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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of tong lau, the colourful tenement building in Hong Kong

By Janice Lam 26 October 2021

Header image courtesy to Wing1990hk (via Wikimedia Commons)

Walk down any street in Hong Kong and you are bound to find short building blocks crowded together. Some colourful, others plain, but all of them in shabby disrepair, these buildings comprise a stark sight against the skyline of skyscrapers in Hong Kong. Known as tong lau (唐樓), the name evokes a sense of obsolescence or unsanitary disarray, all compacted into narrow stairwells and crowded living quarters. Composed of all walks of life and home to various kinds of businesses, the humble, modernist architecture has borne witness to Hong Kong’s development in the past century. Here’s the story of the tong lau, the multi-storey tenement building that graces the streets of Hong Kong.

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A complex history

The definition of the tong lau—or Chinese tenement building—comes differently to everyone. Some believe it means that the tenants of the tong lau were mostly Chinese, giving rise to the name, as opposed to the Western-style tenement building (洋樓; jeong4 lau4). But officially, tong lau is vaguely defined as “any buildings that are rented out to one or more tenants,” encompassing a wide variety of buildings standing in Hong Kong.

The earliest models of the tong lau came into being during the Victorian period to accommodate the immigrant labour force. Tong lau buildings have long functioned as “shophouses,” where the ground floor was used as a shopfront and upper floors were residential areas. Tong lau at the time were built with wooden structures, green brick walls, and pitched tiled roofs. They were generally not over four storeys tall and notably built in a back-to-back style, causing poor lighting and ventilation. The inconvenient lack of lifts, the subpar living conditions of coffin and cage homes, and the prevalence of “one floor one” sex workers (一樓一鳳; jat1 lau4 jat1 fung6) all give the tong lau a bad name.

In 1894, severe bubonic plague broke out in Hong Kong, which the cramped and unhygienic living conditions in tong lau exacerbated. This led the Hong Kong colonial government to enforce building regulations on tong lau: alleyways were required between each building, the buildings also needed to have larger windows installed, and there was a limitation of the building’s height to allow more sunlight on the street. Under the new laws, back-to-back tong lau buildings were forbidden and slowly became extinct.

120 Wellington Street, which was once the home of the time-honoured Wing Woo Grocery (永和號; wing5 wo4 hou6), is the only intact tong lau built in the Victorian period and has been listed as a Grade I historic building. Vestiges of the first-generation tong lau were also discovered along Cochrane Street, Central, with exposed green-brick wall structures of a group of back-to-back buildings still in place.

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An extension in time

In the late seventeenth century, a different breed of tong lau emerged under the regulations and new architectural trends. Reinforced concrete was used as another major building material, along with the traditional bricks and wood. The Guangzhou-style verandah (騎樓; ke4 lau4)—the residential upper floors are held by pillars, forming a shelter over the ground-floor shop—also grew popular amongst this new wave of tong lau. Despite the name, the origin of the verandah style is debatable. Some scholars even argue that the use of the term “Guangzhou-style verandah” began in Hong Kong before it became popular in Guangzhou!

Woo Cheong Pawn Shop in Wan Chai, for one, was built in 1888 with a “Guangzhou-style verandah.” Blue House, built in the same era, has no verandah, but only smaller balconies with iron railings. This might be because of the mixed purposes of the Blue House at the time of building, as opposed to Woo Cheong Pawn Shop’s sole commercial use.

Around the corner comes change

Starting from around the 1930s, there was a rise of the Art Deco style amongst Hong Kong architecture. Architects grew conscious of the appearance and overall aesthetics of the buildings—tong lau buildings included. The mix between Chinese and Western architectural styles also became more prominent in tong lau.

Other than a change in style, some of the most iconic corner houses were also built during this era. After the building of verandahs over pedestrian roads was permitted, developers took advantage of the policy and made the most out of the street corners by building verandahs and expanding the overall sizes of the buildings. There are two kinds of corner buildings—right-angled and rounded. The latter is believed to be based on feng shui superstition that roundness depicts a wish for harmony and peace in the neighbourhood. 

Most corner buildings later became composite buildings—clusters of tong lau that house both residents and businesses, including Chinese medicine clinics and guesthouses.

Lui Seng Chun is one of the oldest corner buildings in Hong Kong. Compliant with the Art Deco style, its rounded verandahs are sealed in with prominent windows. The curves of the Peony House and the vibrant colours of the Chung Wui Mansion are also unique takes on the Hong Kong corner building.

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A new division

After the Second World War, a wave of immigrants rushed to Hong Kong from mainland China, creating a huge demand for housing and jobs. In response, the government loosened a lot of the earlier restrictions on building tong lau, especially in terms of height, to take in as many residents as possible. Tong lau at the time could go up to eight storeys. But in 1969, it was seen that the taller buildings were blocking sunlight on the streets. The government imposed some regulations regarding the street shadow area, leading developers to build tong lau with stair-like setback upper floors. This was also when the concept of sub-divided units came into light. Usually, one person would rent the whole apartment as the “landlord or landlady” (包租公/包租婆; baau1 zou1 gung1/baau1 zou1 po4), divide the apartments into smaller units, and sublet the units to other families.

The understairs shop was another architectural phenomenon that emerged in the post-war period and is a testimony of Hong Kong people’s ingenuity. Found in tong lau that were not built in the style of shophouses, small businesses would make use of the meagre space on the ground floor beneath the staircase, providing everyday services such as watch repair, haircutting, or selling snacks or trinkets.

Although seen as unauthorised structures and a blockage, understairs shops are often seen as an essential ring in the social chain in the neighbourhood. The shops are permitted to remain as long as they abide by the fire services ordinance, but they are quickly fizzling out due to repossessions and the lack of heirs.

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A place in the future?

Given the ubiquity of tong lau buildings in the city, it is impossible for them to not be a common setting for movies about Hong Kong. The recognisable tong lau rooftops are particularly popular among filmmakers, appearing in critically acclaimed productions such as Made in Hong Kong (香港製造).

Tong lau buildings are still very much a significant part of the Hong Kong street view. While several are being listed as historic buildings as a means of preservation and prepared for revitalisation, many more are being demolished to make space for modern buildings. Voices in society bargain for tong lau buildings to stay, believing that they hold significance in Hong Kong history, but there is also a widespread concern regarding the structural integrity of older tong lau buildings, especially after the fatal collapse of a tong lau at 45 Ma Tau Wai Road in 2010.

Despite the debate, it is undoubted that tong lau has been a vessel of the many lives and stories born in Hong Kong.

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Janice Lam

Former editorial intern

A passionate writer, a curious learner, a pineapple enthusiast—these are just some of the identities Janice has taken up. In her free time, you can usually find her in her room obsessing over a new show, making a new playlist, or getting lost in her thoughts. When she’s in the mood, she can spend an entire day walking around a neighbourhood, searching for inspiration and food.

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