Hong Kong is included as one of ‘The Four Asian Tigers’; a reference to areas and nations that experienced rapid industrialization and maintained extraordinary high growth rates in the last half century. Like its three other tiger siblings (Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea) Hong Kong is an intriguing palimpsest. Pictures of old Hong Kong offer a fascinating insight into how the city has transformed from a fishing village to a sprawling metropolis. Buildings lie where sea once was, parks have replaced living quarters and luxury stores have supplanted local shops and markets. With the help of some local Hong Kong docents we came up with a few areas and photographic examples that demonstrate an interesting example of Hong Kong Then and Now, a subject which weaves its way through our From Colony to Financial Superpower walk.
Kowloon Walled City
This site began as a strategic point for Chinese imperial officials to manage trade and defend against pirates and foreign invasion. By 1847 the fort was reconstructed as a garrison-city and had a population of about 700. Following the lease of the New Territories to Britain in 1898 this enclave was governed neither by the Chinese nor the British leaving a vacuum of power behind: anarchy ensued as a result. According to our docent Walter Lee, there are many tales of gamblers, prostitutes, drug-dealers, illegal immigrants, gangs and doctors without licenses that occurred within the city walls during this period.
Unsurprisingly, the government in 1987 seized this four-walled neglected sore point and the 33,000 inhabitants were grudgingly resettled. By 1994 the huge structure was completely knocked down in 1994 and today the space has been converted into a park.
Docent Ian Fong, a scholar on on the visual and literary representations of cities describes how Nathan Road and Mong Kok used to be a place for the youth and the ordinary Hongkongers. Now, although elements of this still remain, much of what can be seen is drug stores and jewellery shops serving predominately mainland tourists. As a result, locality in the area has been gradually decolored.
Hong Kong’s skyline viewed from the Star Ferry
One of the most remarkable changes to Hong Kong is of its actual skyline, illustrated here in this photo looking at Central harbour from Tsim Sha Tsui, comparing the 1950s to 2011. In the decades after World War Two, development on the harbor boomed as refugees from China provided skills and labor, thus helping to revive the economy. Skyscrapers popped up and covered the front whilst land was developed on the pinnacle of Hong Kong island above Central, known as the Peak.
Victoria Harbor Waterfront
In the late 19th century the waterfront was made up of some fishing boats and European styled buildings scattered from the shore to the top of the Peak. Since, there has been much reclamation of land as Hong Kong’s natural terrain offers little developable land, emphasizing Hong Kong’s struggle for space. The sea has given way to many modern skyscrapers (including the infamous IFC) and roads. Parts of the tramline once ran right along the edge of the shore when it first opened in 1904 but subsequent land reclamation now means the tramline lies some distance inland. This photo maps an interesting depiction of the moving waterfront and land reclamation in Hong Kong.
This particular area was highlighted as important by our docent Adrian Cheng. “Victoria City”, the early “capital” of Hong Kong, refers to the area between Kennedy Town and Happy Valley. Central and Sheung Wan were first on the list for development as key commercial areas. The British government reserved the hills on the Western side (Mid-Levels and the Peak) for land whilst Sheung Wan and Sai Yung Pun were the early Chinese quarters. When these areas ran out of room, the British moved East to areas such as Wan Chai and Causeway Bay, which then started to grow.
More than meets the eye
Nothing looks too different in the photographs of Sheung Wan: the essential elements of stairs, postboxes and Chinese signs remain the same. On closer inspection, it is apparent that the photo on the right was taken after the British handover. Before 1997 all post boxes were red and engraved with the royal cipher EIRR (meaning Elizabeth II Regina) and after the handover these were replaced with green Hong Kong post boxes. Yet, much more than just the color of the postboxes has changed since 1997.
There are reassuring elements within some old and new photographs, showing that elements of life remain much the same. In the below image, the basketball court in Wan Chai has had a revamp and the players have donned a new (and perhaps more practical) attire, yet the space still serves its initial purpose. Nevertheless, in a city where things are popping up and down so regularly, it is impossible to know how long spaces such as these will stay the same.