Header image courtesy of @themurrayhk (via Instagram)
Before skyscrapers of glass and steel took over Hong Kong’s famous skyline, British colonial buildings stood guard over Victoria Harbour. Spires and domes crowned houses along the waterfront; archways led onto open verandas that overlooked the busy traffic; and red-bricked walls were splashes of colour up the hillside. Such government quarters, schools, and churches began in the City of Victoria, then spread to be embraced by the streets of the Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories.
Of the colonial architecture we can still find in the city, red brick buildings just might be the most distinctive. Prior to the ceding of Hong Kong Island in 1841, local work predominantly featured the Chinese green brick. Red bricks and the styles in which they were heavily favoured came with colonisation, in the years following Great Britain’s Industrial Revolution.
From Tai Kwun to the Old Dairy Farm Depot, the buildings are often enough the faces of Hong Kong’s time under another flag. Read on to find out where you can still see the last vestiges of colonial red brick buildings in Hong Kong—some of which you might not have known about.
Over a century old, the University of Hong Kong boasts its fair share of historic buildings. Deep within the Pok Fu Lam campus are two such fine specimens—the 1914 Eliot Hall and 1915 May Hall. Among the first student residences directly managed by the university, the buildings underwent a number of changes for different needs, notably during the Second World War when they were both hospital and living quarters.
Now re-adapted for educational purposes, the elegant Queen Anne Revival buildings live on in all their red-and-white glory. Double-tiled roofs, a response to the local climate and aesthetics, add Chinese flavours to the largely Western structures. Eliot Hall, in particular, which houses the university’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, lures visitors in with a front staircase and a fountain that’s reminiscent of mansions in the old days.
Eliot Hall and May Hall, University of Hong Kong, Pok Fu Lam Road, Mid-Levels
You may remember it from many a Hong Kong silver screen classic—the Bridges Street Centre of the Chinese Young Men’s Christian Association has famously appeared in Andy Lau’s City Kids 1989 and Running on Karma, among other local film productions.
Built in 1918, the building acted as headquarters for the YMCA until it relocated to a new Kowloon site in the 1960s. For its facilities, many of which were firsts in Hong Kong, it was an immensely popular place for the Chinese to gather at the beginning of the last century.
As intriguing as its historic indoor swimming pool and elevated jogging track is its style. Unlike the majority of colonial buildings in Hong Kong, the Bridges Street Centre adopts the American Chicago School style rather than the British, with a steel and red-brick façade topped with Chinese glazed tiles. Even for those less interested in its community functions, it is certainly a feast for the eyes.
Chinese YMCA of Hong Kong Bridges Street Centre, 51 Bridges Street, Sheung Wan
Home to the Court of Final Appeal almost two decades from 1997 to 2015, the Former French Mission Building is perhaps a little-known name for the block that perches right above Queen’s Road Central’s bustling activity. Initially, the 1917 monument was built by the French Society of Foreign Missions to be its Procure of Hong Kong. In subsequent years, it has come to be the temporary headquarters of the post-war government, then used for a series of other government purposes.
Even from a distance, the Neo-classical red brick building is easily recognisable for its cupola, and its built-in chapel, seldom opened to the public, is equally noteworthy. With the neighbouring St John’s Cathedral and their shared yard, here is a corner where the clock has paused in its ticking.
Former French Mission Building, 1 Battery Path, Central
Kowloon’s oldest Protestant church is one of those rare cases of a place that has been expanded, modified, and renewed, all without losing its air of tranquillity. Since its consecration in 1906, St Andrew’s has been a sanctuary for non-Chinese speaking Christians, briefly a Shindo shrine during the Japanese Occupation, and finally a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural space that is open to all.
Time has cost St Andrew’s Church its spire, but the red-bricked Grade I historic building still maintains its classic cruciform layout, Victorian Gothic arches, as well as its original stained-glass windows, which were shipped in from London back in the day. Having withstood wartime and typhoon damage alike, the church looks yet ahead.
St Andrew’s Church, 138 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui
Right next to St Andrew’s Church, the Former Kowloon British School opened in 1902 and is Hong Kong’s oldest existing school building for foreigners. In colonial times, it was one of many schools constructed to meet the increasingly pressing educational needs of Western settlers and their family. Now, it serves society under a different (yet charmingly fitting) mantle—as the Antiquities and Monuments Office’s headquarters, where conservation work of built heritage such as itself takes place.
Despite being essentially a Victorian building, the school reflects typical characteristics of architecture in tropical and sub-tropical colonies. Its pitched roof and high ceilings offer relief in the summer, while its wide veranda, where charming green panelled windows are set into the red brickwork, is a familiar sight on Instagram feeds.
Former Kowloon British School, 136 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui
In 1907, when reclamation had yet to be carried out and Blackhead Point was still a cape, a signal tower was erected facing the harbour. Then, without looming modern buildings to conceal the view, it hosted a time-ball apparatus for the Hong Kong Observatory to signal time to those not only on land, but also at sea.
The Edwardian Baroque tower has shed its time-telling functions since the 1930s, and its green-domed four storeys no longer suffice when it comes to visibility. Nevertheless, it is a pleasant surprise to stumble upon among the trees of Signal Garden, a square, red brick monument with unique chamfered corners and a glimpse of spiral stairs within. Step inside and up, to where you can catch echoes beyond the shores.
Signal Tower at Blackhead Point, Minden Row, Tsim Sha Tsui
One needs little imagination to see why Maryknoll Convent School has been nicknamed Hong Kong’s own Hogwarts. Its sprawling historic campus, brought into being by the Maryknoll Sisters of St Dominic, has been a base for providing girls’ education since 1937.
Maryknoll Convent School resembles medieval monasteries and colleges with its courtyards, cloisters, and a tower, though it is in truth a curious mix of various architectural styles. To ascend its grand, sweeping staircases, through its arches, and under its vaulted ceiling, you might mistake yourself for walking in a red brick castle!
Understandably, its interior is normally accessible only to staff, students, and alumni. However, for a chance to unlock its mysteries, watch out for open days or the Antiquities and Monuments Office’s Heritage Fiesta.
Maryknoll Convent School, 5 Ho Tung Road, Kowloon Tong
Leased latest to the British, the New Territories is the part of Hong Kong that finds more of its historic buildings in the Chinese style. That said, in 1907, the colonial government deemed it necessary to establish a seat of civil administration in the area.
Thus was the Old District Office (North) built to deal with land registration and other government matters, until the Scout Association of Hong Kong took over the building’s management to rename it the Law Ting Pong Scout Centre.
Slightly elevated from the excitement of Tai Po Market, the quaint colonial Edwardian structure stands apart also in the sense that it is a rare example of a Western-style red brick building away from the heart of the colony. Here atop the stairs, the traces of cannons put in place to guard British power whisk visitors off to the past.
Old District Office (North), 15 Wan Tau Kok Lane, Tai Po