Heritage Pilgrimage: Restored and ordinarily repurposed, Hong Kong’s remaining old buildings prompt trips down memory lane
In Hong Kong, it is not uncommon to demolish buildings that are only 30 years old (or younger) in order to make room for dazzling new office towers or public housing blocks. However, a new trend has evolved – turning grand buildings constructed during the 150 years of British colonial rule into hip places to dine, stay, and oddly enough, take in some culture. Escaping the fate of countless others that were destroyed, some historic buildings have survived to the present day and are prospering with a new life and purpose. While Hong Kong is famous for its contemporary skyscrapers, the city has more to offer.
Privately owned old buildings, on the other hand, might be difficult to preserve since owners may be able to request their demolition or redevelopment regardless of their historical legacy. Unless the property is declared a monument, the owner has the right to demolish it even if it is a graded building or demonstrates exceptional value. The government typically stays out of legal disputes between conservationists who want to preserve Hong Kong’s heritage and owners who can make money by replacing old with new. As a result, protecting these structures requires the help of the public who must stand up to stop heritage buildings from coming down.
Successful preservation projects are those that match the neighbourhood, do not cause an undue disturbance, and help society learn more about the past. The onus is on the government, the courts and the community to act more responsibly, recognise historic structures as a form of publicly owned treasure and take steps to prevent them from being hijacked by developers. We stop by seven restored buildings whose legacies can still be appreciated today.
The former Marine Police Headquarters that stood atop a hillock in the centre of Tsim Sha Tsui from 1884 to 1996 has been revitalised and reincorporated into the modern urban fabric of the neighbourhood. After considerable restoration and conservation work, a cultural and shopping landmark called 1881 Heritage, was created. Opened in 2019, it is home to upscale stores and restaurants, trendy bars, a heritage hotel and an exhibition hall where visitors can learn about the site’s history.
A historic group of structures distinguished by their vivid colour has withstood the test of time. One cannot miss the Blue House, a four-house, four-storey balcony-type tenement block with a blend of Chinese and Western architectural elements situated in Stone Nullah Lane in the city’s Wan Chai neighbourhood. Built in 1922, this grade-one historic structure is an eye-catching example of a tong lau, or tenement building, commonly constructed in southern China and Southeast Asia in the late 19th century. The stunning blue exterior inspiring its moniker, the Blue House has come to represent a relatively uncommon Hong Kong success story in urban conservation. It received a Unesco Asia-Pacific Award of Excellence for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2017.
Court of Final Appeal
One of Central’s most recognisable structures provides a neo-classical visual contrast amid a sea of high-rises. Constructed in 1912, the Court of Final Appeal Building – also known as the Old Supreme Court Building – has been designated as a monument. The two-storey granite structure supported by ionic columns is also noted for the 2.7-metre-tall, blindfolded statue of Themis, the Greek goddess of justice and law, that surmounts its central pediment; below is a semi-circular window topped by a carving of the British Royal Coat of Arms. One may take a tour of the premises and watch court proceedings.
Lui Seng Chun
This magnificent corner tong lau shophouse, designed by architect W.H. Bourne, once housed a bone-setting business and the Lui family’s private dwelling. It is now a Declared Monument. Its architecture is characteristic of the period’s hybrid Chinese-Western design, with large verandahs that made it possible to live indoors and outside in the absence of air conditioning. Even though all of its neighboring structures were renovated, the home managed to endure. In 2012, it underwent restoration and was turned into a Chinese medical center. Don’t overlook the exhibition and herbal tea shop on the ground floor.
As one of the most expensive real-estate markets in the world, Hong Kong doesn’t waste any space – which is why finding a location like the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts is so refreshing. This historic heritage regeneration project, which officially opened in 2018 along Hollywood Road in Central, boasts a sizable courtyard encircled by 16 buildings from the colonial era and lush trees set over six acres. The following year it won the Unesco Award of Excellence for Cultural Heritage Conservation. A unicorn in Hong Kong, it is a free, open and laid-back area that more than lives up to its promise of offering engaging artistic, cultural, culinary and shopping experiences. Arriving at Tai Kwun on any given day, one will find a calendar of events that includes changing exhibitions, art installations, performances, films, concerts and storytelling spaces as well as regular tours.
The Clock Tower
Standing 44 metres high, the Clock Tower was built as part of the Kowloon-Canton Railway terminus in Tsim Sha Tsui in 1915. The once-bustling station is now gone, but this red brick and granite tower is still standing as a graceful relic of the Steam Age. It was declared a monument in 1990, and certainly, the millions of Chinese immigrants who passed through the terminus on their way to start a new life in Hong Kong or another part of the globe would have found it a memorable landmark. The bronze bell that had chimed from 1921 to 1976 was restored to its rightful place in the tower in 2021 in honour of its centennial.
The oldest market building still standing in Hong Kong, Western Market occupies a whole block between Connaught Road Central and Des Voeux Road Central in Sheung Wan. The red-brick Edwardian-style structure has a granite entrance and prominent corner towers; it was completed in 1906 and sold produce until 1988. Today, it is home to cafés, restaurants, curio shops and fabric merchants who were relocated from stalls in adjacent lanes after it was refurbished and reopened in 1991. Visitors to this historic site may want to travel here by another still thriving vestige of Hong Kong heritage – Western Market is one of Hong Kong Tramways’ seven terminuses.