In 1890, a golden bell was installed at the main building of Wellington Barracks (威靈頓兵房), one of the three military barracks (the other two being Victoria and Murray Barracks) located between the business districts of Central (中環) and Wanchai (灣仔). The golden bell became a landmark and eventually led to the naming of the area, Kam Chung (金鐘), which literally means “golden bells”. The former naval dockyard known as Admiralty Dock gavethe area its English name, Admiralty. For over 120 years, the military barracks had been a major obstruction for urban development, creating a bottleneck between Central and Wanchai. This situation remained for much of the colonial era until the late 1970’s, when the governor has finally convinced the military department to release the land. Demolition of the barracks began in late 1970’s and gave way to a series of developments that make up the present Admiralty: High Court, Government Offices, metro station, transport interchange, various commercial towers, the Asia Society complex, the luxurious retail and hotel complex known as Pacific Place, and the 8-hectare Hong Kong Park on the lower slope of Victoria Peak.
Hong Kong Park occupies much of the former Victoria Barracks (域多利兵房). During construction, a number of historical buildings were preserved, including the Flagstaff House, Cassels Block, Wavell House, and Rawlinson House. The park design respected the natural topography of the site, maintaining a naturalistic setting for all to enjoy. Opened in 1991, Hong Kong Park was an instant hit for Hong Kongers. Combining the natural context and heritage buildings with the new water features, wide range of landscape elements, amphitheatre, lookout tower, large conservatory, and Southeast Asia’s largest aviary, the park has ensured that there would always be something to suit everyone’s taste. A combined visit to the nearby Zoological and Botanical Gardens would satisfy the desire of anyone who desires for a moment of tranquility in the heart of Hong Kong’s business district.
Famous for its restless and often stressful urban living, sparing the time to take a walk in the park can be a luxury for many Hong Kongers. In fact, many may not even notice the existence of parks and gardens in the business district of Hong Kong. Behind the towering skyscrapers of Central (中環), a rather hidden 5.6 hectares area on the slope of Victoria Peak stands the oldest public park in Hong Kong. Long before the city was promoted as a shopping paradise, or a foodie haven of Michelin star restaurants, or a recreational hub of amusement parks and vibrant nightlife, or an exotic destination of subtropical beaches and seaside hiking trails, Hong Kong Botanical Gardens (香港植物公園) was one of the primary tourist attractions in the Victoria City. Founded in 1864 and completely opened to the public in 1871, the gardens was established in times when botanical gardens were founded by colonial powers in different locations around the world. The Hong Kong Botanical Gardens was used by the British as a regional hub to study plant species collected from the Far East before transferring back to the Kew Gardens in England, or before planting at other areas in Hong Kong.
Bounded by Garden Road (花園道), Robinson Road (羅便臣道), Glenealy (己連拿利) and Upper Albert Road (上亞厘畢道) in the Mid-Levels (半山), Hong Kong Botanical Gardens is often referred to as Bing Tau Fa Yuen (兵頭花園) by the locals. Literally means “Head of Soldiers” Garden, “Bing Tau Fa Yuen” references to the former Governor’s House built at the Garden’s location. In 1975, the official name of the Gardens was changed to Hong Kong Zoological & Botanical Gardens (香港動植物公園), as a result to the growing collection of display animals. Despite initial researches of botanical science (which led to the founding of Hong Kong Herbarium in 1878) at the Gardens, most people would remember the Gardens as a place to check out animals and floral displays. Though the history of how the Gardens had played a role in botanic research for tree planting on the Hong Kong Island shall always be remembered. After all, transforming Hong Kong Island from a barren and rocky island with no forests, no trees and only grass in the 19th century (resulted from centuries of reckless deforestation) into the relatively lush green metropolis that we see today was no small feat.
Situated right across from my primary school, Bing Tau Fa Yuen is an essential part of my childhood memories. Going to Bing Tau Fa Yuen (兵頭花園) to check out the howler monkeys, orangutans, peacocks and even jaguars was a small after-school treat for me as a child. Every spring, Azalea (杜鵑花) would flourish across the park, attracting a large crowd to take selfies. Many years have gone by and the neighborhood has significantly transformed since my childhood’s time. Though the annual blossom at Bing Tau Fa Yuen is one of the few things that could remain unchanged throughout the years.
The former Victoria Prison or Gaol is the third main component of the Tai Kwun Centre of Heritage and Arts. Built in August 1841, some say the prison was the first permanent Western architecture constructed in Hong Kong. It served as the city’s first prison until 2006, when the complex was decommissioned for good. Today, the prison halls are largely preserved as listed historical buildings. Some are opened to the public to showcase the history, while some are being converted into restaurants and bars. But it’s the Prison Yard, the tranquil courtyard in the midst of the prison compound that is the real gem. Under the shade of Frangipani and Candlenut trees, movable beach chairs are provided for relaxation. In the evening, the courtyard is dimly lit to maintain a peaceful ambience.
At either end of the Prison Yard, renowned architect Herzog de Meuron has left their mark by erecting two cubic structures that appear to be floating in mid air above the prison walls. Serving as a theatre, one of the cubic structure is known as JC Cube. The other cube, named JC Contemporary, is a sleek looking museum of contemporary art. Beneath the JC Cube lies the stepped plaza Laundry Steps, where movie screening and live performances would regularly be held. Echoing the brick and stone masonry of the heritage structures, the cast aluminium facade of the cubic structures offer a dramatic contrast between the old and new.
If the Parade Ground courtyard at the lower platform is reserved for the vibrancy of retail and dining activities, the Prison Yard at the upper platform is all about the venues for cultural exhibitions and performances. While the Central Police Headquarters on Hollywood Road and Central Magistracy on Arbuthnot Road were all about establishing an authoritative image to the public, the unpretentious buildings of the Victoria Prison, which have been walled off from the city ever since 1841, offers the perfect setting for contemporary culture and architecture to establish a new identity for the compound. Converting the cold prison blocks into a welcoming urban oasis has so far proven to be successful.
In the business district of Hong Kong, it is always an uphill battle to preserve a heritage building against the power of urban development. The former Police Married Quarters (PMQ) is a rare exception, and so as the former Central Police Station Compound just a few blocks down Hollywood Road. In the past two years, the most exciting new attraction in Hong Kong has to be Tai Kwun (大館). Consisted of 16 heritage buildings, 2 courtyards and 2 new structures, Tai Kwun is the the largest heritage and art compound in the city. Literally means “big station” in Chinese, “Tai Kwun” refers to how people used to call this former police compound over a century ago. Today, Tai Kwun is home to art and history exhibitions, outdoor performances, a 200-seat auditorium, design shops, restaurants and bars. Perhaps everyone acknowledges that there isn’t much old Hong Kong left to see nowadays, that’s why Tai Kwun has become an instant hit on Instagram and made it onto Time magazine’s list of World Greatest Places when the compound first opened to the public in 2018.
The story of Tai Kwun dates as far back as 1841, the year when the British first set foot in Hong Kong. On the slope of Tai Ping Shan in Central, Captain William Caine who also served as Chief Magistrate and Head of Police and Gaol chose the current site bounded by Hollywood Road (荷李活道), Old Bailey Street (奧卑利街), Chancery Lane (贊善里) and Arbuthnot Road (亞畢諾道) to build the city’s first prison, police station and magistracy office all in one compound. Expansions and alterations of the splendid compound gradually establish the authority of the colonial police force upon the public. Most buildings were erected before 1925, despite expansions and alterations continued to transform Tai Kwun well into 1950’s. For 160 years the compound served as Central’s law enforcement hub until 2006 when the compound was finally decommissioned. In 2007, conceptualization of the Tai Kwun revitalization project began to take shape. Construction and conservation work began in 2011 and took 8 years to complete. After spending HKD 3.7 billion from the Hong Kong Jockey Club charity trust, Tai Kwun finally opened its doors in May 2018.
As a child having lived for a decade at the intersection of Old Bailey Street and Chancery Lane just 10m away from the Blue Gate of Victoria Prison, entering the walled compound that has been off limits to the public for the last 160 years has been quite special to me. I used to walk past the prison along Chancery Lane and imagine what might lie on the other side of the high stone wall topped with pieces of broken glass. As the revitalized Tai Kwun unveiled its mysterious face, my childhood curiosity has finally been fed. It is delightful for me to see that Tai Kwun has been carefully preserved, restored and everyone, including me, can finally see, touch and enjoy whatever that are taking place at both sides of the prison walls.
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.
Before leaving Hong Kong for Canada, I spent the first decade of my life in the same Central Sheung Wan (中上環) area where our current home is located. The sloped streets and granite stairs in the neighborhood have featured heavily in my childhood memories. Walking up and down the century-old pedestrian stairs, a unique urban feature that we call “ladder streets” (樓梯街) in Hong Kong, was part of my childhood routine. I used to hate these stairs, especially when climbing them to school during summer months. Now returning as an adult, my emotions towards ladder streets have dramatically changed. Each worn treads, old balustrade and aged retaining walls seem to be remnants from a bygone era of the city, as well as my distant childhood.
Behind the glittering skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island stands Victoria Peak, also called Tai Ping Shan (太平山) in Chinese. The once imposing ridge line is pretty much hidden nowadays, unless one ventures far enough out into the harbour for a distant view. In fact, the island’s hilly terrain once posed a big challenge for the British colonial government when founding the city in 1841. On one hand, they were determined to erect a waterfront city by land reclamation from the sea. On the other hand, they managed to conquer the unforgiving terrain of Victoria Peak, levelling slopes into terraces for housing constructions, and connecting the residential terraces with steep paths and ladder streets. From then on, the network of ladder streets connect the hillside communities of West District, Sheung Wan, Central and Wanchai with the business district along the waterfront.
No one has a concrete idea of how many ladder streets remain in Hong Kong until 2013 when Melissa Cate Christ of Hong Kong University and her team on the Stair Culture project attempted to map out the ladder streets in the city. In their mapping exercise, they found over 3000 stairs in Central-Western District (中西區) alone. Not only has their work illustrated the astonishing concentration of ladder streets in a small area of old Hong Kong (about 12.4 sq. km), they also highlighted the danger ladder streets are facing today, the importance of preserving the ladder streets and the positive impact these stairs have contributed to the livability and urban character of the surrounding neighbourhoods.
Over a century of urban makeovers, many ladder streets have become obsolete when public escalators, elevators and asphalt roads were built to bring busy urbanites up and down the hill at a much faster pace. Some have been demolished to make way for modern developments, while some have been reduced to dark narrow alleyways sandwiched between highrise blocks. Functionally, the century old staircases may no longer fit well into modern urban planning. However, beyond merely moving people, the ladder streets play a crucial role in defining the historical identity of the city and providing peaceful alternative routes for pedestrians. A number of ladder streets have become iconic backdrops for tourists, filmmakers, photographers, and advertisers, who come to seek for the city’s nostalgic, peaceful and cozy ambience, in contrast to the fast-paced and somewhat stressful financial district just a stone throw away. From movies to TV shows, ladder streets have featured in a variety of media, formulating a collective memory not just for us who live in the area, but also for all Hong Kongers.