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.
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.
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.
Chikan (赤坎) is a historical town in the County of Kaiping. It is also a convenient hub for visiting the villages of diaolou (碉樓) in the area. From Kaiping City, we took one of the many local buses to reach Chikan in about half an hour. Out of the bus window, the well preserved colonnaded buildings or qilou (騎樓) took us by surprise. The vintage atmosphere of the streets and lanes in Chikan made us imagine that we were going back in time, to the early 20th century. Streets after streets of qilou buildings, two to three storey high, lined along the main thoroughfare. Rusty metal doors, broken window panes, darken plaster walls, most of the qilou buildings looked well past their prime. From the occasional stained glass windows and ornate plaster motifs, Chikan must have seen its splendid moments in the first half of the 20th century. Despite some were fenced off, on the ground floor of qilou we could still find all sort of local shops serving the remaining population of this historical town.
During our day and a half in Kaiping, we often found ourselves returning to Chikan to switch transportation. Many local visitors came to Chikan to visit the small but famous movie studio where a number of TV shows and movies were filmed, including Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster. We did, however, find the streets and lanes flanked by qilou buildings far more interesting and photogenic. During our first visit, after wandering through its streets and lanes, at the ticket office of Chikan Film Studio we bought a combined ticket that covered some of the most popular villages in the area. We then hopped on a tourist shuttle bus for Zili Village for our first taste of Kaiping diaolou.
Qilou (騎樓), also known as tong lau (唐樓), was greatly inspired by Western arcade design and traditional Chinese mixed use buildings, exemplifying a hybrid design culture once flourished in urban areas of the Guangdong area. During the 18th and 19th century, Guangzhou was the only port city in China designated for international trading. European architectural styles flourished in Guangzhou and spread around the province. Henceforth, qilou architecture emerged with shops on the ground floor and two to three levels of residences atop as the most common style of Lingnan (嶺南) architecture. Many qilou buildings in Guangzhou and nearby cities didn’t survive to this day, but Chikan still has some of the best preserved streets of continuous qilou buildings found nowhere else in the province. The Westernized qilou of Chikan reminded us its heyday when about 80% of the town inhabitants had connections with the Western world. They either studied or worked abroad during the turning of the 20th century when emigration was common in this part of China.
There are a number of local buses connecting Kaiping City with the Town of Chikan.
There are many villages with diaolou and rice paddy fields along the way between Kaiping and Chikan.
The first sight of the well preserved qilou of Chikan was really impressive. Like Hong Kong and Taiwan, many shop signage were written in traditional Chinese, suggesting their long history that predated the Communist takeover in 1949.
Many qilou arcades in Chikan are continuous and hardly changed a bit since early 20th century.
Apart from the ground floor arcade, continuous balconies were also common in Chikan.
Vendors were selling dried tangerine skins (陳皮) from Xinhui (新會), fresh eggs and dried fish along the lanes of Chikan.
The library of the surname Kwan (Guan) was one of the two well known old libraries in town.
The splendid but abandoned buildings in the town centre revealed Chikan’s affluent past.
In the morning, the street market was already quite busy.
Some qilou arcades were used as semi-outdoor eateries.
Traces of paint and architectural ornaments were still visible.
The colonnaded arcades could be seen as a communal semi-outdoor space.
Photogenic qilou arcade in morning sun.
The scale of the qilou buildings is quite pedestrian friendly.
The entire downtown of Chikan is like a movie backdrop.
The continuous qilou is also a perfect backdrop for photography.
Many of the back lanes were tranquil and peaceful in the morning.
Quite a number of abandoned buildings could be found in the back lanes.
Just a block away from the riverfront tourist area, pedestrians were scarce in the back lanes.
The riverside qilou is picturesque where most visitors take their postcard-like shoot of Chikan.
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All posts on 2015 Kaping and Guangzhou
1) TWO EPOCHS OF EAST MEET WEST: Kaiping (開平) and Guangzhou (廣州), China
2) QILOU (騎樓) BUILDINGS OF CHIKAN (赤坎鎮), Kaiping, China
3) DIAOLOU (碉樓) OF ZILI (自力村) VILLAGE, Kaiping (開平), China
4) VILLAGE OF MAJIANLONG (馬降龍村), Kaiping, China
5) JINJIANGLI (錦江里村) VILLAGE, Kaiping, China
6) ZHUJIANG NEW TOWN (珠江新城) AT NIGHT, Guangzhou, China
7) SHAMEEN ISLAND (沙面島), Guangzhou (廣州), China
8) CONTEMPORARY ARCHITECTURE, Guangzhou, China