Header image courtesy of @no_dream_no_jim (via Instagram)
Anyone who has taken even a cursory stroll through Wan Chai will have noticed the beige, four-storey tong lau (唐樓; Chinese-style tenement building) sitting in the heart of the neighbourhood. Fondly known as the Woo Cheong Pawn Shop, the striking historic building was once home to a famous local pawnshop for over half a century, witnessing the rise and fall of the city’s age-old pawnbroking industry. While the original pawnshop has moved out, its concrete host has withstood the test of time, having been revitalised and transformed into a vibrant dining node. Join us as we take a peep into the history of Woo Cheong Pawn Shop and how it came to be the iconic cultural landmark it is today.
Occupying a prime address along the ever-bustling Johnston Road, Woo Cheong Pawn Shop (和昌大押) has been a permanent fixture in Wan Chai’s business hub since 1888. Constructed as a traditional tong lau shophouse—an architectural style widely embraced in Hong Kong from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century—the elongated building spans 60 to 66 Johnston Road, comprising four adjoining blocks of verandah-type tenement houses.
In the early days, the building accommodated both residential and commercial functions, with the lower floors hosting a string of shops while the upper floors serving as living quarters predominantly for Chinese residents. The erection of the building came in step with the burgeoning Chinese community that began to take root in Wan Chai after the closure of the sprawling colonial mansion Spring Gardens in 1867, which previously attracted mostly wealthy foreigners to the area.
Far from the glamorous high-end complex that it is recognised as today, Woo Cheong Pawn Shop—like most other tong lau—was traditionally associated with the local blue-colour class and a dime a dozen among the sea of other commercial buildings in its time. As such, the shophouses were minimally furnished. They had no toilet facilities and instead relied on bucket latrines that were manually emptied and collected at night.
Although the name Woo Cheong Pawn Shop seems to harken back to the building’s pioneer days, it actually wasn’t until decades later that the famous pawnshop came into existence.
Pawnbroking was no new business in Hong Kong, the practice having been done under the wraps since the early nineteenth century. However, it was only when pawnshops were legalised with official government licensing in 1926 that the industry exploded. Proceeding to emerge as one of the city’s most reputable pawnshop traders is the Lo family, who acquired block 66 of the building on Johnston’s Road and made it their operation base in 1947.
Synergising the established name of the Lo family with the timely, and much-needed facelift that the building received the following year, Woo Cheong Pawn Shop was poised to become a flourishing business. Sure enough, the venture came to fruition and the old tong lau soon thereafter become synonymous with Woo Cheong Pawn Shop, easily recognised from afar by the iconic pawnshop signage—a flashy red-and-green emblem in the shape of a bat holding a coin.
There were, of course, other shops that called the building home. In 1966, the Yu clan bought the neighbouring block 64 and opened up a bird shop on the site. To mark the premise as the clan’s base, they commissioned an inscription bearing the words “The Hong Kong Yu Clansmen” (余氏宗親會 ) in Chinese to be placed on top of the verandah.
Other units in the building were occupied by beauty salons, boutiques, and various small, local shops, most of which were family-run businesses. Yet, while many shops checked in and out throughout the decades, the Lo family’s pawn shop claimed the longest run among all its brethren, leaving an indelible mark on the building’s history.
Even as the traditional pawnbroking industry gradually aged out of its heyday—a phenomenon attributed to the increasing competition from banks and other financial institutions offering quick loaning services—Woo Cheong Pawn Shop continued operating a swift business at the same location for nearly 60 years. Evolving with the change of times, they pivoted towards dealing with luxury commodities like watches, jewellery, and gold, as opposed to household items like clothes, shoes, and electric gadgets, which were commonly pawned back in the day.
Alas, while the business was still up and running, the building was looking a little worse for wear by the turn of the new millennium. It was only a matter of time before the ramshackle structure would face the options of either total demolition or extensive overhaul. Ultimately, in 2003, the Urban Renewal Authority bought out the entirety of 60 to 66 Johnston’s Road as part of the “Johnston Road Redevelopment Project.” Under this large-scale neighbourhood revamp, a total of four pre-war tong lau buildings, including the Woo Cheong Pawn Shop, were to be revitalised and adapted to fulfil modern commercial needs.
You might be wondering, where did that leave the pawnshop? The answer is, not very far away. After the shop’s original property was acquired, they resettled into a new home just a stone’s throw away to the opposite Tai Wong Street East and resumed operations for another 17 years. Upon the expiry of their lease at the end of 2020, Woo Cheong Pawn Shop had to relocate once again. This time, they ventured a little further afield to Tang Lung Street in Causeway Bay, taking over the spot of the existing Wo Fung Pawn Shop (和豐大押).
Meanwhile, the Urban Renewal Authority got to work straight away, pouring over 15 million Hong Kong dollars into revitalisation works. After enduring four years of scaffolding and heavy-duty reconstruction, the century-old edifice was finally unveiled to the public in 2007.
In the process of updating, more elegant and Baroque architectural elements were introduced to what was formerly a distinctively vernacular tong lau, with the addition of large French windows, light wells, and a continuous pedestrian arcade formed by the overhanging balconies. Yet, the original green door and sign on the verandah that reads the pawnshop’s name were kept to pay homage to the building’s history (perhaps to the confusion of customers looking for the business’ then-next-door location).
Matching the building’s fashionable re-design, the new tenants that stepped in were those catering to a higher-end market. The first and second floors turned into a modern British restaurant-and-bar concept named The Pawn, in honour of the site’s predecessor; while the top floor became a quaint public terrace, accessible to anyone looking for a quiet hideaway to relax and take in coveted views of the Wan Chai skyline. For a time, the ground floor housed an upscale home décor store and an Italian restaurant, but both businesses have since closed down.
Not everyone was happy with the way the building fell victim to re-development. There has been significant criticism levelled against the new makeover, particularly with regards to the building’s unapproachable loftiness that seemingly runs counter to its former proletarian spirit and character. With a new contemporary design, the interiors have become practically unrecognisable from its previous incarnation, with little lingering vestiges to testify to the site’s long-standing heritage.
And yet, for all that has changed, the age-old structure has remained a steadfast landmark in Wan Chai’s bustling streetscape, and will continue to be writing its legacy in the years to come, having been listed and protected as a Grade II historic building. Whether you believe that Woo Cheong Pawn Shop has forged a renewed identity for itself or stands only as a shell of its former existence, perhaps all we can do looking forward is to celebrate what has unquestionably become a striking encapsulation of Hong Kong’s dichotomy of tradition and modernity, however the push and pull has manifested.