A break from the elections, an Armistice day series, a summer trip: The funs of history

As the title says, I know that we’re all worried about the future but there’s nothing much we can do about it right now. Instead let’s all take a break and read about a trip I took during summer to several historic sites in Hong Kong. Hey, anything’s better than the end of the world. Also it’s Armistice day soon, so a bit of history to remember the dead never hurts (not us anyway).

Introductory note:
I had originally intended to write and post this several months ago but I was lazy and procrastinated. It outlines a trip that I made just a few days before leaving HK again, this time to New Orleans where I currently am studying for a year. In some ridiculous mix of patriotism and boredom I visited several historic sites that took me far too long to get to. Although I’ve still written/finished this as though recent, note that my actual trip was in early August. Also because of how ridiculously long it was, I’m splitting it into two halves. The first half covers the two smaller areas: Causeway Bay and Aberdeen whilst the second half covers Stanley which was far more interesting.
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Stupidly long trip: Causeway bay – Aberdeen – Stanley

It was a stupidly convoluted trip that would take me round the whole of Hong Kong Island. I had toyed with the idea for several weeks but I was busy and also lazy. There were three places that I wanted to go to: Stanley I had wanted to visit again I went last summer and bought an incensed fan. It broke but it still smelled wonderful so I wanted another. Aberdeen, I wanted to visit for its historic significance in the naming of Hong Kong. Causeway Bay, where I basically spent all summer, has the famous noon-day gun which I never had the chance to see despite being nearby. With only a few days left and finally no more rehearsals at the Academy of Performing Arts, I decided to just do everything in a single day.

Part 1: Causeway Bay: The legend of the BOOM day gun.

Causeway Bay was my first stop. I had spent the majority of my holiday nearby at the Academy of Performing Arts on a production of ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’. Last Christmas I had read about the famous noon-day gun, still fired everyday (though without bullets anymore) in ceremonial fashion. I had planned to visit it earlier but my only free afternoon I spent at the US embassy, a trip which took far too long. Causeway Bay was also a good starting point because from there I could visit both Stanley and Aberdeen on a single bus ride.

The story of the gun goes back to the 1860s when a powerful Hong Kong company, the Jardine-Matheson cooperation, used to fire a cannon in salute of ships when they left port. One day a British naval officer arrived in Hong Kong and unaware of the tradition saw it as an insult as cannon salutes were reserved only for commanders. In punishment the officer commanded the company to fire the gun every day for forever and ever. The gun has actually been fired every day except for during Japanese occupation in World War II and even gained notoriety through Nöel Coward’s song ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’. This isn’t the same gun, if I’m right the original was lost in the war. The gun that was mounted after that was removed for being too loud and is now at Sai Wan Ho Marine Police HQ. At some point a third gun was involved (they traded guns many times) and that gun is now mounted at the Former Marine HQ, aka: 1881 Heritage Hotel.

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William Jardine and James Matheson, the company founders. Jardine House in Hong Kong (defacto HQ) has been rebuilt several times but Jardine Matheson Building in Shanghai still stands.

I showed up at the gun around 11:40 with a crowd of 100% tourists except for myself, a couple of Americans and a few mainlanders. It is not easy to get to the gun, you have to walk through the carpark of the World Trade Center (WTC) next to the Excelsior Hotel and then up an old stairwell. I believe you can also walk into the area from Gloucester Road but that’s no fun. It’s interesting to note that both buildings used to be owned by the Jardines as did the land they stand on, however in 2006 the Jardines sold the WTC to Sun Hung Kai Properties.

The gun itself sits on a platform in a small square that also houses several disused cannons, a bell and a few plaques. The square is locked at all times except for half an hour after firing, presumably so we don’t accidentally start a civil war with it (it is a very functional, very dangerous machine).

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Keep out at risk of war

The Jardine gunmen came out of their office soon after I arrived, unlocked the gate, walked through the gate and locked the gate back up. We watched in excitement as they walked under a pagoda to cover from the rain and chatted with each other for 10 minutes. It was a very exciting 10 minutes. Approaching noon at around 11:50, one of the gunmen loaded the gun preparing it for firing. Then at 11:59 the ceremony started, in complete honesty I wasn’t sure if there was going to be a ceremony but a bit of pomp and circumstance never hurt anybody. The gunman began a short march to the bell and rang it signaling noon, turning he marched up the platform, saluted and pulled the chain.

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The gun prepares

BOOM

Obviously we all knew it was going to go boom, it’s a bloody gun but it was far louder than expected.

The gunman told me that they don’t actually fire bullets (I thought they loaded the gun) but only put blanks in. In antiquity the gun would have been used for salutes and time checks but those days are long gone. Everyone knows when lunch is. I for one know every minute for the 1.5 hours leading up to lunch. The ceremony is now a living tradition with very little purpose and for being that I love it.

And now as a direct advertisement for my instagram:

Part 2 – Aberdeen: Named after Scotland, as empty as Scotland

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The great colonial tradition of naming things other names

After such an exciting boom I went for lunch and decided to visit Aberdeen. I put no pictures from Aberdeen on Instagram because it was 6x more boring than I expected. Aberdeen is one of the southern ports on the Island, in Cantonese it is known as 香港仔 (heung gong tsai) or ‘Little Hong Kong’. Hong Kong, as many will already know, means fragrant harbour, the name came about because incense wood was felled and shipped from Aberdeen to Imperial China making it a great smelling port. When Westerners first landed on the Island they asked for the name of the place and got told Hong Kong. The whole island was since then called Hong Kong Island and from 1841, British Hong Kong. As colonial territory expanded the name was carried over for the whole British owned area of South China, first southern Kowloon in 1860 and then in 1898….everything else. The whole territory become known simply as British Hong Kong. The name Aberdeen was named after George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen, or simply Lord Aberdeen who was British Prime Minster during the annexation of Hong Kong Island. An alternative theory offered on one of the signs on the promenade said that Hong Kong Tsai harbour looked similar to Aberdeen Harbour and was named for such although I personally fail to see the resemblance.

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Except perhaps definitely not wanting to go in the water

 

With such historic significance I expected to have a nice time there. Turns out Aberdeen became industrial a long time ago and is now just an office/residential district much like Causeway Bay and Wanchai. The geography of the area is interesting though considering that everything is on a very steep slope and that much of the immediate area can only be reached by crossing water (locals get a cheaper ride, tourists get ripped off). The Hong Kong government is trying very hard to improve tourism to Aberdeen which is currently only known for the Jumbo floating restaurant – famously expensive. I have been told that there’s a similar floating thing in Sha Tin that is much more accessibly – soon there will be two MTR stations in the area which will make visiting much easier.

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The proposed line which will include a station in Aberdeen Proper and then two stations (South Horizons and Lei Tung) on nearby Ap Lei Chau, currently only reachable by Sampan ferry or on the highway.

I did end up finding a hidden gem on the hillside though – Old Aberdeen Police Station built in 1891 to manage the surrounding areas, it is a medium sized red brick structure literally hidden amongst the trees. It is currently used as ‘The Warehouse’ a member’s only clubhouse which offers classes and opportunities to teenagers, although from how abandoned it looks, much better as a zombie uprising hideout. The membership prices are low in order to accommodate those less fortunate. I tried very hard to find a way into the building since all the gates were locked, I finally walked up to the carpark and found that…there was no one there. One room had lights on, everything else was dead. The reception was dead, the café was dead, it was all dead. Having said that, I was technically trespassing so I didn’t linger too long but I hope that it was simply not being used due to nearby refurbishment.

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Is anyone home?

 

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I guess I’ll let myself in then
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Probably a Block B? Some sort of residential block at one point? It’s not a very big station.

Nearby on the main road there also still exists an old Hong Kong electric substation. A humble colonial structure still performing its original purpose. Quite rare nowadays.

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Unmoved, forgotten but still serving its purpose. Still only with an English name. Out of place but at home.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaand

that was the whole of Aberdeen. Hours spent walking till my shirts were see through only to find an abandoned police station. Ok, that’s not entirely true, there was also….a nice looking school…and a tourist sign post that told me to take a bus somewhere else for more historic sites. It might not have seemed like it when Britain first named the area Aberdeen but considering its current interests, it sure lives up to its name.

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Aberdeen Technical School. How technical? I don’t know.
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It’s definitely got a fancy gate, I’ll give you that

And soon when I get around to it, I’ll post the rest of my trip which culminates at a graveyard. Fitting as a late Armistice memorial and as a foreshadow for democracy!

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Queen’s Pier revives! All praise.

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Queen’s Pier in 2003
via: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/21603857

Good news. Breaking news. All the news!
After nine long years the Hong Kong government finally has plans to rebuild Queen’s Pier.

According to SCMP and the HKFP (both articles are linked to at the bottom of this article if you wish to peruse them), the pier will be rebuilt as part of the current Central Pier complex and will be sandwiched by piers 9 and 10, the two public piers. There seems to be no information as to whether Queen’s Pier will be open for use or whether it will be only be aesthetic.

Aesthetics.
Ah. That’s a good word. A big one too.

The pier that will be rebuilt is a modern utilitarian structure that is but 50 years old, it is not the aesthetic, nor the age, nor even the convenience that made the government keep it in storage for what will soon be a decade. The building is important because of its historical and cultural importance.

The place where Queen’s Pier once stood is part of a group of historically important structures which included the Edinburgh place Ferry Pier, City Hall and a within a few minutes down the road, the old Supreme court. The Antiques and Monuments board said that the historic and architectural value of Queen’s Pier had to be addressed on the grounds that it was part of an assemblage of government buildings most built in similar post-modern styles, by itself it did not possess too much. The pier itself prior to the handover of 1997 was used mainly as a ceremonial pier for visiting British dignitaries which included Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, HRH The Prince of Wales and every governor since the 50s. Arriving governors would land at Queen’s Pier, inspect the guard of honour then take their oath in City Hall. The Antiques and Monuments board also noted that the pier had great social/collective memory since it was used as the backdrop to many local films and was also used as a public pier and social meeting spot when nothing important was happening.

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Princess Alexandra and Lord Snowden in Hong Kong during their East Asia Tour, 1966
via: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/-E9u2WxDrlg/hqdefault.jpg

It should be said now that there has always been a pier at or around the site for ceremonial purposes. Originally there was a small wooden structure which was replaced in the 1920s with the first proper pier known as Statue Pier, later renamed Queen’s Pier in honour of Queen Victoria (though, as is often the case with Queen Victoria, Victoria was already dead). This pier was a lot more imposing than the to-be-rebuilt pier, it had the same triangular top but also a stone archway decorated with all the etchings, carvings and general stonemasonry you would expect from historic British structures. This pier was decommissioned and demolished in the 50s. As one pier went down, another pier, 1950’s Queen’s Pier, went up.

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1920s Queen’s Pier. Note the podium for Queen Victoria’s statue in the foreground.
via: http://gwulo.com/node/5120#11/22.3153/114.1185/Map_%28ESRI%29-Markers/100

All was good until 2007 when the government needed to reclaim more land. I remember the reclamation but at that time but thought nothing of it except that I could remember fondly walking from City Hall to the IFC for lunch during a day of rehearsal for a choral concert and could smell the Ocean. That’s not possible now, though luckily, the ocean is still in sight. Sort of. There’s now the world’s smallest Ferris wheel in the way. The reclamation claimed not only Queen’s Pier but also Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier which was owned by and used only by Star Ferry, the outlying Island piers were located elsewhere.  Both piers were demolished despite aggressive public protest which included banners, sit ins and even hunger strikes.

The government however promised to keep the clock tower from Edinburgh Ferry Pier and to rebuild Queen’s Pier though they did not give a date for either. There is still no news about the clock tower but the pier is now reviving.

This is of course without a doubt good news. As of late the government has not been very compassionate about historical sites and this is a step in the right direction. The issue is that their plans, although ambitious, are still a little ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as Central Pier looks (and which Queen’s Pier will now become part of).

Central Pier was built in 2007 to take over from Edinburgh Place pier and to its merit, it’s an amazingly convenient complex. There is a footbridge linking from IFC, it is a small walk away from Hong Kong and Central MTR stations and has a bus/taxi/minibus terminal. There are restaurants and stores and even an occasional farmer’s market. It also houses 2 public piers, the Star Ferry pier, outlying island piers, discovery bay pier and now even the Maritime museum.

However.
And this is a big however.
It looks like shit.

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Central ‘Plastic’ Pier
via: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/17/HK_Central_Pier_View.jpg

 

Or rather as journalist Ng Tze-Wei described it “neither modern nor authentic – more like a something taken from a film set or theme park”. It was modelled on the 1912 Star Ferry Pier which was situated at the bottom of Ice House Street but like other ferry piers was demolished when the need of land grew larger and there was no choice but to reclaim more and more of the harbour. Star Ferry has spoken out against the Central Pier Complex saying that its distance from Central and Hong Kong MTR stations has reduced their passenger intake. The plan is to rebuild Queen’s Pier between the two public piers at the end of the pier complex.

As the architectural styles of the amusement-parky-mock-Edwardian pier and the mock-Victorian-utilitarian pier are incompatible, the government have released three different proposals to reinstate the pier. The first plan is to rebuild the roofs of the two public piers so that all three piers will have the triangular rooves which were common in colonial piers (see: Blake Pier in Stanley for closest comparison. The second will have walls built around Piers 9 and 10 so that different architectural styles will stand out against each other forming a old-within-new sort of aesthetic. There will also be canopies to link the piers. The final and cheapest proposal is essentially to do nothing at all and just plonk the old pier between the new piers. The three plans are estimated to cost HK$303, HK$248 and HK$230 million respectively.

The second option seems to be the best middle route. Assuming that the recommissioning of the pier will go according to plan, HK$230mil will be spent anyway, with only HK$18mil more Queen’s Pier will be given a proper place within the pier and its architectural and cultural difference respected. Plus, depending on how it turns out, even if the most expensive option were taken there is nothing to say that redesigning the 2007 pier will be a good idea. What would happen is piers 9, 10 and Queen’s Pier will becoming their own historic reenactment complex separate from the rest of the pier complex. Piers 9 and 10 are part of Central Pier’s mock-Edwardian architecture and a having a separation of the two aesthetics might prove to create a more interesting design. Having said all that, I can’t see how building walls around a pier is very practical.

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Proposals A, B and C respectively.
Images via: https://www.hongkongfp.com/2016/03/11/60026/. Via HKGov

 Of course, all this is speculation.

I look forward to seeing how everything turns out. Although the plans don’t seem to be brilliant, any move is a step in the right direction.

Maybe we’ll even get the Star Ferry clock tower back.


 

For further reading if interesting, the following were consulted in writing this post.

“An Architectural and Historical appraisal of Queen’s Pier Central”, Annex B. Report by the AMAAB. Available online.
“Public Hearing on the grading of Queen’s Pier”, 129th Meeting of the Antiques and Monuments Advisory Board, public meeting. Available online.
Kris Cheng “Proposals to restore Queen’s Pier”, Hong Kong Free Post
Sidney Leung, “Queen’s Pier Resurrected? Hong Kong officials considering design options near its former site” South China Morning Post. Available Online
Ng Tze-Wei “Not even HK’s storied Star Ferry can face down developers”, International Herald Tribune. Available online.
Trea Wiltshire “A Stroll through Colonial Hong Kong”, Form Asia Books