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Your guide to the Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir, the Romanesque waterworks on Bishop Hill

By Tommy Yu 22 June 2022

Header image courtesy of 香港遺美 Hong Kong Reminiscence (via Wikimedia Commons)

Since it first captured the public eye in 2020, the rediscovery of the Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir (better known by its nickname Bishop Hill Reservoir) has unveiled a local legacy from British colonial times. Sitting at the top of Bishop Hill, the disused reservoir still holds water as an arresting landmark with history coursing through its pipes, from colonial beginnings and a quiet decline to a second life. Read on for a look into the architectural merits and stories associated with this century-old water tank.

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How to get there

The Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir is located on Woh Chai Hill in Shek Kip Mei. Woh Chai Hill is also known locally as Bishop Hill, Shek Kip Mei Hill, and Mission Hill.

  1. Take the Kwun Tong line to Shek Kip Mei Station (Exit A1).

  2. Head along Woh Chai Street and turn into Shek Kip Mei Street.

  3. Arrive at the assembly point.

  4. Follow the tour guide to the reservoir.

Please note that you may only enter the Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir on an official tour, which can be booked here for individuals and groups. Spaces are limited. Please bring earphones with a 3.5-millimetre plug to connect to the in-tour audio device.

Born out of need

Before 1906, the water supply on the Kowloon Peninsula was maintained by the simple waterworks of three wells, several pipes, a water tank, and dams holding underground water. It did not include water sources in the New Territories, which, at the time, was under the administration of the imperial Qing government.

From 1891 to 1901, the population on the Kowloon Peninsula drastically doubled, and the previous waterworks were outdated and unable to meet the increasing demand. In 1898, the New Territories transitioned into British colonial rule, and the administration began seeking ways to remedy the shortcoming of the local water supply. 

Citing the running hills with countless boulder-studded watercourses as prospective reservoir sites, a new proposal titled “Kowloon Waterworks Gravitation Scheme” was drawn up, adding a storage reservoir, three filter beds, and two miles of catchwater channels alongside a service reservoir which is now known as the Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir. After the Second Convention of Peking, the colonial pipework started to take root in the swathes of the Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories.

Concrete and brick

Built on Bishop Hill, the Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir was entrusted to the capable hands of Denison, Ram & Gibbs, the British architectural firm responsible for The Helena May main building, Eliot Hall at the University of Hong Kong, and the now-demolished Repulse Bay Hotel. It featured an effective concrete recipe favouring local materials, such as cement from the Green Island Cement brand, sand taken from neighbouring beaches, and hand-crushed igneous rocks found in different locations of Hong Kong.

Ingeniously, the Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir was designed to withstand the changing tides of time. Even without steel reinforcing bars, the monolithic water tank remains intact. Possessing granite pillars, bricked arches, and concrete floors and walls, the reservoir’s hybrid concrete-and-brick construction is an intriguing hallmark of the architectural transition from the heyday of brick use to the modern takeover of concrete.

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Glistening with antique sensibilities

Inside the service reservoir, you can find a mash-up of local materials blending seamlessly with Western design sensibilities. Consider the grand colonnade of 108 masonry piers, each comprising 14 granite blocks in a rusticated fashion, an architectural style in which the façade is distinctively roughened with thickly rimmed stones. Its contiguous segmental arches are uniquely carved with three-ringed openings. Overall, these design choices leave no doubt that the service reservoir is referencing antique Roman aqueducts and tanks, including the Pont du Gard, Roman Cisterns of Fermo, and Piscina Mirabilis.

In addition to the Romanesque arcade, the mortar bricks are slathered and tamped down in a distinctive Flemish bond, a special patterning in which each brick placement alternates between horizontal and vertical. Interestingly, Hong Kong is home to several historical landmarks featuring a Flemish-bond façade, including the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences, which was built in 1906, and Western Market, the oldest market building in Hong Kong. Alongside the grand arcade of the Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir, these everlasting stoneworks tip their hats to the city’s legacy as a former British colony.

An all-round design

Completed in 1904, the Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir takes up 1,600 square metres, measuring 45.7 metres in diameter and 6.8 metres in height. Featuring an economical design, the service reservoir is circular in shape, which yields the greatest surface area with the shortest perimeter wall, holding as much as 2.18 million gallons of water.

Gravity encourages the water to flow through the pipeworks. From the hilltop Kowloon Reservoir, water is carried through the main pipe to filter beds before coursing into the Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir, then to the distribution system. Light openings, ventilators, balancing pipes, and a masonry portal are distinctive features of this century-old reservoir, with water entering from the top inlet pipe and leaving through the bottom outlet pipe.

Functioning as a balance tank, the service reservoir collected and stored excess water for future consumption. The success of the gravitation mechanism also enabled fire hydrants to be installed on the Kowloon peninsula for the first time in 1906.

A quiet decline

Although the water tank silently operated in the background, it was eventually suspended due to bad leakage in 1938. Its hiatus was prolonged by the Japanese occupation. Later, in 1951, the reservoir on Bishop Hill was officially recommissioned, and the leakage problem was resolved by adding a 150-millimetre concrete wall to thicken the perimeter wall, but it had the effect of reducing the water capacity from 2.18 million to 1.07 million gallons.

As the city rapidly modernised, the Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir was decommissioned in 1970, replaced by the Shek Kip Mei Fresh Water Service Reservoir, which can hold as much as 30 million gallons. With light openings and ventilators buried under cement concrete, the Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir was hermetically sealed from public view, along with its Roman-inspired arches and colonial legacy.

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Vehemently salvaged

In 2017, the Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir faced demolition. Even with a history dating back to the Qing dynasty, the notable facility was not recognised with an official status, wrongly dismissed as nothing more than an old underground structure. 

In December 2020, the demolition began, exposing the stunning brickwork underneath. Recognising the value of this place, a woman bravely rushed to the demolition site and clutched at the rumbling drill head, preventing it from wrecking this community treasure.

Others followed suit and photographed the demolition site, and the remarkable masonry made media headlines. Local interest groups quickly initiated research projects on the history of the reservoir at Bishop Hill, making suggestions to the Antiquities Advisory Board. Due to tireless efforts to protect this at-risk landmark, the Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir was given a second life as a Grade 1 historic building in June 2021.

Lasting legacy of the waterworks

Although the Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir on Bishop Hill is no longer in operation, it deserves to be protected as an important fixture in Hong Kong’s storied timeline, safeguarding the city’s past life. Future generations can reconnect with the unique vision of Hong Kong and weave together a nostalgic patchwork of Eastern wisdom and Western artistry. Sign up for a tour of the Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir here.

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Tommy Yu

Writer

​​A free, intuitive, and mischievous spirit, Tommy loves travelling, fortune-telling, any kind of arts, or paranormal stuff. You will find him binge-watching every episode of Kangsi Coming, improvising a few lines from Wong Kar-wai movies, or finally getting someone’s zodiac sign right after guessing it wrong for the eleventh time.

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