For the first time, the famous two cartoon characters created by Edgar P. Jacobs in 1946 will visit Hong Kong. The occasion of a stroll in 1950s Hong Kong and a unique blend of history and science fiction!
Among the news that will delight comics fans, the forthcoming release of "The Valley of the Immortals", the last episode of the saga of "Blake and Mortimer", is also to mark a milestone for the afficionados of old Hong Kong. Indeed, this new adventure takes place in the "harbour of perfumes". Even though the album is not released yet (20th December in UK), I got a first glimpse of it by reading the boards published since the end of the summer in French and Belgian newspapers "Ouest-France" and "Moustique", on the same pattern as "Tintin" magazine of the great period!
Since the epidodes, the series is characterized by the mixture between historical reality and science fiction as well as a concern for details which make the cartoonist's inventions look plausible. The Belgian designer Edgar P. Jacobs often worked from photos such as for "The Necklace Affair", which takes place in Paris, "The Mystery of the Great Pyramid" in Cairo or the mythic "The Yellow M" which is located in London. The other feature is the use of uchronia, a narrative style that extrapolates official history by answering the question "What would have happened if ...?". The greatest historical invention of the father of the series is World War Three, declared and lost at the end of WWII by an imaginary Tibetan dictator, the Emperor Basam Damdu. The heroes are Captain Francis Blake, a former Royal Air Force pilot who eventually became turned the head of the prestigious MI5, and Professor Philip Mortimer, a prominent scientist in nuclear physics. The successors of Jacobs, like Yves Sente, have ever since all kept the fundamentals that made this series today's success.
This episode precisely takes place after the end of World War III, the characters landing at Kai Tak airport in the late 1940s. The RAF which was stationed at Kai Tak at that time is also involved in the story when three Spitfires engage in a dogfight with a mysterious American-made Mustang. The enemy is Chinese, however, a warlord by the name of Xi-Lee, who take advantage of the chaotic situation at the end of the war together with the growing struggle between Mao and Chiang Kai-shek in China to try to get his hands on a precious manuscript. Given this threat and the push of the Communists (watch this 1949 video), Hong Kong must ensure its protection, so no need to say Captain Blake and Professor Mortimer are put to contribution.
The historical part of the "Valley of the Immortals" is particularly well documented, recalling the political events which shaked these years from the very first pages of the album. Tintin fans will actually recognize a familiar character when a certain Gibbons, greets Professor Mortimer in the famous Peninsula Hotel. Gibbons comes from Shanghai whose International Concession has just been ceded to the Chinese authorities by the British Crown, he said and one would immediatly make a connection with the colonialist villain scorned by Tintin at the beginning of the Blue Lotus. The homage to Edgar Jacobs' career by Yves Sente is clear here as we know he worked for Hergé, Tintin's father, as a colorist. The similarity of the tones used by the two representatives of the "ligne claire" comic strip school is evident with the blushing reds and blues intended to brighten the stories published in the 1930s and 1940s.
The historical parenthesis continues with a Star Ferry ride from Tsim Sha Tsui, a stopover at the Hong Kong Club and taking a rickshaw to Wan Chai, which brings another reference to Tintin's Blue Lotus album. Then the story becomes more futuristic with Professor Mortimer driving to, or may I say into, Mount Davis, near Kennedy Town. The author has indeed imagined to place a secret base of the British Army inside the mountain, supposed to protect the "free world" (remember James Bond "The Man with a Pistol Gold" and the invention of secret base hidden in the wreckage of Queen Elizabeth II). A strategic weapon is kept there, a flying guiding system for the Swordfish vessels also engineered with help of Professor Mortimer's work. Mount Davis would eventually open itself in the manner of a Cold War launching silo to release the flying engine. As I do live nearby Mount Davis, I can guarantee you that there is no such thing under the mountain. So I suggest you go there to read this comic during a hike amoong the abandoned batteries and let float your imagination. Hope to see you there after mid-November to share more Blake and Mortimer stories!
Ref: The Valley of the Immortals, Vol 1- Threat over Hong Kong, by Yves Sente, Cinebook Ed, 20 Dec 2018
Object of curiosity or even fear, Kowloon City has fueled the most extraordinary stories. Let's discover together one of the most incredible human adventure in Hong Kong ever!
If you attended the debut of Jean-Claude Van Damme in the movie Blood Sport (video), you will probably remember that the final fight takes place in Kowloon Walled City, described as a lawless area. the illegal martial arts event being organized by a secret society. Today raised to make way to a public garden, this "city in the city" has long fed the wildest fantasies. The ancient Chinese city (last photo) actually found itself isolated in the middle the British controlled territory at the time of the extension of the new territories in 1898. Therefore it became sone sort of historical anomaly.
During the Japanese invasion, the ramparts were destroyed to be spread under the new runway of Kai Tak airport. However, the enclave experienced the greatest changes when Mao's took over China, becoming the home of thousands of refugees. The initial 1940 population of 2000 inhabitants doubled in the 1950s, new-comers being attracting by the lack of public regulations there. In addition to traditional small businesses, opium trafficking exploded, controlled by the K14 and Sun Yee On triads. In 1957, Joseph Kessel interviewed a senior police official who declared: "The English never entered Kowloon City. When I was taking care of this area, if a professional murderer took refuge in Kowloon City, I had to pay other criminals to force him to the edge of Kowloon where my men would wait for him. "A few years later , the young Martin Booth was also taken by his Chinese friend to a triad meeting hall in Kowloon City (triad altar seized in 1978).
Almost every dodgy business would take place in the "City of Darkness" (黑暗 之 城) as it was known by the Chinese, from illegal dentists, dog meat restaurants, those being banned in the rest of Hong Kong, to extensive prostitution or drug trafficking. Opium was prefered by the wealthiest consummers whereas the poorest type could only afford heroin. Very old women would sometimes prostitute themselves and serve the lower class workers. The whole situation eventually changed when the ICAC anti-corruption department created in 1974 and started to hunt down protectors of the triads.
Life in Kowloon City
The majority of the inhabitants, however, have nothing to do with the world of crime. At the beginning of the 1970s, chaotic constructions became the rule, the superimposed units first sheltering 10000 people then 30000 in 1980 and finally topped at 50000 in 1990. With only 2.7 hectares, meaning a rectangle of 126 meters by 213, it represented the world's highest density of 1.2 million per square kilometer! (video). The copy industry, manufacturing of simple plastic or metal objects (above) were generally located in the first levels of the buildings. Some workshops would specialize in preparing food for the Hong Kong's schools or public services. One would also find schools, playgrounds on rooftops and inner shopping streets. Charities provide the missing social welfare to those in need. At that time, a single flat could accommodate up to four families and one would rent a room for as little as 35 HK$ a month.
Facilities were limited as Kowloon City did not benefit from the public removal of garbage or distribution of water and electricity. However, solidarity and the resourcefulness among the inhabitants allowed them to live on a daily basis. Some of them would have to walk down 14 floors to do their laundry at one of the only eight existing water pipes avalaible. Some others would have to light up the darkest areas using electric extensions and pale neon lights. The precariousness was such that the pipes would leak at almost every floor so that people used to hold an umbrella to avoid being soaked.
However one invited their neighbours to share meals and disputes were rare. Many former residents remember having happy moments in this vertical village, accommodating constraints and eventually enjoying a certain freedom. "We had the best times in the first house, even though the rooms were so tiny there wasn't space for a dinner table", recalls Heung Yin-king. "We ate from a board laid over the knitting machine and sat on the bed. Everyone got along and it was great to have so many kids to play with. The second house was all right but had no taps, so as the eldest daughter, I had the responsability of hauling buckets of water from the public taps up four floors to the flat every day." Ng now 62 says: "We didn't know it was so dangerous. The kids would go up onto the roofs and leap fom building to building, or we would drag discarted mattresses to the roof and jump on them. It was a happy time."
The beginning of a myth
When the handover of Hong Kong talks began in 1984, the issue of Kowloon City was raised and the decision to get rid of it made by both governments in January 1987. Some 350 million HK$ in compensation were attributed and destruction started early 1993. The park that now replaces the city of darkness was completed in 1995. It kept the former yamen in it, the original residence of the imperial mandarin assistant, that was situated in the central courtyard of Kowloon City. Some old guns were also exposed as well as the foundations of the ramparts.
It is almost impossible today to find traces of Kowloon Walled City anymore except in the memories of its inhabitants or the many gangster movies that take place in it. Recently, several films about triads depict the violence of the 1960s in Kowloon City and meet a fair success at the box office. For instance, Jason Kwan's "Chasing The Dragon" shows famous gangster Crippled Hau and corrupted police officer Lee Rock Andy Lau, the roles being played by Donnie Yen (on the nearby photo) and Andy Lau. In this case, the Kowloon City scenes were filmed in a studio near Canton. The other recent film taking place in Kowloon City is Dealer / Healer, with critics acclaimed actor Sean Lau, which traces the equally true story of Peter Chan Shun Chi, a former gang boss and drug dealer who eventually reconverted into the helping drug addicts.
A most unusual initiative, is that of Hichiro Yoshida, a Japanese student who used to stay in Kowloon City who has since embarked on the arcade game industry. He started an arcade hall in Kawasaki, South of Tokyo, which recreates Kowloon City's dark alleys after pictures that were taken by himself. Even the tags on the walls are faithful to the original. Then, authors Greg Girard and Ian Lambot patiently took and published exceptionnal photographs of the City of Darkeness, emphasizing the aesthetic side as well as inhabitants lifes. This work brings light onto the darkest corners of the mythic city.
As in many places related to the history of Hong Kong, destructions do not always succeed in eradicating the collective memory. Images left by Kowloon Walled City are, in this respect, particularly strong.
- City of Darkness, Revisited, by Greg Girard and Ian Lambot, Ian Lambot Editions, 2014
- Bloodsport, film by Newt Arnold starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Bolo Yeung, 1988
- Hong Kong et Macao, novel by Joseph Kessel, published at Editions Gallimard in 1957
- Gweilo, Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood, by Martin Booth, Ed Bantam Books, 2005
- Chasing the Dragon, by Jason Kwan starring Donnie Yen and Andy Lau, Hong Kong 2017
- Kowloon Walled City: Life in the City of Dearkness, by John Carney, SCMP 12/2/2015
- Kawasaki Warehouse, article by Chris Barnes for site Japantravel.com website, 26/9/2013
After my post about Kai Tak airport, I would like to take you on a far quieter type of ride. Here is the history of the Hong Kong tram, not that quiet after all!
Only tram system fully equiped with double-deckers, Hong Kong "ding-ding" is favored by tourists because of its old-style appearance and the colorful adds decorating its sides. On board of one of the 164 tramcars, you can enjoy street life through the open windows as well as the proximity with the driver whom you can spy on to kill time. Some cars still have their original rollling signs indicating the terminus station, those activated manually from inside by the driver and also their big fount brake-wheel on each extremity.
Created in 1904, the first tramline connected Kennedy Town and Causeway Bay then Shau Kei Wan. As land reclamations were new, it used to run along the waterfront and Hongkongers would take it to go swimming at North Point beach or the Kennedy Town sea bathes (video). A very different situation from today when one has to take a long ride for seaside sand. At that time already, delivery carts using the tram tracks to save time were a problem, causing traffic jams and accidents. This new way of transportation was welcome among the city inhabitants and it soon had to increase its capacities to meet the demand. The very first double-deckers appeared in 1912, with priviledged first class tickets on top and a third class category on the first level. No second class tickets were issued to simplify the pricing scheme! During the Japanese occupation only 12 tramcars functionned, part of it dedicated to merchandises. Then things went back to normal after the war with a transfer of the production of cars from England to Hong Kong.
In the 1950s, a rather special activity florished along the tramtracks when local authorities tried to prevent organized prostitution. Private prostitutes indeed chose to operate in the Des Voeux Road Central sector. A crude Cantonese expression described them back then, "Stand on the tram" (企電車路) which is still used today, even if most of the cheap hotels around Wing On Department Store closed in the 1970s. Between 1965 and 1982, a strange trailer was attached to some of the tramcars to accomodate more people. They were dedicated to the first class categories.
Even if the suppression of the tram was discussed on many occasions, in order to promote more modern means of transportation, it always remained due to its relative reliableness compared to double-decker busses which could more easily overthrow in this densely populated area of Hong Kong. The question became even more accurate when the subway was created in 1979, bringing both speed and security. However, young Hongkongers showed a strong determination to preserve historical landmarks. This became obvious when demonstrations bursted out in December 2006 against the destruction of Queen's Ferry Pier on Victoria Harbour. Some people went as far as enchaining themselves to the iconic pier in protest. This is part of the reasons why the old Hong Kong tramway is still in use today, on the same model with the Star Ferry.
Accidents and gunshots
In terms of accidents, the most impressive one was probably this tramcar toppling over after a driver carelessly negociated the Bank Street turn on 6th April 2017. Fourteen were injuried! The rest of collisions involved busses or cars, merely causing material damages. Same thing with cars derailing here and there. Typhoons also caused damages to the pre-1923 versions of tramcars, the top floor being only covered with canvas. Today, hardtop-covered tramcars wisely wait at the tram-depot during the storms.
In Hong Kong cinema, the tramway is under-represented compared to busses or metro in action movies because stunts often require speed. In John Woo's famous picture "The Killer" (1989), however, detective Li-Ying chases a tramcar before shooting down a villain hidden amidst passengers (4th photo). The movie set was Causeway Bay, which took passers by surprise causing some of them to call the police in an assumption that the shooting was real. In a very different genre, Stanley Kwan's 1988 movie called "Rouge", one of the main characters has a nice chat with the ghost of a 1920s courtisane on a tramcar going to Shek Tong Tsui, a former red-light district of Hong Kong!
"Ding-ding" is now operated by a French company, creating a stronger link between Paris and Hong Kong. So next time you jump on the Hong Kong tram, remember you are stepping in a bit of France in China!
- HK Tramways, our story, internet website of the Hong Kong Tramways Company, www.hktramways.com
- Early Hong Kong Prostitution 香江風月, Cheung Po Hung, Hong Kong University Press November 2010
- Old Hong Kong Photos and the Tales They Tell, Volume 1, by David Bellis, Gwulo 2017
- Police vs Syndicats du crime: Les polars et films de triades dans le cinéma, Arnaud Lanuque, Gop Ed. 2017
- 14 hurt as tram topples over outside HSBC headquarters in HK Central District, Danny Mok, SCMP 6/4/2017
- The Killer, by John Woo, 1989 film starring Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee and Sally Yeh
As more than 900 flights have been cancelled because of Mangkhut super typhoon, I remember the hair-raising cross-wind landings on former Hong Kong Kai Tak airport. The old runways are now abandonned since the new Chep Lap Kok airport was open on the North of Lantau Island. The stories related to Kai Ta, however, remain alive.
The pionneers era
In 1912, two businessmen, called Ho Kai and Au Tak, bought a strip of reclamed land in Kowloon Bay, near the old Chinese town. Following the 1911 revolution, many immigrants came from China to Hong Kong to seek refuge, so that our two business associates planned to develop housing facilities on this piece of the land. The project however never took place and in 1924, the Hong Kong government acquired this place to create an airfield for the RAF together with a couple of flying schools. Previous to this event indeed, there was only one airfield in Shatin, on which the first plane to ever land in the colony touched ground in 1911, the so-called "Spirit of Shatin", which replica is exposed in today's airport.
Kai Tak airport also harboured seaplanes starting from 1928, those stationning along two wharfs on the South side of the airfield. In 1936, the first commercial company for passengers was launched. By then, the neighbouring Chinese city of Kowloon was still surrounded by its thick walls, as a strong reminder of the Qing emperors past glory. The airstrip itself was a mere flat ground scattered with grass which welcomed the first Air France flight coming from French Indochina in 1938, a Dewoitine 338! The following year, however, a regular tarmac was available so that when the Japanese invaded Hong Kong in late 1941, Kai Tak revealed its strategic interest. It was for the new conquerors a sure and fast way to connect the rest of the controlled areas in China. They even decided to build a second concrete runway which would cross the already existing one. For this purpose, they used the POW forced labour to demolish the Chinese city ancestral walls and Song dynasty bridge and spray the debris as the fundation of the new runway!
Stars and Constellations
After WWII, the Royal Air Force 80th Squadron was stationned in Kai Tak, operating a bunch of legendary Supermarine Spitfires. Neighbouring communist China had indeed become a new potential threat for the British colony and it was important to carefully observe the moves along the new border of the so-called "Free World". Hong Kong soon became a major destination for Western passengers in Asia so that other flying legends like the iconic Lockheed Constellation, a three-tailed and four-propelled-engines airplane, landed in Kai Tak on a regular basis. She will remain in service until the begining of the 1960s, being replaced after this date by turbo jets, therefore ending the heroic era of propelled aviation.
As the main entry door to Hong Kong territory, Kai Tak became favorized by paparazzi, looking for celebrities pictures. The early movie stars used to have their portrait taken in front of the flying club hangars, a trademark for modernity on the same model as Shanghai 1930s. Then movie stars departing for or coming back from US were top targets for professional photographs eager to make the font page of gossip newspapers. The peak of this fashion was undoubtly the arrival of the Beatles on 9th June 1964. The Fab Four or let's say Fab Three as Ringo Starr was replaced by Jimmie Nicol after diagnosed tongsillitis, attracted hundred of young fans at the airport terminal for there one day stop and evening gig en route for Australia! Film actors like Bruce Lee or James Coburn later fancied having their picture taken while waiting for their final boarding call.
A most dangerous place
The legend of Kai Tak also comes from its particular layout. In 1958, the famous runway 13 was built by reclaming a long strip of land on the bay. Therefore, some of the world's scariest landings took place there (video). Pilots had to operate a 47 degrees right-turn in front of the mountain before diving onto the runway. Some got directly into the habour, just like this China Airline flight in 1993. Then, because of frequent typhoons, some planes had to try delicate cross-wind landing, leaving their passengers with the fear of their lives!
Kai Tak certified pilots rained on flight simulators. The "chessboard hil", a white and orange rectangle was the only indication of the moment when you had to operate the steep turn and descent to the runway. Take-off was not a piece of cake either as you had to avoid crushing into the surrounding mountains right after leaving ground. In 1965 and 1967, two deadly accidents resulted in 59 and 24 casualties. From the 1970s on, the rapid economic growth of Hong Kong led to a further increase of air traffic. At that period, Boeing 747 flew at only a few meters above some of the most crowded urban areas in Hong Kong like Kowloon City (banneer). This unbearable situation ultimately led to the closing of Kai Tak in 1998 and its replacement by Chep Lap Kok. Even if a redevelopment project was promptly proposed, it took some fifteen year to become reality! In addition to the current sea cruise terminal, the iconic former runway 13 should receive office buildings and shopping malls, bringing back a bit of life into this place of history.
- Kai Tak Airport History, by David Bellis, internet site Gwulo poste of 1st May 2008
- Coastline of the Kowloon Peninsula（九龍海岸線) par 余震宇, Chung Hwa Books Co 2014 - in mandarin
- A brief Visual History of Hong Kong's Old Airport, Kai Tak, by Tom Grundy, Hong Wrong site, 3/12/2014
- Hong Kong French Connections by François Drémeaux, Bonham Books 2012
- No flight to Shanghai, blog post of Shanghailander by Hugues Martin, 23rd February 2009
- When the Beatles came to Hong Kong, by Charley Lanyon, article in South China Morning 29/8/2013
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