When you go hiking along the wonderful Tim Tam Reservoirs in Hong Kong, you easily figure out the importance of water supply issues. This extraordinary group of four basins which strech above Stanley date from the Victorian era and include a set of impressive dams and bridges. The original construction date of the upper dam is 1889 whereas the lower reservoir was only inaugurated in 1918 by Sir Henry May (1860-1922), the governor of Hong Kong. Tim Tam became the largest water tank on the Hong Kong Island, supplying the needs of the expanding city of Victoria at the end of the 19th century.
When the British took possession of Hong Kong in 1841, the question of the access to water was immediately raised. The very name of Hong Kong, the "fragrant harbour", is connected with the presence of a waterfall near Pokfulam, which allowed a luxurious nature to grow there. This was indeed in Pokfulam that the famous Bauhinia, the flower on the Hong Kong flag, was discovered, at a time where most of the hills and mountains around were composed of bare rocks. Another explanation of the origin of Hong Kong's name comes with the village which became Aberdeen which dealt with joss sticks trade. This is precisely in Pokfulam that the first reservoir was constructed in 1863 to retain fresh water. When the New Territories were added to the colony in 1898, new rivers could be used for fresh water consumption, stabilzing the situation for a short period.
The dry years
Even if two periods of drought occured in years 1902 and 1929, the most critical problems came when flows of refugees from China surged into the colony after 1950. In his memoirs, which take place between 1952 and 1964, Martin Booth remembers the water rationning happining almost every summer, with strong images of filling bath tubs or whatever available recipient when the taps were eventually working. During droughts, people used to drive down to beaches such as Repulse Bay or Shek O not only to cool down in the evening but also to wash themselves. These were the times of mid-week "sweat 'n swim days", when offices would close early to enable employees to reach the beach before sunset.
The peak of hardships was reached when the June 1963 to June 1964 drought led Hong Kong authorities to limitate the water distribution to four hours in every fourth day in some of the city districts! In addition to this already dramatic situation, many squatter villages that scattered the hills of Hong Kong in those years had simply no access to running water. For this reason, they had to queue for hours in front of public taps when water delivery was announced. In some of Kowloon cheap highrises, the water pressure was so weak that the upper levels pipes stayed dry during the whole summer. The memories of long lines of empty buckets under the burning sun have become part of the city history and still vivid for many hongkongers. Hopefully this episode ended with the burst of typhoon Ruby which brought sudden and heavy rainfalls but still the last water rationning occured in 1982 with a 16 hours a day basis for distribution.
In Kowloon City, however, access to fresh water had always been an issue, due to the overpopulation of this very unique neighbourhood (50000 people in 1990!). When the New Territories Treaty was signed, the "walled city" remained within the Chinese Empire so that after 1949, the matter of sovereignty was unsolved. This situation soon benefited to the triads and various mobsters who could rule the place and run illegal traffics. The lack of official authority in this 14 storeys light-deprived concrete maze also attracted many refugees who made a living through small businesses. The price to pay, however, was a heavy one, in the form of a daily journey to one of the only four water taps of the entire quarter!
The end of rationning
Starting from the 1960s, decision was made to buy water from China. Despite radically different political views, China found the deal beneficial as providing foreign currencies and a sure mean to strengthen its position into negotiating with Hong Kong. The "water weapon", however, was never used by China even during the hardest days of the Cultural Revolution. Water would be pumped from the Dong River near Dongguan and poured into the Shenzhen Reservoir before running into specially built pipes to Hong Kong. Between 1979 and 1991, some 4 Billion $HKD, the equivallent of 500 Million USD at this date, were paid by Hong Kong to China for its water supply. Today still, 70% of Hong Kong's water is pumped in China. Mammoth projects were also carried out to further secure the coverage of Hong Kong in terms of fresh water need, such as the closing of entire gulfs like Shek Pik in 1963 or Plover Cove in 1968 (below).
At the same time, a creative management of water supplies includes the use of sea water for flushing toilets in all new buildings, the government funding the additional pipes. This innovative system apllies to 68% of the whole city today! Thanks to this responsible management of water supplies, no need to go the beach anymore to wash or queue under the sun at the city water taps like in the 1960s. These strong images however should remind us of the need to save resources. With global warming alarms erupting from climate experts these days, the Hong Kong exemple should ring a bell!
- Hong Kong stories: 1960s, original vintage prints by Yau Leung, Blindspot Gallery Aberdeen, nov 2017
- Gweilo, Memoirs of a Hong Kong Childhood, by Martin Booth, Bantham Publishers 2004
- Hong Kong Museum of History, Kowloon, photos and permanent collections of the second floor
- Hot & thirsty: the struggle to supply Hong Kong with drinking water, blog article by David Bellis, 6/6/2018
- History of Hong Kong Typhoons from 1874, by Michael J.Jones, PPP Company Limited 2017
- City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon walled city, Greg Girard and Ian Lambot, watermark Publications, 2014
- Hong Kong Annual Reports, Public Utilities/Waterworks, Water Supplies Department of Hong Kong
As the Hungry Ghosts Festival is about to begin, I found it a good occasion to share a few ghosts stories with you. The first one is related to the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong of sad memory. In December 1943, a shinto shrine was erected by the Japanese on top of Mount Cameron to commemorate the fallen heroes of the Empire of the Sun. This defying 130 feet high monument, a kind of equivallent of the cenotaph in Chater Square, could be seen from every single location in Victoria Harbour. The most important part of it, however, was invisible to the eye, buried 46 feet deep under the shrine.
A samurai sword
To give a sacred status to the monument, the Japanese had indeed brought from Tokyo a 500 years old sword. This priceless sword was said to belong to Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645, nearby), probably the most famous samurai ever, who wrote a strategy treaty called "The Book of the Five Rings" telling about the art of sword fight as well as philosphy of the warrior. So before the shrine was erected, the sword was cealed into the thick concrete platform, according to the contractors who built it, in the solemn presence of a sword master. When Hong Kong was eventually liberated, nobody wanted to keep this monument which was a strong reminder of war hardships. However getting rid of it was not that simple as its iron concrete structure was very complex. On 26th February 1947, it was finally smashed down thanks to heavy explosive charges followed by patient hammering of the debris. The platform remained untouched so that when Cameron Mansions was built on it a few years later, there is a chance the soul of the famous samurai would haunt the place. Although antique collectors tried to locate it, the exact location of the sword remains a mystery. Still, inhabitants report some ghost activities in the estate but they would mention a good spirit which knocks at the doors and touch the bottom of ladies whenever possible. The soul of the warrior is probably at peace!
The former mental hospital of Sai Ying Pun is often refered as "High Street haunted house" for a good reason. When it was closed down in the 1970s, two fires started supposedly lighted up by deceased. Some argue that the place was one of the several execution grounds of the Japanese during WWII but as many young people had started to use the old hospital to meet and smoke drugs, those fires may well have been lit accidently. Since then, the building has been refurbished and reopened as a cure center for drug-addicts precisely. Still, if you pass by on your way to a drink to nearby bars, I suggest you walk on the opposite side of the road. One is never too cautious! Generally speaking, there are many locations in Hong Kong that are related to torture, comfort houses ou massacres dating from the Japanese occupation period. Nam Koo Terrace, today closed to public, in Hong Kong Park is one of them, supposedly haunted by the screams of the poor women enslaved by the Japanese there. Then 51 Blue Pool Road Villa was the place of a civilian massacre.
If you like hiking, you have probably already walked through some of the many abandonned villages of Hong Kong territory. They are often located in remote areas, in the New Territtories or islands, most of the time founded by migrants from different periods of Hong Kong history. A large number of them have been deserted in the 1990s when overall living standards were raised and the inhabitants found commuting with the city center too complicated. Fan Lau, Sham Chau or Yim Tin Tsai (photo below) for exemple have become mere names of the Country Parks maps, even if the last one, which played the role of early settlement for missionaries, received the UNESCO world heritage label. For this reason, tourist cruises in Sai Kung Bay propose a halt in Yim Tin Tsai and it is not unusual to spot large groups of visitors strolling among the abandonned houses during weekends or holidays. When you walk through such places, however, you inevitably think of the young children who used to attend the now deserted community schools or generations of hardworking salt workers struggling to make ends meet. Those strong images will only emphasize the absence of life among the fallen roofs, wild weeds and slashed matresses and provide a perfect playground for ghosts and spirits!
As Chinese people are very superstitious, they would make rituals there to avoid bad spirits to haunt abandonned houses. Offerings, joss sticks and octogonal mirrors called "bat gwa" (八卦) can often be found in thoses places. The bat gwa mirrors are hung above doors or windows, bringing good luck and repeling evil. So if you find those vaudoo-like little shrines with cigarettes, alcohol or dolls like in above photo of a villa in Cheung Chau Island, do not be afraid. There is a good chance that this particular house is spirit-free with a perfect feng shui!
So don't forget to feed all your ghosts. I wish a happy Hungry Ghosts Festival to everyone of you!
- The Book of Five Rings, written in 1645 by Miyamoto Musashi, Sambhala Publications 2012
- My search for the secret samurai, article by Mike Smith for SCMP of 30th August 1993
- Gwulo, internet historical website and database animated by David Bellis, post of 19th July 2008
- Windows into the past: See inside the abandonned villages of HK, Pete Spurrier, SCMP 12/3/2016
- The most haunted places in Hong Kong, Facebook account of HK Urbex of 31st October 2017
- The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feng Shui, by Elizabeth Moran and Master Joseh Yu, Penguin 2005
The Gin Drinkers Line is one of the most interesting historical places in Hong Kong. Located in the middle of a dense jungle above Shing Mun Reservoir, this complex system of tunnels, pillboxes and trenches is a living memory of the battle of Hong Kong. This place requires a bit of adventure spirit to explore as well as a decent physical condition but it is worth the effort. This defense line was established at the end of the 1930s when the threat from Japan in the region was becoming serious. At that time indeed, the Empire of the Rising Sun had already invaded Shandong in late 1931 and a few months later sent troops to Shanghai to "protect" its citizens from rioters.
These events were only the prelude of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and the Pacific War in 1941. The geographical ambitions of the military clique which had come to power in Tokyo since 1925 represented a direct threat to the Westerners who controlled the Treaty Ports of China like Shanghai and territories like Hong Kong since the Opium Wars period. Therefore, the decision was made by British military authorities to protect the Kowloon peninsula from a potential attack coming from the North. The existing defenses were indeed positioned against an enemy invasion by sea, dating from the Great Game era when fleets of both German and Russian Empires were active.
The Hong Kong Maginot Line
In Europe as well, the rise of nazism had led France to build the Maginot Line along the German border to deter a potential attack coming from their hereditary foe. This is the same strategy that the British chose to deny enemies access to the Kowloon Peninsula through the road coming from Sha Tin. In total, some thirteen miles of connected tunnels and pillboxes stretched along the Smugglers Ridge with a strategic commanding post in Shing Mun Redoubt. It is interesting to know that most of the mountains in this area were already covered by vegetation at this time, even if the reforestation of Hong Kong accelerated after 1950 to prevent landslides. So the defenders were perfectly hidden on their top positions.
This disposal, however, presented a number of weaknesses! First of all, the "Gin Drinkers Line", which name was chosen in reference to the nearby bay and not the preferences of its occupants in terms of alcoholic beverages, soon revealed difficult to man, the military resources of the British Army being already allocated to police tasks in Hong Kong. The fact that pillboxes and observatory bunkers were undermanned from the begining created a flaw in the armour which was rapidly noticed by the Japanese spies who were very active in 1930s Hong Kong. The military command of the Japanese Empire eventually became in possession of the complete map of the Gin Drinkers Line disposal, with full indication of the locations of trenches, pillboxes and covered tunnels. They even had time to build a full scale replica of the defense system, enabling their troops to train for an assault long before the attack actually took place.
Jungle version of London
Then, instead of coding tunnels names, those were given the names of famous London streets, most probably a way to avoid young privates being homesick, but yet another sure mean to garanty that enemies do not get lost! Today, when you stroll along the many galleries of the Gin Drinkers Line, you can still see clear signs with names of Shaftesburry Avenue, Oxford Street or Picadilly on the walls, adding a surreal feeling to the already unusal exploration. You will be amazed to start your visit in so-called Strand Palace Hotel, the headquarters of the defense system, and walk into a virtual London, sometimes crawling in crumbled galleries and sometimes standing at the light of ventilation shafts in better refurbished areas.
This is precisely because of these shafts that the Shing Mun Redoubt was lost to the Japanese. Developpers had omitted to cover them with a cap, allowing a single platoon of 20 men led by daring Lieutenant Wayabiyashi (photo above and name at the entrance of Charing Cross below) to take control of the bunkers in the early morning of 10th December 1941 by throwing hand grenades through the vacant holes. The group could surcircle the pillboxes at the favor of darkness and make the 43 young recruits of the Royal Scots prisoners, making no casualty that day. It appeared that the British were not in unsufficient number to patrol outside their bunkers or spot the patrol crawling their way up from the reservoir dam! Supposingly designed to hold a few months according to Commander in Chief Brooke-Popham and a few weeks in less optimistic Churchill's views, the whole line collapsed in less than 48 hours!
Even if nobody reasonably expected to contain an attack against Hong Kong, but merely save time to stignatise Chinese resistance, the British made the same error as the French one year before. Let us remember that the canons of the Maginot Line all aimed at Germany so that it was easy for the Wehrmacht to conqueer the defenses by getting around them. The visit of the Gin Drinkers Line remains is therefore both instructive and entertaining. If you feel like further emotions, you can pursue on nearby Golden Hill and face the hords of macaque monkeys living there. You will have to walk your way accross some large groups and I advise you hold a stick to deter males attacks (avoid staring at them in the first place).
If you make it in one piece as I thankfully did, you will probably never feel like playing Lara Croft again, this video game suddenly considered a tasteless pastime compared to the thrill of your lattest adventure.
- Eastern Fortress, a Military History of Hong Kong, Kwong Chi Man and Tsoi Yiu Lun, HKU Press, 2014
- The Truth about the Gin Drinkers Line, students of Pr Lawrence Lai, HKU, May 2012
- Gwulo, historical website animated by David Bellis, posts of 11st May 2013 and 22nd June 2016
- The Defense of Hong Kong, non dated article by John Cartwright for www.hkwg.org
- Ruins of War, co-written by Jason Wordie andKo Ting-kung, HK Joint Publishing Co, 1996
- Not the slighest chance, the Defense of Hong Kong 1941, Tony Banham, HK University Press, 2003
- Getting to and Surviving Monkey Hill Hong Kong, article by @thisgirlabroad of 6 October 2014
Access to GDL by Minibus 82 from Tsuen Wan to Shing Mun Reservoir, Macleose trail, stop at Shing Mun Redoubt
During the typhoon season, one suddenly realizes the practicality of Hong Kong old architecture. Indeed, street extensions of the 1950s composite buildings, help keeping your clothes dry during the heavy rain falls of July and August. Enclosed balconies also provide shadow during the hottest days of the year. This empirical architecture was developped to accomodate a booming migrant population and reminds us of our own middle-age houses, which also overlooked the streets, although the "rain" by then was a human one with throwing out the night buckets from the windows. Today, those iconic houses tend to be replaced by more symetric buildings, to meet security and hygiene standards, with direct consequence on street pedestrians who have to find cover in the subway or elevated passage-ways not to be soaked when they getting to work!
This dramatic change of the urban landscape has led a goup of nostalgic hongkongers to try and reproduce some of these iconic old buildings, which have already been torn down for some. I was lucky to meet with Tony and Maggie (video), two passsionate artists who spend their time recreating the Hong Kong of the past through highly detailed miniatures. Although it was difficult to exchange through email or social networks in the first place, as none of them is fluent in Mandarin or English I would discover later, I decided to go and visit them in person. I initially thought I would find some kind of exhibiting gallery but when I got there, I was surprised that their workshop was located in a former industrial building near Kai Tak, which had been converted into working spaces for small size companies. After hesitating, they finally introduced me to their Ali Baba cave, containing many reproductions of old pawn shops or Hong Kong early squatter huts.
Both of them soon drew my attention on some of the stunning details of their creations, which include street food and dishes and, best of all, electronic devices like a working TV set (video) broadcasting popular programs of the 1960s and a pick-up record-player with old songs (video). Each of the buildings reproduction takes up to two months to complete and often requires the studying of old photo archives or field investigation. "The aim of making old Hong Kong models is to pass over the memories of the past to young generations", they say. Among my favourite scenes are indeed the interiors od tea restaurants, also called "cha chaan teng", where up to the brand of the condensed milk can be identified on the cans, or the Shanghai style barber shops pedal- chairs, like those who still survive in North Point today. Most of the creations have been documented on exhibition catalogues, social medias or TV programs but there is little left in Tony and Maggie's workshop. Most extraordinary pieces have already been sold, an indication of the success met by this initiative. After I have published the videos of animated models on Facebook, I was myself agreably surprised to receive connection requests from some of the artists many supporters, who include neighbourhood shop keepers and Chinese families living on the Kowloon side. Quite touching!
Further to this meeting, I wanted to know more and rapidly found out that other passionate hongkongers had started making reproductions of old Hong Kong. This is case of the company Tiny, whose staff average age obviously does not exceed 30, which manufactures diaoramas of classic street life, old garages or composite buildings (above). They founders of this brand are the pursuers of Hong Kong tradition for making toys which started in the 1960s, as an early type of industry in the striving city. Let us not forget that Li Ka-shing, the richest man of the former British colony, starting to work at making plastic flowers in the 1950s before producing the world-famous male doll G.I. Joe in his own factories. Today still, Hong Kong International Toy Fair is the largest event of this kind in Asia. Old Hong Kong miniatures can be found in almost every small neighbourhood toy shop in town, through internet-buying or even at the wonderful boutique of the History Museum, obviously meeting a large success!
The search for Hong Kong's past seems a reccuring concern, as I recently realized. My local language exchange partner, who grew up in Yau Ma Tei, indeed told me that he was participating in a Facebook group called "Hong Kong in the 60s", which exhibited vintage photos. When asked him why, he explained to me that he liked to recall of the pre-retrocession period. "Times were though but anyone had a fair chance to make it, whereas nowadays the future of the territory lies in the hands of small group of people with the right connections". I decided to check this group by myself and was amazed to discover some 14000 subscribers. When I posted a simple photo of the Beatles landing in Kai Tak in 1964, it immediatly attracted 150 "likes" during the night with additional 60 comments, showing how dynamic exchanges are on this site!
The recent efforts to document Hong Kong's past reveal today's people's fears of the future as well as their concern for preserving both culture and identity threaten by the fast changing environment.
- Artists bring Hong Kong's past to life in miniatures, de Arthur Tam, article for CNN Hong Kong 28/6/2017
- Hong Kong Corner Houses 街頭街尾, by Michael Wolf, Hong Kong University Press, 2010
- Diamond Hill, memories of growing up in a Hong Kong squatter village, by Feng Chi-shun, Blacksmith 2010
- The rags-to-riches story of Li Ka-shing, Asia's richest man, by Mike Bird, Business Insider 25/3/2015
- Hong Kong Museum of History, permanent collections and museum boutique
- Hong Kong in the 60s, Facebook group animated by Jonathan Ho
When you look for traces of Shanghai people in Hong Kong, a first place to check is North Point, which used to be labelled "Little Shanghai". Another one is definitley Repulse Bay. The name of it comes from a battle, allegibly fought against pirates who stationned in the bay and were eventully expelled from it by the English Navy. Let us note, however, that its Chinese name is more informative as Chin Seui Waan means "Swallow Water Bay", in comparison with the nearby Sam Seui Waan or Deep Water Bay in English. The recent history of the bay is that of a leasure venue, refering to the creation in 1910 of the present bathing beach. It was first equiped with low-rises and straw shelters for swimmers but was progessively completed with more prestigious buildings. Developpers would target the wealthy clientele of the Peak and their guests, as well as well-at-ease Hong Kong visitors in search of some seaside coolness.
The most iconic venue was inaugurated in 1920 in the shape of a luxurious 84 suits hotel called The Repulse Bay Hotel and belonged to the Kadoorie family, later owners of the Peninsula. In 1935, the Lido was created on the East side of the Bay, offering changing booths, a restaurant and a dancing room. In his memoirs, Col. Muro-Faure would describe it with a bit of excitment: I had always liked the place because of its informality. You could eat your dinner, and dance and talk, in shorts, and so keep cool, as compared with the stricter etiquette of the Repulse Bay Hotel. Its immediate success among visitors soon led to the opening of a floating version of it, also called "Lady Lido". Among the other striking buildings of the time was the Eucliffe, a kind of medieval castle with watch tower, defense walls and all, the 1933 erected property of Eu Tong Sen, a Chinese merchant from Malaisia. This curious estate dominated the view from Deep Water Bay road during more than fifty years (video).
Always catching new trends, the wealthy Chinese and Shanghai elites in particular came to Repulse Bay. Starting from 1937, the Japanese had invaded China and rich Chinese were looking for a safe retreat. History repeated itself after 1950 when the Communists became in control of mainland. A 1953 guide map gives the following comment: Scenically, Hongkong's beaches are among the most beautiful in the world, and Repulse Bay, which is certainly the most popular with the Chinese, has more than once been likened to Hawaii's world-famous Waikiki. Footages of these years show elegant Chinese, exhibiting colourful cheongsam, the Cantonese name for the Shanghai-originated qipao, outside the Repulse Bay Hotel or playing Mah-jong games at the beach. The Repulse Bay Hotel had something of the French Negresco Palace when Russian nobles or Victorian families made the South of France the place to see and to be seen. Shanghai elites played the same role in Repulse Bay (video)!
More than anyone else, Eileen Chang, early supporter of the "modeng nü" idea (modern woman), contributed to the fame of Repulse Bay among Shanghainese. She actually chose the prestigious Repulse Bay Hotel as the main set for the selfish romance of the two characters Fan Liuyuan and Bai Liusu of her world critics praised novel "Lost in a Fallen City" (video). The story was probably inspired by a couple of friends of her mother who stayed there. Eileen Chang was trapped herself in Hongkong during her studying at the University after the Japanese had invaded the city in December 1941. During the first phase of the sino-japanese conflict, Repulse Bay was visited by artists coming from Shanghai to seek refuge there. Those included the scandalous couple formed by American writer Emily Hahn and the poet Shao Xunmei, who came with other supporters of the "Tian Hsia" (the World) project, a magazine aiming at promoting the best of Western and Asian artistic influences.
Writer Han Suyin, born to a Chinese father and an English mother, equally fell in love with Repulse Bay. Her novel "A many Splendored Thing" relates her love affair with the Australian journalist Ian Morisson, who was married at the time. This unconventional story was put on screen by Hollywood in 1955 and includes some of the most passionate love scenes taking place in Repulse Bay (video). The main character William Holden, who played the journalist, used to stay at the Repulse Bay Hotel during the shooting (later, he also played the main part in The World of Suzie Wong). On 1950s films, we frequently spot athletic and suntanned bodies at the beach, which is a sign of the assumed modernity of the place. However, two worlds coexist as there are often traditional junks in the background. Those were used by fishermen, whereas Westerners practiced their yachting skills at the local base of the Royal Yacht Club. Today, the only boats anchored in Repulse Bay exhibit powerful engines and are almost entirely owned and manned by Chinese!
The property building craziness of the 1980s transformed the bay into a urbanized beach resort, the Repulse Bay Hotel was torn down and replaced by the "building with a hole", as the Chinese often mock it. Surprizingly, a decision was made in 2012 to rebuild a copy of the famous palace's restaurant.
On the terrace of the Repulse Bay, you can once again dream of yourself as a Hollywood star or a wealthy Shanghainese in exile. Coming from Shanghai myself and a true litterature lover, I actually feel a right to do so, ha ha!
- Hong Kong Guide, with Comprehensive Street Text Index, 22 Maps and 20 Photos , K.Weiss Publisher, 1953
- Memoirs of Col. PH Munro- Faure, 1941, post from the web site of David Bellis, 31/7/2009
- From belle epoque Shanghai to occupied Hong Kong, the literti who broke down cultural barriers, Ian Gill article from Post Magazine, 17/5/2018
- Love in a Fallen City, film by Ann Hui starring Cora Miao and Chow Yun-Fat, 1984, after the novel 倾城之恋 by Eileen Chang, 1943 (Mandarin)
- Love is a many splendored thing, film by Buddy Adler starring Willian Holden and Jennifer Jones, 1955, from the novel A Many Splendored thing by Han Suyin, Jonathan Cape Publisher, 1952
Yau Ma Tei is famous for its night market and seafood restaurants, giving visitors a very contrasted impression with the neat Victoria Island. Its history is even more tumultuous one, due to its lower class origins. In the 1860s, a police station, a market place and a licensed casino were built, using a regular ferry boat to Victoria. The coastline was then some 900 meters inshore from where it is today, along Shanghai Street. Hongkongers would even swim on Yau Ma Tei's beach, the longest of Victoria Harbour at that time (nearby)!
The large square next to Tin Hau temple was facing the sea, whereas fortune-tellers had already settled on Temple Street, yet not mixed with open-air karaokes like today. Around 1880, a large piece of land was reclaimed, setting the foundations for present Yau Ma Tei district. From the beginning, it attracted a sizeable number of brothels, becoming a continental version of Shek Tong Tsui. Upper brothels were called "two-four" as 2,4 Tael was the price for a night-stay. The prostitutes were often from the "Tan-ka" group or "boat-people" who used to live in the bay and looked-down by the Cantonese origin Chinese.
Salted water girls
They would be nicknamed "ham shui mui" or "salted water girls" because they had sex intercourse with sailors. In 1925, however, the first prostitute strike in Hong Kong history took place in Yau Ma Tei when the Madams tried to increase their pourcentage of the girls business. Some 1000 women occupied the Tai Koon restaurant and with help of some of their customers finally won their case in justice. Prostitution developped all the way till now with a peak in the 1960s due to the influence of Honk Kong triads. In the sauna parlors of Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei, it became possible to choose the nationality of hostesses, ranking from the Chinese which were the cheapest to the Russians, who were the most expensive. Coming from Shanghai, I was surprised to learn about this situation because it was the other way round back there. Destitute Russian countesses would actually occupy the lowest categories of prostitutes until the 1950s whereas Chinese mistresses were always the most valued!
In his memoirs which take place in Yau Ma Tei for one part (his family staying at the Fourseas Hotel on Waterloo Road, where today stands the Metropole Kowloon), Martin Booth mentions a very peculiar character, called "Queen of Kowloon" by the Chinese. She is a White Russian who fled the Bolchevik Revolution, her husband being killed. She stayed in Shanghai for a while, like many of her fellow countrymen. She worked as a piano teacher and occasionaly a courtisane, becoming the mistress of a Chinese gangster. When the Japanese invaded Shanghai, she traveled to Hong Kong. When young Martin met her, she looked miserable, dressed in ripped clothes. She asked his mother to handdle her two hundred Dollars in exchange of a small ball of tissue. The paquet would eventually contain a very valuable diamond. The old woman later exchanged Russian style jewels in a Yau Ma Tei pawnshop, attracting burglars' attention. Those however, never found the remains of her treasure.
In 1922 a new police station was built at the intersection of Canton Street and Public Square Street in an Edwardian neoclassical style. Several few Hong Kong gangsters movies took place there, one of the figures associated with the police station being ill-reputed Lee Rock (Lui Lok in Cantonese 1920-2010), often portayed on screen by Andy Lau (below). He was first a rickshaw puller before joining Hong Kong police forces in 1940, then made his way up to the enviable position of Detective-Sergeant. In 1958, he came to Yau Ma Tei and later slowly extended his influence on other parts of Hong Kong by receiving bribes, or "tea-money" to turn a blind eye of the the triads crimes. "500$ Million sergeant", a reference to the amount of money he raised, will eventually spend the rest of his life abroad without turning back any of his booty.
Triads would continue to racket shop keepers, control prostitution networks, gambling and drug traffics. In 1974 however, the creation of ICAC, the anti-corruption brigade blew a first hit at them, leading to several police officers to prison in the process. The development of video surveillance led to a further drop of illegal activities on the street. In February 2014, as well, 46 triad members were trapped in a Yau Ma Tei district building after some police moles had infiltrated their gang. In 2016 though, a spectacular knife attack took place in the famous 1913 Yau Ma Tei historical fruit market, known for its iconic Dutch style frontons but also for the heavy gambling and cocain trafficking in the 1970s. After investigation, it appeared one of the gang bosses involved in this affair was Kwok Wing-hung also called “Shanghai Boy”
As fruit cages were manipulated by hooks, this lethal weapon was often used in fights, shop sellers remember, bringing memories of some of the most violent kungfu movies of the 1960s. This troubled heritage is threatened to disappear today as questions of moving the historical market from this area are raised in a concern of maling a better use of the space. Like Kowloon City, torn down a couple of years back to eradicate its illegal traffics and poor living conditions, the century-old arches of the fruit market could soon disappear!
In an article about early Hong Kong beaches, I found this quote from Paris May 1968 revolt "sous les pavés la plage". I guess if Yau Ma Tei cobblestones could speak, it might be highly instructive!
- Gweilo, Memoirs of a Hong Kong Childhood, by Martin Booth, Bantham Publishers 2004
- Early Hong Kong Brothels, by Cheung Po Hung, The University of Hong Kong 2005
- Coastline of the Kowloon Peninsula（九龍海岸線) par 余震宇, Chung Hwa Books Co 2014 - mandarin
- Lee Rock, movie by Lau Kock Cheong starring Andy Lau, 1991
- By their fruits, you shall know them, by Ming Yeung, China Daily Hong Kong 20/12/2013
- ICAC seeks frozen millions of dead corrupt officer, South China Morning Post article 22/5/2010
- Brutal knife attack at Hong Kong fruit market linked to triads revenge hits, SCMP 22/5/2016
After my articles on North Point and Happy Valley, I take you to a journey West of Hong Kong Island, in Shek Tong Tsui. This district is located between Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town and was for a long time not well connected with transports. Until 1910, one would use sedan chairs or rickshaws to visit it, then there were motorcars and finally buses in 1923. The meaning of Shek Tong Tsui is "mouth of the rocky pond" and a Cantonese expression, "good times West of the pond" comes from this name. The reason is Shek Tong Tsui was famous for its brothels and restaurants. The four most high-class brothels in whole of Hong Kong were actually situated next to each other on Hill Road, at the crossing with Queen's West Road: Foon Tak, Choi Fa, Wing Lok and Yee Hung. Their story begins in 1903 when governor Nathan decided to move the prostitution industry away from Sheung Wan. The famous four brothels settled in brand new buildings (right on the photo nearby) near the existing Gas Works Co, which was supplying Hong Kong since 1864.
Next to the brothels stood restaurants in which Chinese patrons would launch lavish parties involving girls, musicians and singers. Smoking opium as well as drinking alcohol were part of the decorum, on the model of Shanghai singsong houses or the Geisha quarter of Kyoto Japan. Girls were called Young Grass, Golden Branch or Magnolia Flower, for whom clients would spend large sums of money to try to content them. However, they were never assured to ever share their couch. They sometimes received most exotic nicknames like "square hats" if they were finally unsuccessful with a courtisane, in a reference to a Chinese opera character. Some other were called "glutinous rice balls", meaning they were particularly easy to manipulate. With so much money flowing in, second class brothels soon flourished along nearby Queen's West Road. During the 1920s, the neighborhood employed up to 2000 prostitutes in fifty different brothels and more than 4000 workers in some twenty restaurants!
In the famous Hong Kong movie "Rouge" (胭脂扣) with Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui, the characters meet in Shek Tong Tsui Yee Hung brothel. The androgynous movie star plays the "12th master" (clients called themselves surnames, most of the time associated with the rank in their family), the heir of a merchants' family, falling in love with "Mui Fa", Prune Flower. In reality, there was a girl called Hung Mui, "red prune", working at Yee Hung, who might well have inspired the character of Mui Fa. Their relationship will end dramatically with Mui comitting suicide as her lover's parents object to their union and the young man abandoning himself into opium.
Mui's ghost will continue to haunt the streets of modern Shek Tong Tsui in a quest for her lover's lost soul. Where the houses of pleasures and dining halls once stood, she will find nothing but concrete elevated roads and supermarkets. Yee Hung brothel has indeed been replaced by Cheung Fat Mansion today and the Queen's West Road Mc Donald's restaurant (photo) stands right where a series of second choice brothels operated. The courtisanes era ended in 1935 when legal prostitution was banned by the British government, resulting in the closing of Shek Tong Tsui high class houses. A cheaper type of prostitution emerged on the harbour front of Central and Wan Chai, whereas Yau Ma Tei, which was always ranking behind Shek Tong Tsui, extended to nearby Mong Kok. American sailors after WWII also contributed to the development of prostitution along tram lines as well as "guided tours" on Hollywood Road.
Joseph Kessel's book "Hong Kong et Macao" or Hollywood blockbuster "The World of Suzie Wong" both describe this miserable post-war situation, which is miles away from the lavish athmosphere of 1920's courtisanes world. Recently, however, the extension of the Island Line to Hong Kong University has shaken the sleepiness of Shek Tong Tsui. A new type of life style spaces and hipster trendy cafes for have attracted a well-off clientele in places like Ethos or Teakha. Finally, one can enjoy "good times West of the pond" again, even if the definition is slightly different today.
If one day, you find yourself having tea with courtisane Mui's ghost in one of Shek Tong Tsui cafe, like in the movie "Rouge", please make a selfie with her for me!
- Early Hong Kong Brothels, by Cheung Po Hung, University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong 2005
- Rouge (胭脂扣 in Mandarin), by Stanley Kwan, 1988 movie starring Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui
- There goes the neighborhood: Hispter takeover in sleepy Shek Tong Tsui, by Christopher DeWolf, South China Morning Post article, 12th November 2015
- Hong Kong et Macao, by Joseph Kessel, Gallimard 1957
- Hong Kong Island Coastline（港島海岸線) by 余震宇, Chung Hwa Books Co 2014 - in Mandarin
- The World of Suzie Wong, by Stanley Kwan, 1960 movie starring Nancy Kwan and William Holden
Après North Point et Happy Valley, nous partons à l'Ouest de l'île de Hong Kong avec l’histoire de Shek Tong Tsui. Marquant la limite entre Sai Ying Pun et Kennedy Town, ce quartier a toujours tenu une place à part, pendant longtemps mal desservi par les transports. On s’y rendait en chaise à porteurs ou rickshaw jusqu’en 1910, puis en voiture et enfin en autobus à partir de 1923. Signifiant "l’embouchure de l’étang rocheux", une expression en cantonais lui fait référence: "du bon temps à l'Ouest de l’étang". La raison en est que ce quartier est très tôt connu pour ses maisons de passe. Le long de l’actuelle Hill Road, au croisement avec Queen’s West Road, se trouvaient en effet quatre des plus luxueuses maisons de plaisirs de Hong Kong: Foon Tak, Choi Fa, Wing Lok et Yee Hung. Leur histoire commence lorsqu'en 1903, le gouverneur Nathan décide de vider Sheung Wan d'une prostitution devenue un peu trop voyante. Les terrains disponibles jouxtent la Compagnie du Gaz, créée en 1864, et permettront de construire les hauts bâtiments abritant des maisons de grand standing (ci-contre).
On y trouve ce qu’un homme argenté peut demander de mieux. Les filles y sont belles et les maisons de plaisirs jumelées avec des restaurants où l'on va manger avec les hôtesses. Les riches marchands donnent de fastueuses réceptions, accompagnés par de jeunes beautés, des chanteurs et des musiciens. On est alors très proche du fonctionnement des maisons de sing-song girls de Shanghai ou des geishas du vieux Kyoto, les soirées s'accompagnant souvent d'opium et d'alcool. Les filles ont pour noms Petite Pousse, Branche d’Or ou encore Magnolia. Les clients dépensent de fortes sommes pour obtenir les faveurs de courtisanes mais ils ne sont pas pour autant assurés de partager leur couche. Leurs surnoms sont plutôt imagés: "chapeaux carrés" pour les clients éconduits, en référence à un personnage de l’opéra chinois ou encore "boules de riz collant" pour les clients particulièrement maléables. Sur Queen’s West Road fleurissent des bordels de 2ème rang qui profitent de la notoriété des grandes maisons.
Dans les années 1920, le quartier compte près de 50 maisons de passe employant 2000 prostituées et 20 restaurants avec 4000 employés! Dans le film "Rouge" (胭脂扣) avec Leslie Cheung et Anita Mui, la maison Yee Chung de Shek Tong Tsui sert de décor à de nombreuses scènes. La star androgyne y incarne le "12ème maître" (les clients se donnaient des pseudonymes, en général liés à leur rang dans leur famille), héritier d’une dynastie de commerçants chinois, qui tombe amoureux de «Mui Fa», Fleur de prunier, (parmi les filles de Yee Hung on trouve une certaine Hung Mui ou "prune rouge", sans doute à l’origine du personnage de Mui).
Leur histoire d’amour se termine tragiquement par la mort de Mui, dont le fantôme hante alors le quartier moderne de Shek Tong Tsui, le spectre ne trouvant alors plus que rocades et supermarchés. A l’endroit de Yee Hung se trouve en effet le building Cheung Fat et le Mc Donald’s (photo) de Queen’s West Road a été construit sur l'emplacement d’un bordel de 2ème rang. La fin de l’industrie des courtisanes est intervenue en 1935 avec l’interdiction de la prostitution officielle par le gouvernement anglais, conduisant à la fermeture des maisons et au développement d’une prostitution au rabais sur les docks de Central et de Wan Chai. Yau Ma Tei, parent pauvre de Shek Tong Tsui, se développe alors jusqu’à Mong Kok suite à l’arrivée des migrants de Chine. La clientèle des marins américains après la guerre accentue encore le phénomène de précarisation avec le racolage dans les tramways et les «tours guidés» sur Hollywood Road.
Le livre de Joseph Kessel "Hong Kong et Macao" ou encore le blockbuster Suzie Wong s'inscrivent dans ce contexte. On est alors bien loin des fastes des courtisanes des années 1920! Récemment, l’extension de la ligne de métro jusqu’à Hong Kong University est venu secouer la torpeur de Shek Tong Tsui, amenant cafés branchés et de lieux pour hipsters. Se pressent désormais dans les espaces lifestyle ou salon de thé tels que Ethos ou Teakha des étudiants aisés et la jeunesse dorée de Hong Kong. On goûte à nouveau au "bon temps à l’Ouest de l’étang", même si la définition a évolué.
Si un jour, vous vous retrouvez nez-à-nez avec le fantôme de Mui, la courtisane du film “Rouge”, dans l’un des cafés branchés de Shek Tong Tsui, je compte sur vous pour faire un selfie avec elle.
- Early Hong Kong Brothels, par Cheung Po Hung, University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong 2005
- Rouge (胭脂扣 en Mandarin), par Stanley Kwan, film de 1988 avec Leslie Cheung et Anita Mui
- There goes the neighborhood: Hispter takeover in sleepy Shek Tong Tsui, par Christopher DeWolf, article du South China Morning Post du 12 Novembre 2015
- Hong Kong et Macao, par Joseph Kessel, Gallimard 1957
- Hong Kong Island Coastline（港島海岸線) par 余震宇, Chung Hwa Books Co 2014 - en mandarin
- The World of Suzie Wong, de Stanley Kwan, film de 1960 avec Nancy Kwan et William Holden
After publishing on Little Shanghai, I found it challenging to write about Happy Valley. This part of Hong Kong is indeed unusual, containing a race course and three cemeteries. The name Happy Valley is a British euphemism to name burial grounds, chosen after a sizeable number of soldiers had died from malaria in the 1840s. Then other nationalities like Portuguese, Indians and Chinese used it to burry their own dead. The former name was Wong Nai Chung (黃泥涌) meaning “yellow muddy river”. This should have rung a bell about the sanitary risks but it obviously did not. This river was later canalized towards today’s Wan Chai Canal Street, precisely.
When visiting Hong Kong Cemetery (formerly Colonial Cemetery), where the protestants and military are buried, I found one of the oldest graves in Hong Kong bearing a familiar name: Karl Gützlaff (1803-1851 nearby). This German Lutheran missionary indeed gave his name to the signal tower on the Bund. He accompanied William Jardine’s clipper ships along the coasts of South China as an interpreter during the 1830s, a rather controversial role when one knows that Jardine whom the Chinese called “iron-head old rat” by the Chinese and the others “prince of merchants”, was illegally trading opium into China. The shrewd Scottish actually contributed to maintain two third of the Chinese population under opium during the first half of the 19th century and later pushed Britain into the First Opium War. However, Gützlaff found in this collaboration a way to convert Chinese populations to Christian faith each time ships went ashore in the numerous islands and bays of this part of China. His reputation was further stained when big sums got misused by native missionaries he had appointed.
In Shanghai, however, the column and time-ball built in 1907 by the French Jesuits missionaries wanted to pay tribute to his spreading of the Christian faith among the Chinese. Other famous Hongkongers buried in Happy Valley include Paul Chater (1846-1926, nearby with one of his horses at Happy Valley race course), the wealthy Armenian businessman who gave is name to the square in Central. Another big shot is Sir Robert Hotung (1852-1956). He was the first mixed-blood Chinese to become the head comprador at Jardine’s. He also made remarkable contributions as a philanthropist, board member of the Tong Hwa Hospital and founder of the Chinese Club, which was a response to the colonial policy of excluding Chinese from the Hong Kong Club. Last but not least, Dorabjee Naorojee (1852-1898), the man who created the Star Ferry service in 1888, rests in the Parsee cemetery, right North of the Hong Kong one.
In 1846, the race course was created in Happy Valley, as this was the only available flat land was on Hong Kong island (the land reclamation policy had not started yet). This race course is very similar to Shanghai’s one, on today’s People Square, which opened just four years after Hong Kong (not in the present location). As in Hong Kong, Shanghai race course plaid the role of a green lung right in the middle of the city. Horses and owners would of course frequently travel from one place to the other to participate in derbies during the year. A 1910 observer noticed than the largest stable at Shanghai racecourse was the Jardine one, called Tartan. Hong Kong based Paul Chater was also member at the Shanghai Race Club. Shanghai tycoon Eric Moller, a Swedish origin shipmaker and great horse lover - his legacy is still visible today with the fairy tale villa (nearby) at the intersection of Shaanxi Road and Yan An elevated road-, became famous when his champion « Silkylight » won the Hong Kong Derby in 1938.
I haven’t check if Victor Sassoon, the author of the nearby photo and another tycoon fancy of races, attended Happy Valley derbies as he often did in Shanghai or in Indian Pune, but he most probably did, as a lifelong competitor of Eric Moller. On 26 February 1918, one of Happy Valley’s stands caught fire killing 614 people, mainly Chinese. As betting was equally popular among the Chinese in Hong Kong and Shanghai, the Happy Valley grand stand revealed too small to welcome all race lovers. It was decided to add a temporary bamboo structure. No need to precise that the poorest bidders were packed there whereas the best permanent seats were occupied by the elites. In Shanghai, however, Chinese bidders were simply deprived the right to sit in the main stand!
The largest share of bettings and therefore race course revenues, however, came from humble Chinese players, making it indispensable for organizers to accept them. Although 90% of the revenues came from Chinese, they were the only category that could only access the race course during derbies. This rule did not apply to Indians or Black people. Horse races ceased in Shanghai in 1949, being a strong symbol of the colonial system but they went on in Hong Kong until today. With gangs controlling Shanghai during the 1930s and 1940s, there are numbers of stories about fixed races like this one told by former Shanghai French Concession chief inspector Joseph Shieh in his memoirs: Starting from 1932, I began to get acquainted with horse races[...]. I had become friend with the head of jockeys nicknamed "Captain". When he saw me approching, he whispered to my ear " Bet on the 9!""but it is a wreck", I replied."No, it has been doped this morning..."[...]. I pocketed 6000 or 7000 yuans[...]. In those days, one could buy an imported car for 2000 yuans[...]. Of course I could not play this trick every Sunday. No need to say that with so much money at stake, excitement for horse races was massive!
It is not clear weither Hong Kong triads are involved in fixing races but they might well have been as recent Wong Jong’s biopic "Chasing the Dragon" about drug lord Ng Sik-ho (Criplled Ho) suggests. At some point, the mobster bribes all the jockeys to make sure his horse wins a race. In 2007，the discovery of a sophisticated device to throw darts in the turf of Happy Valley bore the mark of the triads. However, Hong Kong Jockey Club contributes to community projects, which was not the case in Shanghai when investors took it all. Shanghai race season was Spring and Fall with events twice a week.
Hong Kong Jockey Club introduced a third venue on Wednesdays. As I was attending this year’s French May’s “Happy Wednesday” at the Hong Kong race course, I was amazed to see how popular horses races still are today. I was actually sitting next to a very simple kind of players, wearing flip flops, heavy smoking cheap cigarettes and anxiously reading the turf press. They most propably were small shop keepers, delivery workers or small employees. Excitement was visible on their faces when horses were unleashed and during the whole race. At the same time, on the top levels of Happy Valley stands, private rooms would accommodate a far wealthier type of guests, who throw parties or company events while using computer sweepstakes.
Like no other part of Hong Kong, Happy Valley takes us into a larger cultural and historical journey revealings its origins as well as part of its soul.
- Hong Kong et Macao, by Joseph Kessel (French), Gallimard 1957
- The heritage hiking guide to Hong Kong, by Pete Spurrier, FormAsia 2012
- Foreign Mud: Being an Account of the Opium Imbroglio at Canton in the 1830's and the Anglo-Chinese War that Followed, by Moris Collins, Faber 1946
- Policing Shanghai 1927-1937, Frederic Wakeman Jr, First Edition 1996
- Hong Kong Jockey Club Museum sweepstake tickets and photos
- Around the race course, Cabarets, Christians and Champagne Day, by Tina Kanagaratnam and Patrick Cranley, Final Five Shanghai Walks 2017
- Personal diaries and photos of Sir Victor Sassoon, De Golyer Library, Houston Texas from my 2017 visit
- Dans le jardin des aventuriers by Joseph Shieh and Marie Holzman (French), Seuil 1995
- Silky Light wins the turf classic, Hong Kong Daily Press article 22nd February 1938
- Chasing the Dragon, by Wong Jing staring Andy Lau and Donnie Yen, 2017
- A mystery at Hong Kong race track, by Keith Bradsher, The New York Times article, 27th March 2007
Among Hong Kong districts, the more related to Shanghai is undoubteddy North Point. After the 1937 Japanese invasion of China and during the solitary island episode, this part of Victoria city became the haven for thousands of wealthy and middle class Shanghainese emigrants. They recreated an entertainment industry comparable to their hometown including restaurants and dance halls, looking pretty much like today’s Wanchai. For this reason, North Point was nicknamed “Little Shanghai”. In the 1950s and 1960s, even more Shanghainese origin Chinese would relocate in North Point to escape communist rule.
A less known and earlier connection of Northpoint with Shanghai comes with the Tsat Tsz Mui Beach Bathes opening in 1929. This place became famous when 15 years old “Chinese mermaid” Yang Xiuqiong, whom I have already wrote a lot about, broke four national swimming records in 1933. This Dongguan origin athlete used to train at the Beach Bathes complex in open sea. She later won three individual gold medals during the Manila Asian games. After these successes, she spent a large part of her fame years in Shanghai. As sports grew more and more interest in Chinese public, symbolizing modernity and “Jianmei” (healthy) type of beauty, champions like Yang Xiuqiong were used as national heroes by the Chiang Kai Shek regime. The Tsat Tsz Mui Beach Bathes were situated near King’s Park and could be accessed easily by tram, attracting hundreds.
Tsat Tsz Mui literally means sevens sisters, a reference to deities venerated in Hong Kong. It was the name of the East part of North Point on early maps of the island. The place remained popular for bathing up to 1950s. Hong Kong Corinthian Yacht Club, dating 1906, was also located on the West side of North Point and remained active there till 1920 organizing sailing races. On the East part of the small peninsula, Taikoo Shipyards were built in 1881 by the Swire family, a dynasty of tycoons who set the basis of today’s financial empire including Cathay Pacific and Coca Cola Asia.
Telling the history of Hong Kong always involves land reclamations. Whereas 1880s reclamations merely filled the existing bays, later programs created new polders by connecting warfs together. The Tsat Tsz Mui Beach Bathes were no exception when in 1950, they were deprived from open sea access. Today, only the name of a street still gives a clue about the former seashore line (compare the two photos above and nearby). During Japanese occupation, North Point was the sadly site of a prisoners camp, mainly the Royal West Brigade and Canadian privates who defended Wong Nai Chung Gap and Jardine’s Lookout. Today, no trace remains of this iIl-memory camp at King’s Road Playground.
A few years before, when Japan invaded mainland China in 1937, many Shanghai Chinese had started to resettle in North Point. The most durable legacy of this community is the rather unusual one of the barber shops business. The Shanghai barbers had indeed forged themselves a solid reputation of modernity, introducing permed hairstyle. As Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s was the playground for movie stars, influenced by the exemple of Hollywood, trendy Shanghainese ladies (modeng nü) adopted some of the western most sophisticated haircuts. The use of electric rolls to curl the Chinese straight hair as well as short haircuts became Shanghai trademarks. North Point Shanghainese style barber shops would also provide massage services, shavings and give magazines to read to their patrons. This brand new type of barbers were actually thousand miles away from the Chinese tradition of street hairdressers!
With time passing and access to the American press, North Point’s barbers adapted to the international fashion. Pompadour style, Omega, Top Flat or Butch were part of the long list of available haircuts. Until the 1970s, nothing could beat a North Point barber for the wealthy patrons, sometimes driving from the Peak or Repulse Bay. During the Hong Kong cinema boom, their fame culminated, young starlets waiting on the client list. This is only recently that they have become associated with old times, unable to adapt the Hong Kong fast pace of this end of century. When crossing Northpoint today, not much of this heritage can be seen. No free style swimming anymore nore movie stars sitting in barber shops armchairs. I was surprised, however, to meet a group of hikers along one of Hong Kong mountain trails. When he realized I was coming from Shanghai, one of them suddenly turned to Mandarin to explain me that his whole family came from Shanghai to North Point. He proposed to share the same bus back to the city center, obviously happy to talk about his grandmother who had to thrive her way into Hong Kong. Cantonese was a challenge to her, he said, but she passed over the good memories of her teenage age in Shanghai to her children.
I guess there are more souvenirs to share with North Point old generations. Like most places in Hong Kong, culture is conveyed by personal stories more than architecture. One reason to stick to learning cantonese!
- Gwulo website by David Bellis
- Hong Kong stories：1960s, original vintage prints by Yau Leung - Blindspot Gallery Aberdeen - nov 2017 photo exhibition
- Sporting Gender: Women Athletes and Celebrity-Making during China's National Crisis 1931-45 by Yunxiang Gao - 2013
- Hong Kong Island Coastline（港島海岸線) by 余震宇 at Chung Hwa Books Co 2014 - Chinese
- Northpoint: A living history of Hong Kong by Franck Chen - Ejinsight 30th January 2015
- Hong Kong‘s Shanghai-style barbers face the cut by Josh Ye - South China Morning Post, 31st December 2016