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Your guide to the Wan Chai Heritage Trail

By Lily Valette 4 January 2024

Header image courtesy of Alison Pang (via Unsplash)

Many things are said about Wan Chai—the streets nestled in-between Admiralty and Causeway Bay, extending from the Starstreet Precinct to Canal Street Flyover, abound with places to eat, places to shop, and Hongkongers going about their busy lives. Remnants of strong colonial influences and long-time local communities have moulded Wan Chai into the unique maze of narrow streets and colourful buildings we love to roam around today. For those who would like to walk and learn at the same time, the Wan Chai Heritage Trail offers a list of architectural and cultural landmarks that will take you on a journey through the neighbourhood’s past. Besides, you’ll pick up cool trivia.

This trail through the Wan Chai neighbourhood is divided into two overlapping routes. You may walk both routes at the same time, or do it as a loop. For convenience’s sake, our guide will take you on a loop so you may explore architecture and culture one at a time.

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The Architectural Route

The first stop on the Wan Chai Heritage Trail and your urban venture through history is located at 1–11 Mallory Street and 4–12 Burrows Street, where you can observe the Green House. This building from the last century stands as testimony to the design preferences of the time and has recognisable concrete balconies, iron balustrades, and French windows (one of many traces of European presence in Hong Kong in the 1900s).

From the Green House, take a short walk through Wan Chai Park towards Queen’s Road East until you reach the former Royal Navy Hospital, with some parts of the complex still boasting the Bauhaus style, especially the Hong Kong Tuberculosis, Chest, and Heart Diseases Association wing. Just around the corner stands another historic building; the current curved structure of the Wan Chai Market was built in the 1930s, influenced by the design of other industrial sectors such as planes, motors, and ocean liners.

Not far from the Wan Chai Market, the Blue House and Yellow House have a very different look. The Blue House on Stone Nullah Lane is famous for its striking colour, pleasing crowds and photography enthusiasts. In the nineteenth century, the site housed one of the first Chinese medicine hospitals in the neighbourhood and a temple to Wah To, the divine doctor. The current building, dating back to the 1920s, has a lively past. A temple; a martial-arts school; the Kang Ham Free School, which offered free education; Yat Chong College, the only pre-WWII English school of Wan Chai; and the Chamber of Commerce for Fishmongers all inhabited the four floors of the Blue House—which was only painted in this colour in 1978.

Only one narrow street over, the Yellow House adds to the area’s colourful architecture. Also a four-storey traditional shophouse, the exterior’s pediment mouldings are an unusual sight. The narrow street means there was no room to accommodate classic balconies.

18 Ship Street. Photo: Urban Renewal Authority

Further on, the 186–190 Queen’s Road East “Guangzhou-veranda-type” shophouse dates back to the 1930s. The concrete pillars, typical of architecture at the time, are clearly still visible. A deeper type of veranda is visible at 60A–66 Johnston Road, currently occupied by restaurants on the ground floor, with the original Chinese shop signs restored on the façade. A more Western-looking house from the same period located at 18 Ship Street testifies to the diversity of influences in Wan Chai.

Reminding onlookers of red-brick buildings that are more commonly found on the Central and Western Heritage Trail, Nam Kou Terrace is an old house on Ship Street. It was built by and for a local tycoon more than 100 years ago, and is sometimes dubbed the Red House to match others in the neighbourhood, or the Wan Chai Haunted House due to its vacancy. Taken over by surrounding greenery, onlookers can still notice the use of both Chinese and Western styles for the exterior’s design.

The final spot on this architectural trip down Wan Chai’s memory lane is the Starstreet Precinct. Today, the area is a hipster hangout, but since 1845, it has also been the place to go for a hospital, a church, and the first-ever power plant in the city!

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Photo: Sunwanrica (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Cultural Route

To begin this section of the Wan Chai Heritage Trail, leave the Starstreet Precinct behind, cross Queen’s Road East, and enter Gresson Street’s open market. With wet and dry goods on sale, these stalls have been around since the 1950s. A few blocks up, you will arrive at Hung Shing Temple, an edifice built before 1847. Its original ceramic pottery is still visible.

Not often do we think of Hong Kong when we reflect back on the Second World War. However, the conflict had a great impact on the city, for an obvious reason: It was occupied by Japanese forces from 25 December 1941 until their surrender in August 1945. During and after the war, everyday lives were affected, and street hawkers multiplied to the demand of Hongkongers who needed access to cheaper goods. The street markets of Cross Street and Tai Yuen Street still show remnants of these post-war times.

The building on 221 Queen’s Road East is the oldest remaining post office! It is still used today, only it is the Environmental Protection Department Resource Centre instead. The Chinese sign above the entrance reads “If we foul our world that sustains us, what then shall we eat? Scorn hygiene that protects life, where then shall we live?” The building is open to the public; go in and see the old-school red pigeon-hole message boxes.

As you make your way back towards Stone Nullah Lane, walk to Lung On Street to reach the final destination of the Wan Chai Heritage Trail, Pak Tai Temple. It was built by residents in 1862 and has been renovated since. Composed of three halls, it is the biggest Chinese temple on Hong Kong Island and houses a three-metre-high bronze statue of the deity.

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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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