LANDMARKS FOR THE LOCALS, North Point (北角), Hong Kong
What does “fort”, “oil”, “electric”, “power”, and “wharf” have in common? They are all street names in North Point that reveals the neighborhood’s strategic location and utilitarian past. The “fort” or battery hill is long gone, leaving behind a parkette up on Fortress Hill Road that even local residents may not know about its existence, and the name “Fortress Hill” that defines the westernmost area of North Point District. The former oil depot, powerplant and wharf facilities that gave us the street names “oil”, “electric”, “power”, and “wharf” have all been replaced by high density residential developments. In the 20th century, North Point has gone through series of transformations, from just a defensive battery at the northernmost point of Hong Kong Island and a cluster of infrastructure facilities that supported the adjacent Victoria City, to an area teeming with domestic life where amusement park, theatres, swim sheds, department stores, and red-light businesses sprang up and then mostly faded away. Due to a large influx of mainland immigrants in mid 20th century, especially the Hokkien Fujianese and Shanghaiese, North Point has become the most densely populated place on earth in late 1960’s, according to the Guinness Book of Records. Today, the urban density of North Point may no longer ranked top of the world, but a stroll on King’s Road, the district’s main thoroughfare where blocks after blocks of concrete apartments encroaching in all directions, can still be disorienting for many.
Published by Hong Kong Art Centre as part of “Via North Point” art programme in 2020, a local magazine did a poll with a group of local residents about their favorite landmarks in North Point. Unlike the monumental and glamorous urban icons in Central or Tsim Sha Tsui, their top five selected landmarks include two theatres, a pier, a market and even a street intersection. For them, these daily scenery have defined the collective identity and a sense of belonging for the community. For us who have been working in the adjacent Quarry Bay for the past eight years, North Point is also an area we would pass by almost everyday. We share some of their sentiments and also find beauty from these what may seem like ordinary street scenery by first glance. Here are their top five favorite landmarks in North Point:
NO. 5: King’s Road (英皇道) and the North Point Road (北角道) Intersection (4.3%)
NO. 4: State Theatre (皇都戲院) 8.7%
NO.3 : North Point Pier (北角碼頭) 10.9%
NO. 2: Sunbeam Theatre (新光戲院) 17.4%
NO.1: Chun Yeung Street Market (春秧街街市) 21.7%
LANDMARKS IN FORTRESS HILL:
Situated between Causeway Bay and the heart of North Point, Fortress Hill (炮台山) has long been under the radar. In recent months, East Coast Park Precinct in Fortress Hill has emerged as one of the hottest new attractions in Hong Kong. Apart from the harbourfront lookout, the following two spots in Fortress Hill are also gaining popularity on Instagram as well.
Oi! Art Space (油街實現), Former Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club
Staircase at Fortress Hill MTR Station
THE EXTINGUISHED RED LIGHTS OF SHEK TONG TSUI (石塘咀), Hong Kong
In late 2021, the box office success of biography movie Anita in Hong Kong has triggered the city’s renewal interest on the pop songs and films of Anita Mui (梅艷芳), the late local pop icon from 1980’s. One of her most well known films is Rouge (胭脂扣) in 1988. Adapted from a novel, Rouge is about the story of Fleur (played by Anita), the ghost of a 1930’s prostitute who wanders in the 1980’s Hong Kong searching for the ghost of her former lover, whom she has committed suicide together. Much of the movie was filmed in Shek Tong Tsui (石塘咀), the city’s most vibrant and glamorous red light and entertainment district between 1904 and 1935. Dressed in a 1930’s qipao dress, Fleur lingers on Shek Tong Tsui’s Hill Road and expresses frustration for the completely transformed urban scenery of the 80’s. She can hardly recognize anything in the tranquil residential neighbourhood with her 1930’s memories, from a period that many still consider to be the golden age of Shek Tong Tsui. It was the time when Shek Tong Tsui was home to dozens of large brothels (four-storey establishments each employing about 60 prostitutes) and hundreds of smaller ones, 40 high end restaurants and numerous hotels and theatres, employing more than one tenth of the city’s population (about 50,000 people in a population of less than half a million). It was the flourishing moment when wealthy merchants from all over East and Southeast Asia would come for entertainment. Wild tales of super-rich merchants contesting for their favorite top tier prostitute by competing in burning cash as fuel to make Chinese dessert from midnight till dawn, or of rich man tipping each staff in a large brothel with gold coins after marrying a popular prostitute, simply make the short-lived golden age of Shek Tong Tsui as legendary as one could imagine. It was the time when Shek Tong Tsui was a stage to showcase luxury and glamour.
The red light district of Shek Tong Tsui began in 1904, when the government relocated all Chinese brothels from Sheung Wan to this relatively undeveloped area, after the bubonic plague and a big fire devastated the densely populated Tai Ping Shan neighbourhood. Hong Kong’s history of prostitution can be traced back as far as 1840’s. Some accounts estimate that in 1844 about 10% of Chinese businesses in the Victoria City (Central and Sheung Wan) were brothels. A 1876 census indicated that out of 25,000 Chinese women in the city, more than 80% were prostitutes. This was largely due to the fact that most Chinese in 19th century Hong Kong were predominately male migrant workers from Imperial China, coming to earn a living or escape from political turmoil. This social structure was also reflected in the sex imbalance of the Chinese population during that time: from 75.4% male & 24.6% female in 1851, to 62.3% male & 37.7% female in 1901. As Hong Kong emerged as a prosperous trading hub in late 19th century, the city also became a hub for prostitution serving clients of all classes, from wealthy merchants in the region to hardworking laborers at the cargo piers.
200 years prior to the arrival of the British, Shek Tong Tsui was a hilly area at the west of Hong Kong Island. Due to its large deposit of granite stone, Hakka Chinese came to establish quarries, leaving behind many stone ponds or “shek tong” (石塘) after decades of extractions. Before land reclamation, there was a narrow peninsula sticking out the sea that resembled a beak or “tsui” (咀). Thus the area was named Shek Tong Tsui (石塘咀). In 1904, land reclamation of the area was just completed, leaving a large piece of new land awaiting for opportunities. The government’s answer was the new red light district. The red light district entered its golden age in 1920’s, when the prostitution industry emerged as a strong economic driving force for large restaurant complexes, entertainment establishments, hotels, public tramway, hair salons, theatres (most prostitutes were big fans of Chinese operas), and even department stores. In fact, prostitutes from high end brothels were some of the biggest followers of fashion trends (Shanghai and abroad) at that time. They represented a large group of cliente for department stores, shopping everything from imported clothing and silk stockings to jewellery and cosmetic products. Many high status prostitutes also led glamorous lives, and some even became celebrities due to media coverage. After celebrated prostitute Fa Ying Hen (花影恨) committed suicide at the age of 23, her death was widely reported on newspapers and over a thousand people attended her memorial service. Ten years after her death, a movie was made about her life and went on to become a box office hit in 1940.
The vibrant Shek Tong Tsui red light district came to an abrupt end in 1935, when prostitution was abolished by the government in line with Britain. Today, no trace of the red light district remains in the area. It only exists in historical accounts and photos, and in films like Rouge. Hill Road (山道), a major thoroughfare that bisects the former red light district (from Po Tuck Street down to the waterfront), has become a tranquil hillside street dotted with lovely cafes and eateries, revealing nothing about its ostentatious past. Snaking overhead in dramatic fashion, the Hill Road Flyover has become an icon of modern Shek Tong Tsui, connecting Hong Kong University up the hill and the tram depot down near the Harbour.
PEAK TRAM (山頂纜車): The Oldest Public Transportation in Hong Kong
On 27th of June 2021, the fifth generation Peak Tram made its last trip up the Victoria Peak. The service would then be shut down for an extensive upgrade, laying new tracks and introducing larger funicular trains in the next six months. From the 30-seat wooden train operated by a steam engineer in 1888, to the upcoming 210-seat fully computerized and universally accessible aluminium train, the Peak Tram is about to enter its sixth generation in 133 years. The Peak Tram is, in fact, the oldest funicular system in Asia, and the first public transportation system in Hong Kong. We would occasionally hike up the Peak via Lung Fu Shan Country Park and descend by taking the Peak Tram to Kennedy Road Stop, where we would walk through the Botanical Gardens to return home. It was a 7-minute treat of lovely scenery from 28m to 368m above sea level every time we hopped onto the peak tram and sat on those inclined seats at the maximum of about 27 degrees. Before the pandemic, riding the peak tram was almost a compulsory activity for all foreign tourists. Today, the funicular is popular with local visitors during weekends.
The Peak Tram has always been a means of transportation for leisure. At 552m above sea level, the Peak is the perfect retreat from the summer heat. In 1881, Alexander Findlay Smith, who worked for the Scottish Highway Railway before, convinced Governor John Pope-Hennessy to operate a funicular route between the south of Murray Barracks (now Admiralty) and Victoria Gap on the Peak. He hoped the new transportation system would boost visitor numbers to his prestige Peak Hotel. Apart from hotel visitors and tourists, the Peak Tram also served the wealthy expatriates who lived on the Peak. Findlay Smith soon put the Peak Hotel and Peak Tram onto the market. At the end, the hotel and funicular landed in the hands of Hongkong Hotel Company, the current owner of Peninsula Hotel Group. Before 1920, the funicular was the only means of transportation connecting the Peak with Central, the downtown of Hong Kong. It has been 83 years since the Peak Hotel was burnt down in 1938. Its former site is now occupied by the shopping centre Peak Galleria (山頂廣場). Opposite to Peak Galleria now stands the Peak Tower (凌霄閣), another eye-catching retail complex that also doubles as the Upper Peak Tram Terminus. Below the Peak, the city’s skyline has changed dramatically in the past century. Perhaps the only thing that stays recognizable in the past 130 years is the funicular system itself.
MULTIFACETED URBAN LIVING, North Point (北角), Hong Kong
Thanks to various influxes of immigrants from Mainland China in the 20th century, North Point (北角) was listed on the Guinness Book of Records as the most densely populated place in the world at the end of the 1960’s . Today this may not be the case anymore, but this old neighborhood in northeast Hong Kong Island remains complex and bustling with life. While many urban spaces in the area have gone through dramatic transformations in recent years, a number of vintage buildings and old streets remain. From the foot of Braemar Hill (寶馬山) to the Island Eastern Corridor (東區走廊) along Victoria Harbour, and from the 100-feet-wide thoroughfare of King’s Road (英皇道) to the narrow market street of Chun Yeung Street (春秧街), North Point is always teeming with life. Take a stroll through its old neighborhoods is like meandering through traces of Hong Kong’s urban and social evolution from the early 20th century to the contemporary moment.
The Island Eastern Corridor (東區走廊) marks the northern boundary of North Point along the waterfront of Victoria Harbour. Opened in various phases during the 1980’s, the Island Eastern Corridor is a viaduct expressway built along the Victoria Harbour from Causeway Bay to Chai Wan.
Many dislike the idea of having an elevated expressway along the waterfront. Proposals are being made to enhance the pedestrian experience along the harbour by introducing a seaside promenade.
Many people walk out to the pile caps of Island Eastern Corridor to take in the panoramic view of Victoria Harbour, Kai Tak Cruise Terminal and Kowloon Bay.
Quite often during the week, the pile caps of Island Eastern Corridor serve as ideal platforms for leisure fishing.
Perched above the sloped street of Kai Yuen Street (繼園街) is a peaceful neighborhood of old tenement houses, or tong lau (唐樓).
Isolated from the bustling life of North Point below, the tranquility of the Kai Yuen Street neighborhood is a rarity in the area. Like most of Hong Kong, this hidden neighborhood is changing fast with several 30+ storey apartments are under construction at lower Kai Yuen Street.
Throughout the years, the peaceful ambience of Kai Yuen Street has attracted a number of celebrities, including author Eileen Chang (張愛玲) and painter Zhang Daqian (張大千).
Down at King’s Road (英皇道) in the heart of North Point, the Sunbeam Theatre (新光戲院) has been around since 1972 as the primary venue for Cantonese opera. It was established by the Shanghainese emigrants who came to Hong Kong after the Chinese Civil War in 1949.
The protruding signage of the Sunbeam Theatre (新光戲院) is an iconic feature on the King’s Road (英皇道), a 100 ft wide vehicular road built in honour of the Silver Jubilee of King George V of Britain in 1935. Another feature on the King’s Road is undoubtedly the Hong Kong tramway, one of the earliest public transportation in the city since 1904.
A few blocks away from Sunbeam stands another historical building, the State Theatre (皇都戲院). Its original functions are long gone. In recent months, the State Theater is caught between the controversy of demolition/ preservation.
Converted from a former Clubhouse of the Royal Yacht Club, the Oil Art Space (油街實現) is a community art centre.
Built in 1908, the building served as the Clubhouse of Royal Yacht Club until 1938, when the building lost its waterfront location after numerous land reclamation.
There are a number of street markets remain in Hong Kong. The one in North Point stretches along two narrow streets: stalls selling dry merchandises on Marble Road Market (馬寶道), and fresh produces, meat and seafood on Chun Yeung Street (春秧街).
Chun Yeung Street Market (春秧街) is the most interesting street in North Point. Also known as Little Shanghai and Little Fujian, the street market has a high concentration of immigrants from the Mainland since the mid 20th century.
In late afternoon and early evening, Chun Yeung Street is full of life.
There is so much going on on Chun Yeung Street. While one side of the street is busy with grocery shoppers, the other side is packed with stalls selling clothing and toys.
The most iconic scenery of Chun Yeung Street Market is the moving tram along the street centre. Since 1953, trams have been running through the Chun Yeung Street Market. To remind pedestrians of the approaching tram, the tram drivers often make the iconic “ding ding” horn whiling driving through the market.
The tram terminus “North Point” is located at the end of the Chun Yeung Street Market. Despite slower than other means of transportation, taking the tram remains one of the best ways to explore North Point.