Header image courtesy of Hong Kong Library MMIS (via Wikimedia Commons)
At the rate that Hong Kong evolves and advances, there is no avoiding the eternal wrestling match between cultural heritage preservation and modernisation. No matter how hard we endeavour to save precious pieces of our city’s past from being torn down, some history-steeped infrastructure are bound to meet their fate of being demolished, to pave way for new development. Yet, even though they no longer have a tangible presence, it does not mean that they have been erased from the pages of our history. Let’s take a step back in time and revisit some of the most iconic Hong Kong buildings whose legacies have outlived their utilities.
The Kowloon-Canton Railway Terminus was the bustling epicentre of public transport for the better half of the twentieth century. Now, all that’s left to remember the former transit hub is the iconic clock tower standing on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront. First opened in 1916, the Kowloon-Canton Railway Terminus was equally functional as it was aesthetically pleasing, recognisable by its Edwardian-style, red-brick façade, triangular pediment, and magnificent white granite columns.
As the number of daily commuters skyrocketed over the decades, the station eventually outgrew its original site, relocating to the expanded Hung Hom location in 1975 where it still remains to this day. While the old terminal building was ultimately demolished in 1978, its hallmark clock tower was salvaged from the brink of demolition thanks to vehement calls for its preservation.
If you’re thinking that the name sounds like a vacation home fit for royalty, you are not far off. Perched on an idyllic plateau near the summit of the famous Victoria Peak, Mountain Lodge once served as the summer residence of the Governor of Hong Kong during colonial times.
Between 1867 and 1946, two versions of the lodge were built—the first being a European-style bungalow that was demolished after suffering multiple hits from typhoons, while its successor was a handsome two-storey complex that looked something like a Renaissance-style palace. As if its architectural appeal were not enough, the mountaintop home also offered some of the most grand-sweeping views of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.
Although the building was pulled down in 1946 after the Second World War, the site continued to pay homage to the once-prestigious residential address, turning into a spacious garden brimming with period features like colourful flowerbeds and Victorian-style pavilions. Today, Victoria Peak Garden has become a popular haunt for picnickers and nature lovers, who come for a slice of tranquillity and a taste of the location’s stately past.
Of the various incarnations of the General Post Office that have been successively erected and dismantled in our city, the 1911 old General Post Office has been by far the hardest one to let go. Introduced in 1911 at the junction of Pedder Street and Des Voeux Road Central, the formal postal headquarters was hailed as the most beautiful building in Hong Kong—and it wasn’t hard to see why. The imposing four-storey structure was marvellously outfitted in English Renaissance architecture—a grand visual symphony of exaggerated arches, rusticated pillars, and Gothic towers.
Unfortunately, even its beauty could not save the post office from being razed to the ground. After 65 years of service, the city finally bid the architectural treasure farewell in 1976 so that the Central MTR station could be built. The new (and now current) General Post Office was then resurrected on Connaught Place where it’s closer to the waterfront.
Erected at the turn of the twentieth century in the exclusive neighbourhood of Mid-Levels, Marble Hall was once home to prominent British property tycoon Sir Catchick Paul Chater. A pure marvel inside and out, the mansion-like Victorian complex showed off a stuccoed brick façade and extravagant verandas, while the interiors were decked out in imported European marble, along with elements of teal and mahogany.
The artfully designed building was primed to be a lasting legacy, even as its ownership was passed on to the government after Chater and his wife passed away. Yet, all came to an abrupt end when Marble Hall accidentally caught fire and burned down in 1946. In a single instance, the opulent marbled residence was tragically reduced to ruins. It was thereupon left abandoned for several years, before the last of its derelict remains were taken down in 1953 and replaced by new government houses.
Occupying the illustrious harbourside address of the present-day Peninsula Hotel, Hongkong Hotel opened doors in 1868 as the city’s very first five-star hotel. The venerable edifice was modelled after top-tier hotels in London, awash in pristine white and fitted with keyhole-shaped arches that evoke neoclassical grandeur.
Compounded with stellar hospitality and harbour views to match, the maiden luxury hotel was met with tremendous acclaim. After extending from four to six storeys in the late 1880s, it further cemented its legendary status by claiming the title of the tallest building in Hong Kong, which held up for close to 50 years!
However, luck was not on its side for long. The Hongkong Hotel met its fiery end on New Year’s Day in 1926, when the building caught fire and its north wing was lost to raging flames. Following the incident, the hotel’s popularity drastically plummeted and its tarnished reputation never fully regained its lustre, leading to its ill-fated closure in 1952.
Who knew that palatial stone castles reminiscent of those in medieval Europe had a place in Hong Kong’s history? In the early twentieth century, Chinese tycoon Eu Tong Sen built a string of castles across the city, allegedly as per the instruction of a soothsayer who told him that the key to his longevity was to keep building.
The most well-known amongst them was Eucliffe in Repulse Bay, a 105,000-square-foot behemoth comprising a domed main building, three connecting towers, and plenty of lush grounds and recreational facilities to boot. When the castle wasn’t occupied by Eu and his family, it would regularly host galas, balls, and even fashion shows, garnering much attention from the city’s affluent circles.
It was all glitz and glamour until the Second World War when the Japanese army overran the castle turned the site into an execution ground. Rumoured to be haunted thereafter, the castle subsequently fell into disrepair. Nonetheless, it remained standing–eerily beautiful–for several more decades, often used as a film set for television shows and movies. With the property eventually sold off by Eu’s offspring in the 1970s, the castle was finally torn down in 1988.
Befitting its regal namesake of Queen Victoria, the late-nineteenth-century Queen’s Building was once exalted as the most prestigious commercial building in Hong Kong. Gracefully embellishing the then-newly reclaimed Central waterfront, the striking arcaded Victorian structure was four storeys tall, and featured porticos, balconies, and arches aplenty.
As the tenants mostly consisted of European firms in shipping, insurance, and trading sectors, the building attracted heavy traffic among Westerners and upper-class businessmen. It’s no wonder that the entrance later became a happy hunting ground for rickshaws and sedan chairs!
As modern commercial development progressed, the government knocked down the colonial building in 1963 with the intention of replacing it with an office tower, but the plan was ultimately scrapped and the site was converted into the present-day Mandarin Oriental Hotel.