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Hidden Hong Kong: 6 iconic Hong Kong landmarks worth remembering

By Catharina Cheung 11 November 2019

Header image courtesy of @aeste / Flickr

With the unstoppable tide of consumerism, Westernisation, gentrification, and urbanisation that has characterised the last four decades or so, Hong Kong has seen many of its previous cultural institutions shunted aside to make way for newer, shinier, and more profitable builds. Here are six famous Hong Kong landmarks that have had their heyday, and now only live on in Hongkongers’ hearts and memories. Gone, but never forgotten!

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The Eu family castles

Eu Tong Sen was a Chinese tycoon who emigrated to Malaya and made his fortune in the tin trade and rubber farming business during the 1880s. He started dispensing Chinese herbal medicines to his staff on the plantations, and this led to the founding of the Eu Yan Sang brand of traditional Chinese medicine, which is still prevalent to this day in Hong Kong, Macau, China, Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia.

By the age of 30, Eu had already become one of the richest men in the region and established the Lee Wah Bank in 1920, which operated in Guangdong, Malaya, and Singapore. The tycoon moved to Hong Kong in 1927 where—rumour has it—he met a soothsayer who told him he has to keep building if he wanted to live a long life. Eu proceeded to do exactly that and built three stunning castles and iconic landmarks across Hong Kong.

The main residence Euston, on Bonham Road, was modelled after 14th-century English castles, complete with turrets, crenellations, and battlements. It measured almost 39,000 square feet, with approximately 60 rooms split between the main building and the east and west wings. The central section of the house was six storeys high, and it became the first residential house in Hong Kong to have an elevator installed.

The property enjoyed a stunning view of the harbour and Kowloon and was filled to the brim with antique art and furniture from Eu’s travels. Most of the sculptures and stone figures in Euston were done by Italian sculptor Raoul Bigazzi from Florence. Euston Court now stands on the site of where the castle used to be.

Eucliffe (sometimes spelt Eucliff) was the most famous of Eu’s castles due to its prominence as the gathering site of Hong Kong’s well-heeled social scene. Located in Repulse Bay, it was the Eu family’s summer home, measuring just over 105,000 square feet. It consisted of a main building with a dome and three connecting towers, lush grounds, swimming pools, tennis courts, and a collection of antique western armour, as well as beautiful stained glass windows.

Like in Euston, Eucliffe was furnished with a selection of Bigazzi sculptures. Hong Kong’s elite crowd were drawn to the opulent property, and the castle hosted countless parties, galas, balls, and even a fashion show or two. Sadly, the Japanese army commandeered the castle during the Occupation and executed prisoners on its grounds. Shrouded with ill omen, Eucliffe then fell into disrepair and served as a movie and television set for some time before being demolished.

The third castle, Sirmio, sat in the hills near Tai Po, overlooking the Tolo Harbour. This was Eu’s country getaway, measuring approximately 693,000 square feet, and was interestingly modelled after a German Schloss but named after an ancient Italian village that he had visited. Sirmio had a large number of clocks and artwork on display (Eu was an avid collector of both), and a bomb shelter built into the mountainside large enough to fit the Eu family, all the staff, and several months’ worth of provisions.

The castle served as a filming set as well in its later years—the 1984 horror film The Ghost Informer starring Tony Leung Ka-fai, and The Headhunter from the early 1980s starring Chow Yun Fat both showed Sirmio’s interiors and exteriors. The site on which it stood is now approximately where Fortune Garden is.

Eu had five wives, an unknown number of concubines, and at least 34 recorded children, and they were split between his various residences. Aged 63, he passed away on the Sirmio premises in 1941 and all three castles were demolished by the 1980s. All that’s left of these three beautiful estates, private collections notwithstanding, are a few relics in the Eu Yan Seng headquarters in Central—an outdoor wall scone from Euston and a statue of a knight and horse from Eucliffe—and the Eu Yan Seng branch in Tsim Sha Tsui—two big bronze lions that used to stand guard outside Eucliffe.

Eucliffe can be seen in this clip from 00:47 to 01:15

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By Catharina Cheung 14 February 2020
By Catharina Cheung 4 November 2019

Repulse Bay Hotel

The Repulse Bay Hotel was opened in 1920, back when there wasn’t even a road leading from town into Hong Kong’s southside yet. Interestingly, before automobiles even made it into Repulse Bay, air transport had already been inaugurated, with five American surplus seaplanes departing from the bay. The socialites of the city were much taken with the hotel, which hosted orchestral concerts, as well as dining and dancing well into the night.

The Repulse Bay had a total of 84 rooms, with almost 200,000 square feet of gardens. During the Japanese Occupation, British troops used the hotel to keep the road between Stanley and Aberdeen open but later had to abandon it to the encroaching forces. After the surrender, it was used a British barracks for a while, before being restored. They launched what was then considered the best buffet spread in Asia, and remained popular among the upper classes, royalty, and artists alike. The hotel has counted Marlon Brando, Ava Gardner, William Holden, Ernest Hemingway, and Greece’s Prince Don Carlos and Princess Sophie among its guests.

It was eventually demolished in 1982, though replica residential housing and a commercial arcade were built in the exact same location in 1986, aptly called the Repulse Bay. The Verandah restaurant looks just like the old Repulse Bay Hotel, and also serves a great buffet spread as a nod to its history. A visit there will count you among diners the likes of the late Leslie Cheung, Prince Charles, and Princess Diana.

Kowloon Walled City

The Kowloon Walled City was truly one of Hong Kong’s most interesting chapters of history. It was a breeding ground for crime, drugs, debauchery, and illegal trade. Architecturally, it was constructed in a totally haphazard manner, with residents simply adding things on as and when they needed. The result was a mishmash of blocks practically leaning against each other, tiny alleys with water piping and electricity cables running exposed overhead, and a range of rooftops overrun with reception antenna and clotheslines—not a hint of organisation, but very authentic in its organic construction. An extensive network of staircases and dingy passageways formed on the upper levels, and one could travel through the entire length of the City without ever touching the ground below.

The Walled City was thought to have its own legal system outside Hong Kong jurisdiction. In fact, the enclave had been excluded from the treaty colonising Hong Kong and therefore still belonged to China for a year before being covered by the British unilateral treaty of 1898. This was largely ignored or unrecognised by the locals, and after several unsuccessful attempts to wrestle the KWC into submission, the authorities simply gave up.

The whole area, therefore, devolved into a lawless shanty town, rife with triad activity, prostitution, and illegal dealings. Businesses who could not get proper licensing or afford rent elsewhere in the city would set up shop illegally in the Walled City—it became the place to go to for cheap dentistry.

After an arduous eviction process, the Kowloon Walled City was fully demolished in 1994, and the Kowloon Walled City Park erected in its place. Some remnants of its gritty past remain, such as the yamen building, three old wells, and part of the southern gates. The anarchic urbanism of the Walled City is a testament to the sheer tenacity of its occupants and is an interesting page of Hong Kong’s history that should be well remembered.

Kai Tak Airport

Kai Tak was Hong Kong’s international airport from 1925 until 1998 before being replaced by Chek Lap Kok. Its runway was framed by numerous skyscrapers and mountains to the north, so the airport was notorious for being a demanding one to land in. In fact, the History Channel ranked Kai Tak as the sixth most dangerous airport in the world in the program Most Extreme Airports. Anybody who has flown into Hong Kong during that time will no doubt remember the hair-raising descent into the airport—you could literally see into people’s homes along Kowloon Bay, and at times it seemed as if the plane’s wings would actually clip the buildings.

The name Kai Tak has lived on as one of the names used in the list of tropical cyclone names in the northwest Pacific Ocean. It was submitted by Hong Kong and used four times before being retired in 2018. The former Kai Tak airport runway has since been converted into a cruise terminal with the capacity to berth two large 1,180-foot-long vessels. Apart from retail and F&B facilities, the terminal interior also houses venues for performances, events, and exhibitions, as well as a go-kart racecourse, a bowling alley and snooker hall, a golf range, and other recreational facilities. The building features a number of energy-saving designs, such as power generation from renewable sources, and using recycled rainwater for the cooling systems.

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Haw Par Villa Gardens

Haw Par Villa, also known as the Tiger Balm Gardens, was a mansion with garden grounds situated in Tai Hang. It was built by Burmese Chinese tycoon Aw Boon Haw in 1935 and opened to the public in the early 1950s as one of Hong Kong’s first theme parks. The concept of this strange and surreal park was a homage to Chinese culture and folklore, as well as to teach lessons on Buddhist morality.

For example, a section of the park featured a soul’s journey through hell; visitors passed through a gate flanked by ‘Ox Head’ and ‘Horse Face’—the traditional guardians of the underworld—and walked through numerous statues and tableaux of sinners being punished for their various transgressions in life, rendered in vivid colours and details. Imagine wandering through dimly-lit grottos featuring people being fried in vats of boiling oil, having their tongues cut out, or being made to endlessly climb mountains made of sharp blades. If that all sounds vaguely terrifying, that’s because it was supposed to be; the park wanted its visitors to understand the horrors that await and to turn over new leaves before it’s too late. The park’s other sections were thankfully much less dark, with a seven-storey pagoda as the focal point.

The Tiger Balm Gardens have mostly been demolished and replaced by luxury housing; only the mansion and a small garden remain of the heritage site following a three-year renovation. The Haw Par Mansion, a Grade 1 historic building, now serves as a centre teaching Western and Chinese music, while the garden features a fountain, Chinese pavilions, and a few figures salvaged from the old Tiger Balm Garden. Walk-in visitors can only access the mansion’s entrance hall and part of the first floor, so we’d recommend booking into a free tour to see the rest of one of the quirkiest landmarks in Hong Kong.

Lai Yuen Amusement Park

Opened in 1949 in Lai Chi Kok, Lai Yuen was once the largest amusement park in the city. It featured amusement rides such as a Ferris wheel, bumper cars, ghost house with distorted mirrors, and much more, as well as Hong Kong’s first ice skating rink and a ‘snow garden’ in winter—a huge deal for most people who haven’t seen snow before. Apart from fairground attractions, there was also a zoo which operated between 1951 and 1993, featuring lions, a binturong, saltwater crocodiles, a giraffe, and a Siberian tiger. The Lai Chi Kok Zoo also housed several crocodiles, which were sired from the world’s largest crocodile recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records. Their star attraction was an Asian elephant named Tino, which used to be part of a circus and was later given to the zoo.

Lai Yuen still resides fondly in the memories of many Hongkongers who spent their childhoods wheedling at their parents for visits. After running for nearly half a century, it faced too much competition from the newer and larger Ocean Park and was closed and demolished in 1997. The amusement park has since returned in carnival pop-ups, such as on the Central Harbourfront and at the AsiaWorld-Expo. Part of Lai Yuen can still be experienced in Cuisine 1949, a Cantonese diner in D2 Place TWO, where the iconic Coffee Cup and Flying Dragon rides have been repurposed into seating booths. The 50-year-old carousel from the old park is also on display as a showpiece in the restaurant.

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.

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