Header image courtesy of @danechan (Instagram)
Although the British acquired Kowloon 18 years after declaring Hong Kong as her crown colony, there are still, in fact, many historical and remarkable buildings to explore and discover in the area.
Following that the literal English translation of Kowloon is “Nine Dragons,” rumour has it that Kowloon was named by Emperor Zhao Bing of the Song dynasty (960 to 1279) in 1278, who observed that there were eight surrounding peaks: Tung Shan, Tate’s Cairn, Temple Hill, Unicorn Ridge, Lion Rock, Beacon Hill, Crow’s Nest, whilst the ninth dragon is a homage to Emperor Zhao Bing himself.
During the early nineteenth century, many key forts were constructed along the Kowloon peninsula by military forces of the Qing dynasty in order to prevent pirate invasions and also to secure its large salt industry. However, towards the mid-nineteenth century, the forts’ main mission was to defend oncoming attacks from the British and to maintain its imperial dominance all throughout Kowloon.
Compared to Hong Kong Island, Kowloon has an abundance of land with an area of 47 square kilometres, initially used by the British for hunting exotic animals such as tigers due to the fact that it was once a lush wilderness. Much of its urban development did not start until the twentieth century, lagging behind Hong Kong Island, which started much earlier. However, with the help of the Kowloon-Canton Railway and the Star Ferry, Kowloon quickly developed into a community flourishing with people, shops, and businesses. Here are our top historical buildings to explore throughout Kowloon.
Opening its doors in 1928 to locals and travellers alike, The Peninsula is an iconic Hong Kong institution. Initially built with the notion that it would become “the finest hotel east of Suez,” the hotel was founded by the prominent Kadoorie family.
Situated in the heart of Tsim Sha Tsui, the location guaranteed The Peninsula to be a highly convenient establishment for tourists travelling by train or ocean liner to spend a night or two in Hong Kong. Its neo-classical façade reminds us of the rich historical fusion that has shaped much of Hong Kong, and it’s no less surprising how poignant this hotel has become in amongst Hong Kong society.
The Peninsula, 22 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui | (+852) 2920 2888
Instituted in 1883, the Hong Kong Observatory, previously known as the Royal Observatory Hong Kong, was founded by Sir George Bowen, the ninth governor of Hong Kong. During the Handover, the Observatory transitioned into a government agency that still provides daily weather forecasts and issues warnings on weather-related hazards, such as floods and typhoons. Situated on a small hill in Kowloon, the main building of the Observatory was constructed in 1883, featuring a classic colonial façade that is both charming and eloquent. In 2002, the Observatory opened a resource centre right beside the colonial building that is open to the public for educational purposes.
Hong Kong Observatory, 134A Nathan Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui | (+852) 2926 8200
Yet another building loaded with a remarkable history, the Kowloon Clock Tower is the only standing remnant of the former Kowloon Station on the Kowloon-Canton Railway. The 51-metre-high tower was erected in 1915 and its strategic placement guaranteed that it was one of the first landmarks visitors and locals alike would see when arriving in Hong Kong by boat. Built out of white and red brick with traditional features of scroll-shaped buttresses, columns, and cornices, the top of the Kowloon Clock Tower features an octagonal domed turret. Sadly, the structure was damaged during World War II during the Battle of Hong Kong, leaving marks of combat present to this day.
Kowloon Clock Tower, 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui
Situated in the outskirts of Mong Kok, this Hong Kong tong lau had its start in 1931 under the ownership of a prominent businessman named Lui Seng. A four-storey example of neoclassical architecture that fuses both Western and Chinese design, Lui Seng Chun boasts grand granite columns and high-ceilinged balconies on each floor, an arresting landmark that has withstood the test of time.
In 2000, the Lui family generously donated the building to the Hong Kong government with the vision of preserving it for a purpose. After eight long years of considering proposals on how to revitalise Lui Seng Chun, the Hong Kong Baptist University was nominated and selected to conserve the building as part of the Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme. Hong Kong Baptist University then converted Lui Seng Chun into a traditional Chinese medicine healthcare centre, commencing operations in April 2012.
Lui Seng Chun, 119 Lai Chi Kok Road, Prince Edward
Located on Shanghai Street, the Red Brick House once housed the engineer’s office to the adjacent Yau Ma Tei Pumping Station of the Water Supplies Department. Established in 1895, it remains one of Hong Kong’s oldest pumping stations. The structure displays a neoclassical architectural style interspersed with subtle influences from the Arts and Crafts movement, but the one feature that is most significant and striking is its red brick façade. Notably, the Red Brick House also highlights British industrial influences due to its utilitarian design.
Red Brick House, 344 Shanghai Street, Yau Ma Tei
Not far from the Red Brick House, the Yau Ma Tei Fruit Market is another place that has played an integral role in local society. Originally named as the Government Vegetable Market, the Fruit Market was established in 1913, selling fruits, vegetables, and fresh produce ever since its founding. The Fruit Market is a Grade II historic building designated by the Antiques and Monuments Office, as it consists of several blocks of one- or two-storey brick-and-stone buildings with traditional carved characters dating back to before World War II.
Yau Ma Tei Fruit Market, 202 Reclamation Street, Yau Ma Tei
This historic building used to be the former North Kowloon Magistracy and handled cases within the Kowloon area, including Mong Kok, Sham Shui Po, Shek Kip Mei, Cheung Sha Wan, and Ho Man Tin. Built in the 1960s, the seven-storey courthouse was constructed mainly of granite, showcasing neoclassical architecture with stripped classicism, whilst the front of the building projects a commanding façade with jutting bays and narrow, symmetrical slivers that pass for windows. The North Kowloon Magistracy officially ceased judicial operations in 2005 and was converted into the Hong Kong campus of the Savannah College of Arts & Design in 2009, which abruptly closed down 10 years later in 2020.
North Kowloon Magistracy, 292 Tai Po Road, Sham Shui Po
Situated close to the Kowloon Clock Tower and the Peninsula Hotel, 1881 Heritage formerly served as headquarters for the Hong Kong Marine Police, which eventually relocated to Sai Wan Ho in 1996. The compound also housed other institutions in the past, such as the Old Kowloon Fire Station and the Signal Tower, a construction that was used to provide time signals to ships in the harbour. Following a rebrand to its current name, 1881 Heritage now transports visitors back to colonial Hong Kong with its neoclassical architecture, replete with a revamped heritage hotel, food and beverage outlets, and high-end retail experiences scattered across the premises.
1881 Heritage, 2A Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui | (+852) 2926 8000