in our own neighborhood has become our weekend pastimes, as if a recurring treasure hunt that brings us delightful surprises from time to time.

Treasure Troves

Tai Ping Shan in Sheung Wan has been a treasure trove for several generations. The area around Hollywood Road (荷李活道) and Upper Lascar Row (嚤囉上街) have long been the largest antique market in Hong Kong. Today, the area still host a large concentration of antique stores. Apart from traditional antique shops, new vintage shops have emerged in recent years, attracting nostalgic vintage lovers across the city coming over to test their luck. Film directors and designers in particular love to linger in the area to search for inspirations and film production props. Select 18 at Tung Street has an impressive collection of vintage objects from jewellery, posters, photos, vinyls, toys, housewares to furniture. We can easily spend hours just to go through every single items that might have appeared somewhere in our childhood memories. Recently, it is Chenmiji (陳米記): A Department Store For Only One Person at Water Lane that has captured our attention. Housed in a metal shed measured no more than 1.5 x 2.5m in a 3m wide alleyway, Chenmiji truly epitomizes the tiny living conditions in Hong Kong, where the average living space per capita is 160 sq.ft (compared to 220 in Japan, 323 in Singapore, and 800 in the United States. Space is intimate at Chenmiji, and the atmosphere is cozy and the collection personal but charming, especially attractive for people who adores the 1960s and 1970s Hong Kong. Checking out these vintage shops have become another hobby of ours recently. Just a gentle touch of an old toy or movie ticket would trigger distant memories that we haven’t recalled for years, reminding us how we used to live in an era without smartphones, computers, and the internet.

Treasures for All

Checking out the vintage store You Wu Studio (遊誤工房) would bring us to a popular community gathering spot at Shing Wong Street (城皇街), another famous ladder street between Hollywood Road and Caine Road. In the midst of “30 House” (卅間), an old community of tenement buildings, or tong lau (唐樓) in Chinese, a series of pedestrian landings and steps have become a causal meeting place for the community, as if a small piazza in Europe. Surrounded by two coffee shops and the vintage store You Wu Studio, these landings can be considered as the community’s “third place”, which sociologist Ray Oldenburg describes as a relaxing mingling place away from our home and office. Every weekend, You Yu Studio would set up chairs and tables outside their store, encourage members of the community to sit down for a causal chat, or a cup of locally made ice cream, or a handicraft workshop. Such breathing space just a stone throw away from the business district is truly a treasure for Tai Ping Shan community, and a valuable open space for all pedestrians to enjoy. As a dense and vertical city, Hong Kongers are unfortunately enjoying far less open spaces than residents in many other Asian cities. A study in 2017 reveals the average open space per capita in Hong Kong is about 2.8 sq.m, way behind Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and Singapore (ranging from 5.8 to 7.6 sq.m). Without adequate outdoor spaces for social activities, Hong Kongers have long been using the streets creatively for both commercial and social purposes. This is the case for You Yu Studio at Shing Wong Street, and so as the tiny Chenmiji at Water Lane.

Circular Path (弓絃巷) was once a lively street with shops and vendors lined along both sides of the street. Decades of urban redevelopment, street alterations and relocation of most street vendors, vibrant scenes of Circular Path have long gone. Today, only two street stalls remain, and one of the vendors is already 96 years old. The opening of Nhau Vietnamese restaurant has injected a new stream of energy into the stepped alleyway.
Occupying a quiet location at Circular Path, Nhau Vietnamese restaurant was a pleasant surprise for us in a lovely June morning.
Ping On Lane (平安里), a narrow ladder street a little more than 1m wide between Hollywood Road and Bridges Street, is another hidden alleyways in Sheung Wan.
Just 10m in from the entrance of Hollywood Road stands a stone gateway inscribed with two Chinese characters 蹈和, pronounces “dou woo”, referring to an old Chinese idiom meaning one should walk straight peacefully in life. The old stone doorway is a remnant from the former Chung Wah College (中華書院), a charity school established by Tung Wah Hospital Group in 1880 to provide free education to low income citizens operated with public donations from the adjacent Man Mo Temple(文武廟).
Just a landing up from the stone doorway leads a rustic entrance with a cool bulldog graphic. Hidden from daily vehicular and pedestrian traffic, SHBJJ is a martial art school training students on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). A popular martial arts with a solid base of practitioners around the world, including Hollywood actors Keanu Reeves and Naomi Watts, BJJ itself is another story of East meets West, where the Carlos brothers of Brazil were taught by Mitsuyo Maeda (前田 光世), a master of Japanese Judo at the turning of the 20th century.
About 100m from Ping On Lane, another hidden ladder street between Queen’s Road Central and Gough Street is home to Sleeep, an award wining capsule hotel that promotes what many Hong Kongers are lacking in their busy life, the culture of sleep.
In the antique market area of Upper Lascar Row (嚤囉上街) and Hollywood Road (荷李活道), a series of narrow ladder streets have become treasure troves for vintage collectors.
Select 18 is one of the most well known vintage store in Sheung Wan. Many filmmakers and art directors would come to search for furniture or household objects for filming.
No matter the age, visitors would likely find objects that belong to their childhood years.
All objects in the shop come from the colonial years of Hong Kong.
From the objects on display, it’s not difficult to see the British influences to the city.
Everything has a price tag, and so as one’s memories.
Just 20m from Select 18, hidden in the narrow Water Lane (水巷) between Hollywood Road (荷李活道) and Upper Lascar Row (嚤囉上街) is the super cool Chenmiji (陳米記): A Department Store For Only One Person. Chenmiji is managed by two interesting owners: a designer/ vintage furniture collector and a vintage book collector.
A signed photograph of famous Taiwanese actress Brigitte Lin from the 1970s guards the entrance of Chenmiji.
Probably due to spatial restrictions, most items at Chenmiji are small.
Displayed on the ledge against the shop window include vintage board games and pencil sharpeners from the 1960s and 1970s.
Apart from vintage stationery, games, and household items, Chenmiji also offers a selection of vintage books.
It is amazing to see such a cozy and personal space emerges in the middle of a hidden alleyway.
Tuck in a side alleyway off Shing Wong Street stands a traditional barber shop. With only two seats, the old-school barber shop has become an one of the kind in the neighborhood.
East of Shing Wong Street between Staunton Street and Hollywood Road stands the former Police Married Quarters (PMQ), a listed historical building converted into a mixed-use art and design centre. It stands on the former site of Queen’s College, the city’s largest building complex during late 19th century. Before erection of the Queen’s College, Shing Wong Temple, the earliest temple in the Victoria city, occupied the very same site in mid 19th century.
Shing Wong Street (城皇街) is the central axis of an old neighborhood known as Thirty Houses (卅間), a battleground between the profit making Urban Renewal Authority and the local community who is fighting for the conservation of historical buildings in the area.
In recent years, the vintage shop You Wu Studio (遊誤工房) has become a focal point in the neighborhood.
According to their website, “You Wu Studio provides a place for fun. People are able to re-create their own space here: organize exhibitions, workshops, or just come and taste our tea, read books and enjoy life.” Shing Wong Street has become a stepped piazza where the community would gather and interact outside the shopfront of You Yu Studio.
A few steps further up from You Wu Studio, another landing is often used as an outdoor patio for the two adjacent cafes.