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Your guide to the Central and Western Heritage Trail

By Lily Valette 22 December 2023

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

With the complex history and rapid, never-ending evolution of Hong Kong, it can be difficult to grasp the region’s history, geography, and urbanism. Streets, shops, and people say a lot about the unique culture that makes Hong Kong such a rich environment in which history and life collide. However, architecture can also play an important role in sharing what once was. 

For this reason, anyone who loves learning more about Hong Kong would do well to tackle the city’s heritage trails. Of the ones scattered around Hong Kong, let us explore the Central and Western routes, which take us around an area that was developed early on. The Central and Western Heritage Trail is divided into three routes: the Central Route, the Sheung Wan Route, and the Western District and Peak Route.

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Central in 1895. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Central Route

The Central Route, itself divided into three sections, will take you from Edinburgh Place, through the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, to Pedder Street. While walking around the area, you will come across memorial stones, historical buildings, and commemorative plaques.

Section A

To begin your hike through time and history, head over to Edinburgh Place where City Hall is today. With a little imagination (and the help of an old picture), you can imagine where the old Star Ferry pier and clock tower stood until its demolition and relocation in 2006. The first landmark to look for is the memorial built to honour fallen World War II soldiers. Close by, the 1923 Cenotaph also remembers those who died in both world wars.

Next up, walk the short distance to Statue Square. Despite its name, the only statue left in this pedestrian square today is one of Sir Thomas Jackson, a chief manager of HSBC. However, the square has historically housed statues of many royal members, including the statue of Queen Victoria that now lives in Victoria Park. Maybe more striking than the statue is the Neoclassical architecture of the Court of Final Appeal, built in 1912!

While you’re in the area, take a moment to look up. No doubt you will quickly recognise the Bank of China Tower. What might surprise you, however, is learning that Murray House once stood where the 315-metre skyscraper now reaches to the skies! Back when it was constructed in 1846, Murray House served as officers’ quarters first, and then as government offices later in the twentieth century. The Victorian building has since been dismantled and relocated to the Stanley Promenade, housing shops and restaurants.

Looking around the area today, it is difficult to picture historical Western-style buildings instead of skyscrapers. Central was among the first neighbourhoods to be developed right after the British Empire settled in Hong Kong; therefore, many institutional centres and social hubs were chosen to be built there. The old Hong Kong Club, the old Hong Kong Cricket Club, and the first City Hall all used to stand where the current Hong Kong Club building, Chater Garden, and Cheung Kong Centre are now.

A short six-minute walk away from Statue Square, the Central Route takes you to observe two buildings that are satisfyingly still standing today! On Battery Path, the Former French Mission Building, a granite and red-brick Neoclassical mansion, has housed many official departments before being declared a monument in 1989. Somewhat hidden but not to be missed on Garden Road, St John’s Cathedral is the oldest remaining Christian heritage building in Hong Kong.

Section B

The Flagstaff House, now housing the Museum of Tea Ware, is the oldest Western-style building that still stands in our city, and it is where Section B of the Central Route begins. The 1846 construction is located on Cotton Tree Drive, a road that is also home to the Rawlinson House Marriage Registry. For your next stop, you will have to venture further into the Mid-Levels neighbourhood to find the Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre. The current building—like many other heritage edifices—is a repurposed building that used to house married officers. However, its modern glass ceiling lobby makes it stand out among other similar structures.

While you are walking along Kennedy Road, don’t miss the impressive structures of St Joseph College’s North and West blocks dating back to 1918 and 1920, nor that of the Renaissance-style office of the former chief executives of the HKSAR.

Walking westward, you will find St Paul’s Co-Educational College and the Hong Kong branch of the first Church of Christ on MacDonnell Road, before passing through the beautiful Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, first opened to the public in 1864. You might want to take your time there; the 5.6 hectares of the park are well worth a few hours of your time. Section B comes to a close at the Garden Road Peak Tram Lower Terminus, a historical and industrial landmark adjacent to The Helena May women club and hostel, built in 1916.

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Section C

After touring Mid-Levels, join Section C of the Central route, a path comprised of buildings you probably walk by frequently if you live or work on Hong Kong Island. As the official residence of Hong Kong’s chief executive, and having housed the highest officials since 1855, Government House is the starting point of this section. On Caine Road, the Roman-Gothic Cathedral of Immaculate Conception is one of five cathedrals in Hong Kong.

Making your way back to the heart of Central, it is time to visit Tai Kwun. Now a cultural centre, it is composed of the former Victoria Prison, the former Central Magistracy, and the former Central Police Station, all declared monuments and open to the public. Close by, on Lyndhurst Terrace, Stanley Street, and D’Aguilar Street are the locations of Dr Sun Yat-sen’s favourite Xing Yan Lou Western Restaurant, the original site of the China Daily office, and a commemorative plaque for the respected Filipino doctor Jose Rizal.

On to more concrete landmarks, walk by the recognisable Old Dairy Farm Building in all its striped glory, the Bishop’s House, and St Paul’s Church. Quite simple, but loaded with history, the heritage trail then takes you to the Duddell Street steps and gas lamps, which are the only ones still remaining in Hong Kong! As you make your way towards the end of the Central Route, go towards Pedder Street to visit the old site of the now-demolished clock tower, and admire the old-school Pedder Building. Look for the plaques commemorating the original waterfront in 1841, and the Praya Reclamations of 1843 and of 1890. Like us, you will find it difficult to picture that the harbour was once so close to Queen’s Road, or that a four-storey post office stood where the tall World Wide House is today…

The Sheung Wan Route

The Sheung Wan Route is a neighbourhood walk that goes from Jubilee Street to Queen’s Road West through Bonham Road.

Section A

The official starting point of Section A of the Sheung Wan Route is the old site of the Central Fire Station where the Hang Seng Bank headquarters stand today. More impressive—because still visible today—and a landmark of its own, the Central Market is a modernised highlight of the Central and Western Heritage Trail. Ditch the Central–Mid-Levels escalator and climb the infamous stone-slab steps of Pottinger Street instead!

Most of the next recommended stops mainly make up the rich Dr Sun Yat-sen Historical Trail, as well as a commemorative plaque for Dr James Legge, an expert in English and Chinese language and a key player in Hong Kong’s educational system in the nineteenth century.

If you are more of a visual person, hop from the 1849 Jamia Mosque, complete with a minaret, on Shelley Street to the 1902 Ohel Leah synagogue and to the London Mission Building, both on Robinson Road. The imposing Kom Tong Hall on Castle Road, now home to the Dr Sun Yat-sen Museum, is worth a visit to gain a glimpse into the life and work of the famed revolutionary who studied in Hong Kong.

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Section B

In a quieter part of Sheung Wan and West Mid-Levels, Section B of the Central and Western Heritage Trail has its share of historical edifices. The route starts at the well-known Man Mo Temple dedicated to the gods of literature and martial arts. It continues up to the Chinese red-brick construction of the YMCA, all the way back to the Western Market. Higher still, on Caine Lane, the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Science offers insights into the city’s health and vaccine history. You’ll have reached the highest point of this section at Caine Road Garden, a green area that once housed the police officers’ quarters. From there, you get a view of the peculiar neo-Gothic architecture of Hop Yat Church.

Start the descent and make a stop by Blake Garden to look for the plaque commemorating the outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1894, an epidemic that hit Tai Ping Shan district the hardest. Along the narrow Tai Ping Shan Street, look out for the red Pak Shing Temple dating back to the 1850s, and the historically charitable Tung Wah Hospital.

Parallel to Tai Ping Shan Street, Hollywood Road is full of local treasures, antique stores, and old buildings. Along Hollywood Road, you will also stumble upon Hollywood Road Park. Although humble and overlooked today, this location is where British soldiers supposedly landed and raised their flag in 1841 when they colonised Hong Kong. The location was consequently dubbed Possession Point for a period of time.

The last portion of this heritage loop includes the site of a now-demolished theatre on Queen’s Road West, the merchant and trading past of Bonham Strand, the old site of the South Block of the Western Market, and the standing red-brick North Block of the Western Market. This site was built in 1906 and is still home to a few shops today. It is a landmark of the varied Sheung Wan landscape.

The Western District and The Peak Route

For nature- and culture-lovers alike, the Western District and the Peak Route takes you through Sai Ying Pun to Kennedy Town and up the Victoria Peak.

Section B

Assuming that you are in Sheung Wan, it makes more sense to tackle this route by its second section. Section B is a continuation of your urban exploration. A portion of the route comprises buildings of the University of Hong Kong, namely the Old Halls, the Main Building, the domed Hung Hing Ying Building, the rural-looking Elliot Pumping Station and Staff Quarters, the University’s Museum and Art Gallery, a school within HKU that was built between the two world wars, and the King’s College campus. Not all of these buildings are open to the public, but it is their exterior architecture that is most fascinating.

When in Sai Ying Pun, you can scout the Kau Yan Church and the Community Complex that once housed a female mental hospital on High Street, the Tsan Yuk Maternity Hospital on Western Street, the St Louis School on Third Street, the old asylum and old site of the Diocesan Boy’s School on Eastern Street, the monumental main building of St Stephen’s Girl’s College, and the former Upper Levels Police Station, which is now used as the Crime Regional Headquarters of Hong Kong Island.

A bit further away, in Kennedy Town, three more landmarks await. First, there is a building on Belcher Street that is now a home for the elderly but once served as the Western Fire Station back in 1937. Secondly, the typical Chinese house at 8–9 Tai Pak Terrace is the location of the Hong Kong Society for the Promotion of Virtue founded in 1924. Finally, this stretch of your walk ends in front of the 1884 Lo Pan Temple. For mythology experts, believers, and curious onlookers, the Lo Pan Temple is the only one on our territory dedicated to the deity of builders and contractors.

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Section A

We end with the greenest section of this entire trail as we walk up the Victoria Peak. If you commence from Central, take a moment to read about the history of the Garden Road Peak Tram Lower Terminus. The original station for the coal-powered tram was open in 1888, has been rebuilt many times since, and was eventually covered by a skyscraper. Once you have made the vertigo-inducing trip up to the Peak, take a moment to refuel at the Peak Lookout. The stone structure, which houses the restaurant, dates back to 1901 and offers a picturesque setting to in which to relax and take in the beauty of Hong Kong Island.

While walking around the city’s most famous mountain, make your way to the Gate Lodge, a Renaissance-style house dating from the early 1900s and to the old site of Hong Kong governors’ summer residence called Mountain Lodge. Lugard Road has an array of Art Deco- and Bauhaus-style private houses you can get a glimpse of from the twist of roads.

If you make your way down along the Morning Trail, opt to detour towards the military site called Pinewood Battery. The site historically held war guns designed for defending Hong Kong. Once you are back on the Morning Trail, keep an eye out for the old boundary stone of the City of Victoria dating back to 1903, speaking to how much the city has grown in just over a century. The final landmark of the Central and Western Heritage Trail is a bit further away, on Kotewall Road. Make the trip there from Victoria Peak for one last interesting look into the past; the stone house at 15 Kotewall Road is the only remaining example of a coach house, which was inhabited by the staff of wealthy families living nearby!

The Central and Western Heritage Trail, its three routes, and seven sections are a stunning and fascinating way to learn more about Hong Kong’s history. You can find out more about the Central and Western Heritage Trail here.

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Lily Valette

Editor

Born and raised in the French countryside, Lily arrived in Hong Kong looking for an adventure. Passionate about books, she spent some time in Parisian publishing houses and is the author of an illustrated book about hair. Life in Hong Kong for her entails looking for seaside places to eat and a lot of hiking.

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