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Your ultimate Hong Kong Island tour through the decades

By Mina Chan 28 July 2022

Header image courtesy of ken93110 (via Wikimedia Commons)

We live and breathe Hong Kong, but do we know the stories behind the many places we take for granted? If you are looking for something to do on the weekends, why not go on a tour and appreciate some of Hong Kong’s cultural sites, all encased in history? 

We have designed a tour through the decades that will have you scuttling all over Hong Kong Island to eat, look, and learn about the different ways the city has thrived over the past century. Each destination featured was selected for its historical significance or as a representation of Hong Kong culture with origins in the related time period.

Suggestion: You can do this in chronological order over a span of several days, or select a few locations that you are interested in. Your tour, your choice!

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Photo: Peachyeung316 (via Wikimedia Commons)
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Nineteenth century: Yum cha at Lin Heung Tea House

Start your tour on a full stomach with Hongkongers’ favourite weekend activity: yum cha (飲茶). Meaning “drink tea” in Cantonese, the practice was developed during the Qing dynasty, when weary travellers would stop at teahouses to replenish themselves with food and tea. It eventually evolved into a shared communal activity, where friends and family would catch up over small cups of tea and plenty of baskets of piping hot dim sum.

Today, hungry diners can enjoy dim sum and tea anytime during the day, but yum cha in the morning has remained a cultural tradition. We recommend travelling to the renowned Lin Heung Tea House, established in 1926, a bustling restaurant that evokes the olden days.

Lin Heung Tea House, 160–164 Wellington Street, Central

Photo: NAU JAG 202 HWOAM (via Wikimedia Commons)
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1900s: Wander the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware

After drinking tea, you can learn about it at the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware to educate yourselves on the tea you just sipped, and the teaware you sipped it from. The museum introduces the history and culture of Chinese tea drinking and features teaware from the Western Zhou dynasty all the way to the twentieth century. It also hosts the occasional workshops, lectures, and demonstrations, available here.

Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, 10 Cotton Tree Drive, Central

Photo: Yanming Kwaong 630 (via Wikimedia Commons)
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1910s: Watch a Chinese opera performance at the Sunbeam Theatre

Chinese opera was well-established in colonial Hong Kong by the turn of the century as a popular form of entertainment in a time before televisions and smartphones. Once held in temporary bamboo sheds, the rising demand for visual entertainment resulted in purpose-built theatres around this decade in the city, including the Tai Ping Theatre, which enjoyed critical acclaim not only in Hong Kong but the entire Guangdong area.

Chinese opera in Hong Kong experienced a golden age in the 1950s with the migration of Shanghainese residents, who also brought their culture to the city. But all good things must end—with the advent of the silver screen, the art form slowly petered out. Few theatres remain today, but the art is thankfully preserved. You can catch an evening show at the Sunbeam Theatre or even the occasional matinee performance around 1 pm.

Sunbeam Theatre, Kiu Fai Mansion, 413–423 King’s Road, North Point

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Photo: Woou Cham Guehmxa Wajole (via Wikimedia Commons)
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1920s: Walk through Tai Kwun

Do you know the history and cultural significance of Tai Kwun? Completed in 1935, the establishment was once known as the Central Police Station Compound and comprised the Central Police Station, the Former Central Magistracy, and the Victoria Prison.

Over the years, the architecture could not withstand the passage of time, and the establishment was eventually closed for renovation in 2008 before reopening its gates in 2018. 16 heritage buildings were successfully restored to preserve their distinctive colonial styles, although other parts of the compound feature more contemporary designs.

Nowadays, the place that was once the CPS Compound has been refashioned into the Centre for Heritage and Arts, where visitors can explore the many art exhibitions, performances, tours, and events that the establishment offers.

Tai Kwun, 10 Hollywood Road, Central

Photo: Chong Fat (via Wikimedia Commons)
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1930s: Visit St Mary’s Church

Did you know that Hong Kong is home to 1.2 million Christians, roughly 16 percent of the total population? Colonial British administration of Hong Kong encouraged a major shift in local religious beliefs in the twentieth century, as well as guiding local culture and architecture—the sheer number of Christian schools and churches scattered across the city serves as a testament to the degree of influence this religion has on Hong Kong.

But not all churches in Hong Kong are Gothic cathedrals, with pointed arches and intricate traceries. Head to HKSKH St Mary’s Church, where the architecture bears a fascinating mixture between Chinese aesthetics and traditional Christian design. Completed in 1937, the building’s Chinese pillars and cloud decorations, combined with the ubiquitously Christian stained-glass windows, make for a uniquely Anglican church found only in Hong Kong. Find some peace and quiet in this house of worship away from the din of the city.

HKSKH St Mary’s Church, 2A Tai Hang Road, Causeway Bay

Photo: Starcopter (via Wikimedia Commons)
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1940s: Commemorate the fallen at the Cenotaph

In the calm of the Cenotaph lie the names of fallen soldiers in wartime. 1941 to 1945 were dark times for Hong Kong and the Japanese occupation resulted in great casualties. Erected in 1923 for the British soldiers who fought during World War I, the Cenotaph is similar to the one created in London for the same purpose, but the names of fallen soldiers who fought in Hong Kong were added to the inscription after World War II.

Today, we still hear about the horrors of World War II in stories passed on by the older generation. Spend some time at the square, a green oasis in the heart of the city, and a site to commemorate the more sombre side of Hong Kong history.

The Cenotaph, Chater Road, Central

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Photo: Minseong Kim (via Wikimedia Commons)
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1950s: Amble through Little Shanghai

The post-war influx of Shanghainese immigrants brought cultural and economic prosperity to Hong Kong, and the city—previously a small trading outpost—was transformed into a manufacturing powerhouse. The immigrants largely settled in North Point, recreating an entertainment scene similar to that of their hometown, thus giving the area the nickname of “Little Shanghai.” Restaurants, dance halls, and theatres lined the neon-lit streets in a cultural melting pot of activity. Today, little remains of the old-world grandeur that was 1950s Little Shanghai, but you can still spot remnants of it in old neighbourhoods like Chun Yeung Street, where vendors sell Shanghainese goods and memorabilia.

Chun Yeung Street, North Point

Photo: Linva Tailor (via Facebook)
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1960s: Buy a cheongsam at Linva

1960s was a great time to be fashionable in Hong Kong. The booming economy, the prospering textile manufacturing industry, and the Shanghainese cultural influx ushered in the golden age of qipao in Hong Kong, where the Chinese dress was à la mode.

The trend was replaced by Western frocks and clothing in the latter part of the decade, but the age-old style remains to this day—you can still see aunties wearing qipaos and cheongsams at weddings and on special occasions, and the younger generation has even taken to cosplaying in cheongsams in all sorts of cuts, patterns, and lengths!

Add a cheongsam (or two) to your wardrobe by visiting Linva Tailor. Established in 1965, Linva is one of Hong Kong’s most famous suppliers of the traditional dress, where you can shop for a garment that has been in fashion and will remain fashionable for years to come.

Linva Tailor, 38 Cochrane Street, Central

Photo: Jackl (via Wikimedia Commons)
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1970s: Spend a day at Ocean Park

Entertainment saw a meteoric rise in Hong Kong in the 1970s, with Bruce Lee putting the city on the map in the decades that followed. Local families, however, were waiting with bated breath for the opening of Ocean Park on 10 January 1977. While Ocean Park is not Hong Kong’s first amusement park (that accolade belongs to Lai Chi Kok Park), its 226 acres, 35 attractions, marine shows, and cable cars were enough to amaze visitors, and it also boasted the largest oceanarium in the world—a cause for excitement for children all over the city.

Today, Ocean Park has more than double the number of attractions, and its rides are more thrilling than ever. Why not take the chance to go on a full-day excursion with your family and friends, and have another look at the theme park through a historical lens?

Ocean Park Hong Kong, 180 Wong Chuk Hang Road, Aberdeen

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Photo: Shauboasiwui CAILIUO (via Wikimedia Commons)
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1980s: Ride the MTR Island line

Let me guess: You have been taking the MTR all along this tour of Hong Kong Island, haven’t you? It is hard not to: Hong Kong’s MTR is the most convenient public transportation system in the city, serving as many as 120,000 passengers on a daily basis. But back in the day, getting anywhere at all meant slower transit methods like trams, buses, and even ferries.

Everything changed with the MTR, first established in 1979, with the Island line between Admiralty and Chai Wan built in 1985. It is not a destination, per se, but the MTR is historically important, and a vital invention that we take for granted. History may be a thing of the past, but aspects of the old Hong Kong remain today in the most unexpected places. Go on a hunt to find the commemorative plaques located within the stops along the Island line, such as the ones in the Tai Koo and Sheung Wan MTR stations.

Photo: Tksteven (via Wikimedia Commons)
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1990s: Enjoy the skyline at the Golden Bauhinia Square

End your tour of Hong Kong Island through the decades with the modern representation of Hong Kong: the bauhinia. Head to Golden Bauhinia Square, where the sculpture acts as a symbol for the 1997 handover from Britain back to China. Beyond that lies the renowned skyline along Victoria Harbour, a visual sign of the city’s modernity and opulence.

It is best to view the skyline from the Golden Bauhinia Square at night, but if you are an early bird, you can even catch the flag-raising ceremony that is held at 8 am every morning.

Golden Bauhinia Square, 1 Expo Drive, Wan Chai

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Mina Chan

Writer

Inquisitive by nature and a lover of all things creative, Mina thrives on exploring the cultural and artistic side of the city. When she isn’t researching (read: obsessing over) the latest niche topic that catches her eye, she enjoys sipping on iced lattes, singing along to her favourite West End musicals, and reading books recommended to her by her friends.

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