Hong Kong might be better known for its sky-high buildings and living density, but there are also a lot of cultural gems lurking just around the corner — if only our society learns to preserve them. Walk in Hong Kong co-founder Haider Kikabhoy reminds us of Hong Kong’s quirky cultural treasures, and how looking to the past can be the best way forward.
Walk In Hong Kong is a walking tour company founded over two years ago that takes locals and tourists alike around the city for lessons in Hong Kong culture and history. It was started by four local history buffs, including Kikabhoy. Kikabhoy himself was born and bred in Hong Kong and works at CUHK, researching the architectural history of charity buildings in our city.
1. We need to raise our voices if we want to preserve old buildings
There was this distinctive building with a pawn shop on the corner of Hennessy and Marsh Road in Wan Chai [called Tung Tak Pawn Shop] that was going to be demolished. My grandmother lived right opposite that pawn shop when she was young, in the 30s.
Not enough noise was made [to stop the demolition]. Where I work at CUHK, it is a heritage conservation center, so in my mind there was a lot of noise, but when I stepped out of my office then I realized actually [that not enough people knew about this].
It was a private building — the family was not selling it, they just wanted to demolish the building and they wanted to build a 23-story office building to replace the pawn shop.
There was a last-minute campaign by heritage activists, including our office, to get the government to reconsider the status of the building. The government had a meeting to discuss it but, in the end, they didn’t even raise it by a [historic] grade even though there were a lot of grounds for the building to be graded [as a historic landmark].
2. Government funding is a double-edged sword
With government funding, you have strings attached to what you can do and what you can’t do. Two years ago, a local cultural organization [that got government funding] did a walking tour of Kwun Tong because the area was regenerated by the Urban Renewal Authority, and it was a very controversial project. I went on the Kwun Tong tour and it was interesting but even though I knew nothing about Kwun Tong, I could tell it was watered down. There were lots of things they could not say.
3. Private and public sector collaborations can produce impressive results
On Star Street, there’s a garbage collection depot disguised in a sky blue and white outfit. Why it’s done up so nicely is because that whole area is a public-private partnership scheme between Swire and the government.
Swire worked with high school students to improve the building’s exterior, and told them to do something Mondrian-style with squares and simple lines. The result was this beautiful building. There are also plants like camphor trees, star anise and papayas on the roof.
4. Yesterday’s unwanted territory could be today’s cultural gem
[Hip and trendy] Kennedy Town is at the western extremity of the city, and it used to be that all the dirty, unwanted things were moved there. There’s still a mortuary there, and a cement factory also used to be there.
All the undesirable things were dumped there. People say that it’s because of the direction of the wind, that the wind blows west, so dirty things can be blown to the west and go off [into the ocean].
5. Fusion is a Hong Kong specialty
[In Hong Kong, you’ll find some churches that incorporate Asian elements — like temple aesthetics — in them]. Why did they used to make churches that looked like temples? Basically the whole thing started in the ‘20s and ‘30s in mainland China. After the first world war, there was xenophobia against foreigners, so it became difficult for the missionaries to do their work.
They realized they had to change their hat and make themselves more palatable to the population. One of the ways was to make their schools, hospitals and churches look more Chinese. So that began the trend of fusing Chinese and western building styles in churches.
And looking toward the future?
[Remember the stories of the past]. I’ve been very lucky, I’ve got a mom and grandmother who are very good storytellers and they have good memories and love to talk. I grew up hearing stories about old Hong Kong.
My grandmother lived right opposite the Tung Tak Pawn Shop when she was young, in the 1930s. At the time, Hennessy Road was a new road and full of tong lau [tenement buildings] with covered columned walkways. That stretch of Hennessy Road was the last area [on Hong Kong Island] with that type of architecture.
My grandma grew up in that world and when she was small they had no toys. All they needed was a piece of chalk and they would play hopscotch on the pavement underneath those covered walkways.
My grandmother is 90 now, and there was one time we were walking down the street and there was oncoming traffic and she said, ‘Hurry and go back to the keh lau dai [literally, under the balcony].’
These words might sound mundane, but they tell you about a different world. Once people of my grandmother’s generation go, terms like keh lau dai will disappear as well.