Header image courtesy of Francesco Bonino (via Shutterstock)
Walking around Hong Kong, it is not hard to miss old and elegant buildings nestled in-between glittering skyscrapers and towering high-rises. Whether it is the collection of colonial granite structures or clusters of aged temples, Hong Kong has an array of different and distinct architectural styles that define our cityscape.
As a former British colony and a gateway to China, Hong Kong is one of the few places in the world where such major and contrasting cultures clash and fuse. This is highly apparent in the city’s monuments, as both the British and Chinese left many beautiful and intrinsic designs on buildings across town. Central, especially, is home to many such historical landmarks, due to the fact that the British started their quest of establishing and developing the city in present-day Central and Western District.
Initially, Central was chosen to house major military facilities and an administrative centre. Over time, the lucrative area lured both Westerners and Chinese to set up businesses and residences. A bazaar, now Central Market, was built between Cochrane Street and Graham Street in 1842 but the area was soon segregated for Westerners only, and the local Chinese population was restricted to Sheung Wan. By 1880, the completion of City Hall, Theatre Royal, and other financial structures made Central the heart of Hong Kong. Let’s take a look at 10 historical buildings that you should know more about in Central and Western District.
The Court of Final Appeal, also known as the Old Supreme Court Building, is one of the most striking and prominent landmarks in Hong Kong. This two-storey Neoclassical building was constructed in 1912 by Sir Aston Webb and Ingress Bell, both of who helped design the eastern façade of Buckingham Palace.
The building features iconic columns and an almost three-metre-tall blind-folded statue of Justice, represented by Themis, the Greek goddess of justice and law. In fact, this sculpture is inspired by the one erected on the Old Bailey of London. The Court of Final Appeal remains a popular attraction, especially for wedding photography, and the building is still in use today as the final appellate court of Hong Kong.
The Court of Final Appeal, 8 Jackson Road, Central
The only plot of land in the area that is not owned by the government, St John’s Cathedral is the oldest Western ecclesiastical building in Hong Kong. Built in 1849, the grand Gothic-style church has a memorial tablet to Captain William Thornton Bate RN, who was killed in the battle of Canton in 1857.
Outside the Cathedral, there is also a war memorial with a Celtic cross and an inscription added to commemorate those who had died in both World War I and II. Initially, St John’s Cathedral was used by the British Army garrison. Later on, it was converted into a club by the Japanese forces in World War II but was eventually restored to a religious site after the war ended. Regular church services are still held there every Sunday.
St John’s Cathedral, 4–8 Garden Road, Central
Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts is a redeveloped cultural and retail destination in Central. Previously a complex of 16 colonial buildings that housed the Central Police Station, Victoria Prison, and the Central Magistracy, Tai Kwun is saturated with a long history of interesting little anecdotes, such as that of Ho Chi Minh’s exercise regime.
The influential president of Vietnam was incarcerated in Victoria Prison from 1931 to 1933, and his recovered diaries describe being allowed out to exercise for only 15 minutes a day in a narrow courtyard surrounded by walls, feeling like he was stuck at the bottom of a well.
Nowadays, Tai Kwun is home to a number of cutting-edge shopping and dining experiences, such as Behind Bars, which makes the most of the location’s theme to mix drinks and cocktails in a series of former jail cells.
Tai Kwun, 10 Hollywood Road, Central
One of the oldest landmarks in Sheung Wan, the southern block of the Western Market was first built in 1844 and the northern block followed later in 1858. It was initially developed for the purpose of an indoor food market, but it has since turned into an arcade of numerous cafés and shops selling various items such as souvenirs, fabrics and textiles, and clothing.
Western Market is not hard to miss, with its unique and eye-catching brickwork that combines mahogany red bricks and granite. The main entrance, too, features a beautifully carved arch that amplifies the Edwardian façade of the entire landmark. It was declared a historical monument in 1990 and was renovated and reopened to the public just a year later.
Western Market, 323 Des Voeux Road Central, Sheung Wan
This marvellous and iconic Greek Revival-style building is known for its resilience, as it was shelled twice by Japanese artillery in the Battle of Hong Kong during World War II. The Japanese soon repaired it and the commandant took the building as his residence during the occupation. In 1984, this elegant and beautiful structure was converted into the Flagstaff House of the Museum of Tea Ware and in 1989, it was declared a monument.
The museum now holds regular exhibitions and programmes on the history and art of tea-making and ceramic pottery. This fuse of Chinese and Western traditions serves as a wonderful homage to the contrasting dynamics that exist within Hong Kong itself.
Flagstaff House, 10 Cotton Tree Drive, Central
Built in devotion to the god of literature (Man Cheong) and the god of war (Mo Tai), this is arguably one of Hong Kong’s most well-known places of worship. Interestingly, the Man Mo Temple was built in 1847 during the Qing dynasty by prominent Chinese merchants.
Outside the main entrance are four gilt plaques hoisted on poles that used to be carried around at processions. Two of those plaques describe the gods being worshipped inside the temple, one calls for silence and a show of respect within the temple’s grounds, and the last was meant to warn menstruating women to keep out of the main hall.
Once inside the temple, two nineteenth-century sedan chairs with intricate carvings—built for the purpose of transporting the two gods during festive parades—are still on prominent display. About a dozen coils of incense hang from the ceiling in the interior of the temple, leaving an ethereal trail of smoky scent that’s visible from all the way out on Hollywood Road. Man Mo Temple’s main colours are red and gold, further creating a spiritual and fascinating atmosphere that’s compelling for non-believers, too.
Man Mo Temple, 124–126 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan
As the official residence of the chief executive of Hong Kong, the Government House is a prime example of a piece of colonial history that was left behind by the British. Construction of the House started eight years after the British declared Hong Kong as their crown jewel, and the project was completed in 1855.
Government House was the official residence of the governor from 1855 to 1997 when the city was under British rule. 25 governors of Hong Kong, out of a total of 28, have used this building as their official residence and it is still in use today by the city’s chief executive.
This landmark was designed by Charles St George Cleverly as a Colonial Renaissance-style home. However, during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, the house was significantly remodelled. Today, the building bears a fusion of Japanese and Neoclassical structures, with a tower and roof elements modified by Japanese architect Seichi Fujimura in 1944.
Government House, Upper Albert Road, Central
This engrossing nineteenth-century building currently houses two institutions: the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in the northern block and the Hong Kong Fringe Club in the southern block. It got its start in 1890 as a cold storage warehouse for The Dairy Farm and in 1913, the warehouse was expanded and renovated in order to include a dairy shop, a cold storage room, as well as a room for smoking meats. After several decades, The Dairy Farm moved out during the 1970s and the building was abandoned.
Not long after, in 1984, the Fringe Club renovated the southern block of the building to further expand its non-profit organisation and provide an open space for local artists to exhibit their work. This low-rise brick-and-stucco structure is conveniently situated in-between the foot-traffic-heavy area of Glenealy and Wyndham Street. After its restoration, the Old Dairy Farm Depot won the Hong Kong Government Heritage Award and it has been categorised as a Grade II historic building in Hong Kong.
Old Dairy Farm Depot, 2 Lower Albert Road, Central
Also known as the Pathological Institute and the Bacteriological Institute, the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences was first opened in 1906. Designed in the Edwardian style with red bricks and white pillars, this was Hong Kong’s original purpose-built public health and medical laboratory. By the end of the nineteenth century, bacteriological studies in Hong Kong were still underdeveloped and only temporary facilities for such examinations were available until this institution was established.
In 1972, the Institute was relocated to Victoria Road and the building was then used as a storeroom for pathology service for the Health Department. The building was declared a monument in 1990. In 1995, it was handed over to the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences Society and converted into a public museum.
Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences, 2 Caine Lane, Sheung Wan
Right in the heart of Central, Pedder Building was inspired by the Beaux-Arts style with subtle traits of Art Deco. Constructed in 1923, it is the last surviving pre-World War II building on Hong Kong’s iconic Pedder Street. Before the war, a lot of tenants were foreign firms with their headquarters or branches set up in Central.
Most of them evacuated before the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong (1941 to 1945), and consequently, Japanese and Chinese businesses moved in. Fortunately, the building remained intact during the occupation, and it has since functioned as a commercial building for shops, offices, and art galleries. To this day, this nine-storey building leaves a stamp of how much influence and history the city has persevered through.
Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central