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Hidden Hong Kong: An evolution of Hong Kong’s architectural styles

By Ngai Yeung 14 August 2020 | Last Updated 16 June 2023

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Where else can one find a Taoist temple squished in-between two Southern Chinese tong lau, across the street from a colonial-era Victorian-style edifice, all set against a backdrop of skyscrapers? People think history must be read from books, but Hong Kong’s colourful melting pot history can be read from its buildings. Join us for a look at the evolution of Hong Kong’s hybrid architecture throughout the years.

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Photo: David Yeung

Simple abodes for a simple time

Just 180 years ago, before the British arrived, Hong Kong was a virtually barren expanse—nothing like the metropolis it is today. Most of the Chinese locals were immigrants from parts of southern China, and it shows in the design of their houses.

Fishermen lived in clusters of pang uk (棚屋), a kind of hybrid land-and-water stilt house developed from the boathouses of the Tanka people. Their lives were an unstable one, plagued by errant typhoons and roaming pirates, so they erected Tin Hau temples to worship the sea goddess; nowadays, classical Tin Hau temples with sloped roofs and dragon carvings can still be found around the city, though if you want to see some traditional pang uk structures, you’d have to travel out to Tai O.

Tsang Tai Uk, a Hakka walled village in Sha Tin built in the wok yi uk style, where a pair of curved walls protrude from its roof. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Farmers, on the other hand, lived in walled villages with their clans for protection against bandits and even wild tigers. Houses in these villages were modelled after the Lingnan architectural style from the Lingnan region in southern China, notable for how it adapts to the region’s humid climate.

An example of this is the wok yi uk (鑊耳屋)—which translates to “house with wok ears” in Cantonese—where a pair of curved walls on the roof (shaped like wok ears, apparently) lessens the amount of sunlight beating down on the roof, lowering the temperature indoors. Though such lodgings have since been replaced by high rise apartments in walled-off housing estates, a handful of them still exists in the New Territories, unsullied by time and convention.

Chinese tong lau in the foreground, distinct from the British property in the background. Tai Ping Shan circa 1870. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

After the British came in the mid-1800s, simple villages weren’t enough to accommodate the booming population, giving rise to the multi-storey tong lau (唐樓). These tenement buildings are stairs-only, have shops on the ground floor, and open balconies to ease the subtropical heat.

The tong lau, too, hails from Lingnan, but unlike its more conservative architectural siblings, it’s heavily influenced by European designs. Early tong lau had granite-capped balustrades and French windows, and later ones boasted mosaic floor tiles and terrazzo staircases.

These buildings used to be pretty short at two to four stories high, but hit a growth spurt following an influx of Chinese immigrants in the 1950s and grew to around 10 stories (all without a lift!). Its glory days were short-lived, however; there were just too many people in the city, and most tong lau were demolished a decade later to make room for high-rise apartments.

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The Old Supreme Court Building is also known as the Court of Final Appeal Building and served as the Legislative Council building from 1985 to 2011. It is a declared monument today. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Flamboyant or functional?

On the non-residential side, the British began setting up colonial-style buildings from the late 1800s onwards. These were elegant structures with marked Neoclassical, Victorian, or Edwardian architectural styles, but with minor changes such as wooden shutters and verandas to ease the city’s clammy heat. A number of them are concentrated in the Central District where all the British gathered, as it used to be (and still is) Hong Kong’s economic and political capital.

The Old Supreme Court Building is a renowned surviving example: Built in 1912, it’s supported by Greco-Victorian columns and bears a carving of the British Royal Coat of Arms, but it also sports a double-layered Chinese tile roof and a verandah for better circulation. So the next time you hunt for century-old colonial-style buildings on the Island, see if you can spot these subtle bits of syncretism.

The simple, blockish, but functional City Hall building. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But as globalisation swept the world by storm in the 1900s, Hong Kong architecture acquired an international taste that begot a complete makeover. You see, modernist architecture is the archenemy of the British style. The former argues that form should follow function so buildings should be as minimalist as possible, while the latter emphasises grandiose and ornaments. Maybe this new global trend wasn’t as visually charming, but it saved space and got the job done in an increasingly crowded city.

This is reflected in the straightforward Bauhaus design of the Central Market, and the curvy but no-frills Streamline Moderne design of the Wan Chai Market. The archetypal example, though, would be the drab City Hall building in Central in all its austere, geometrical glory. Many government buildings designed during and after this period would follow the functional trend and retain their blocky looks as well.

Mei Foo Sun Chuen today. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A race to the top

In the meantime, buildings across Hong Kong were steadily climbing in height. High-rise commercial buildings popped up one by one in business districts, and residential buildings followed after the Buildings Ordinance of 1955 lifted their height limit to make room for the overwhelming influx of refugees fleeing the Cultural Revolution.

Hong Kong’s first public housing estate was also built around that time in a similarly chunky fashion and only had public bathrooms. In comparison, the first private housing estate in the city—Mei Foo Sun Chuen—developed soon after, and the 99-tower complex bagged the record for the largest private housing development in the world then.

Can you spot the rooftop cannons? Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Competition grew even more fierce near the end of the century as big corporations wrestled for the spotlight in Hong Kong’s emerging skyline. Modern masterpieces such as the HSBC Building and the Bank of China Building use sundry contemporary architectural styles that stress individual aesthetics and professionalism, as well as subtle symbolism.

For instance, the angular rising form of the Bank of China building parallels the bamboo, a Chinese symbol for growth and prosperity. Critics thought its sharp angles would bring bad feng shui, so the HSBC Building installed two maintenance cranes in the shape of cannons on the roof and pointed it at its inauspicious neighbour to ward off the “negative energy.”

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Photo: Wpcpey (via Wikimedia Commons)

A walk through concrete gardens

Lately, new buildings have taken a self-reflective turn. Perhaps it struck people that the hyper-commercial concrete jungle needed a breather, and more innovative cultural and green spaces with energy-efficient designs are debuting in the city.

First, there was Science Park that aimed to foster technological innovation, then historical buildings such as Tai Kwun in Central and PMQ in Sheung Wan were remodelled to be reused as centres for the arts. A most ambitious ongoing project now would be the West Kowloon Cultural District, a sprawling cultural hub and green space smack across Victoria Harbour.

Now that you know, the next time you go for a stroll on the streets, keep an eye out for the endless rows of buildings and try to label which time period they’re from. And as Hong Kong remodels or—in a more unfortunate scenario, tears down—old buildings to make way for new ones, who knows what kind of architecture we will see in the future?

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Ngai Yeung


Ngai was born and raised in Hong Kong and is currently studying at university in the United States. You can find her wandering around the city, experimenting with egg recipes and nerding out about the news.