In late November, developers demanded evacuation of the 87-year-old corner shophouse—with its character-defining open-air balconies and wooden doors—at 6, Stewart Road. Also in Wan Chai was the Grade III historic building Tung Tak Pawn Shop, which was dismantled last year despite public uproar and petitions, prompting many to think that the corner shophouse at Stewart Road will suffer the same fate.
With chequered history of economic development, World War 2 and influx of Chinese immigrants, the bustling city of Hong Kong is changing fast as shiny skyscrapers began to take over its skyline, turning the metropolis into one homogeneous vertical neighbourhood. In the face of rising localism and calls for greater emphasis on the city’s local culture, historical structures like shophouses are more important than ever.
Are we losing another piece of memory in a seemingly deadlocked conflict between conservation and development?
Stories of Shophouses
From the Clock Tower to International Financial Centre, Hong Kong finds itself in an ever-evolving assemblage of old and new architecture. Embedded in buildings at this urban metropolis are traces and stories of the past that make them all the important. Shophouse is no exception.
In an interview with Wong Sau-ping, a tour guide at Hong Kong House of Stories, we embark on a journey to the past through the lens of the present here.
190-212 Prince Edward Road West.
“Trotting horse” lamps
Most shophouses were built in continuous units with upper floors protruded over the public pavement in balconies or verandahs. Wong recalled her childhood memories of attending a primary school located in a shophouse, where naughty students would sneak into another classroom through balconies, like the traditional horse-riding military officers featured in China’s “trotting horse” lamps.
“Trotting horse” lamps
Most shophouses were built in continuous units with upper floors protruded over the public pavement in balconies or verandas. Wong recalled her childhood memories of attending a primary school located in a shophouse, where naughty students would sneak into another classroom through balconies, like the traditional horse-riding military officers featured in China’s “trotting horse” lamps.
One of the most favoured functions of shophouses’ balconies is to dry clothes, blankets, tangerine peels or cured meat. Often called “green balconies”, these projected balconies enabled one can reduce electricity consumption by letting laundry naturally dry under the sun, Wong said.
Balconies were also places where goods such as newspapers and “airplane olives” were traded. In the past, shophouses—usually three to five storeys high—were low-rise enough to allow street vendors to throw the sore throat remedy “airplane olive” to customers onto their balconies, while buyers paid by throwing money down onto the street.
Advertisement of "airplane olives".
Artwork of Blue House.
A picture of character
With balconies facing the street, upper floors of shophouses painted a picture of the tenants’ characters. “You could see people’s lifestyles,” Wong said. “You would know how many families lived [in that building], and whether there were adults or children in that household.”
Even if you only have a photo of a shophouse balcony, you can quickly take a guess at when the photo was taken based on the items hung or flowers grown there. However, in a densely-populated city like Hong Kong, where high-rises dominated the urban streetscapes, only the lucky few can enjoy open-air spaces at home.
“The buildings now look all the same,” Wong added.
Stairs of Blue House
Listed as a Grade I historic building, the four-storey pre-war Blue House was caught up in controversy when a timber stairs was dismantled by the Development Bureau. Wong said the government justified the move by saying that the stairs was infested with termites , only to discover that it was not true. Only three of the wooden planks were kept because of the marks left by workers removing excrement from pail latrines every night, as flush toilet facilities are absent in the shophouse.
“On that day [of the removal], when the journalists came, the tenant cried while talking about this. But you can’t find him now. He passed away,”
A photo of the stairs before removal.